Your cue for laughs with the famous 

25 March 2024 tbs.pm/80792

 

Cover of TVTimes

From the TVTimes for 25 February – 2 March 1984

Where in the world would you find such an ill-assorted group waiting for a bus? Where else but in the unique world of Peter Fluck and Roger Law, who have created life-size puppets which caricature some of the most famous people in the world. They have given them a whole range of facial expressions, including tears, matched their voices and costumes and emerged with this Sunday’s new topical comedy series on ITV, Spitting Images [sic]. It’s described by the script editor, Tony Hendra, as ‘entertainment with an edge. A sort of global soap-opera, based on broad political satire.’

The Fluck and Law workshop – known to the outside world as Luck and Flaw-covers a large windowless area of the new Limehouse Studios in the London Docklands. Perched on a high stool, making decisive changes to a clay model of President Mitterand, Roger Law would pass for one of Santa’s little helpers, if he were smaller. Dressed in blue work denims with a sturdy leather belt circling his waist, his round face and curly black beard are topped by a tasselled woolly hat. He is, however, built like a rugby full-back and looks quite capable of stapling a wig to the President of the United States, a task he is shortly to undertake – on the puppet of course.

Meanwhile Peter Fluck, who is slighter and fairer, is adjusting Prince Andrew’s royal lips with a businesslike knife, cutting through the wet clay and explaining why some faces are easier to caricature than others.

‘Royalty and politicians are relatively simple,’ he says, ‘because they learn to control their faces into two or three expressions – intelligent interest, laughter and sorrow – that’s it. Someone like Billy Connolly is extremely difficult because his face is so mobile, it’s hard to choose the real expression. Princess Diana is difficult because she’s really quite pretty and young, but we have to do her because she is the most famous woman in the world.’

Fluck and Law met at Cambridge (‘art college, not university’) but spent many successful years working independently as illustrators and journalists before becoming partners in 1975. In a studio in Cambridge, they began by sculpting extraordinary caricatures of the famous in Plasticine. These models became instantly successful, appearing on the covers of the most prestigious magazines in the world.

Surprisingly few of the ‘victims’ complained, but there were many requests for their models from the subjects, although ‘no one ever wanted to pay’. In fact, once photographed and filed, the Plasticine models were broken down – only one has survived. In a corner of the workshop, stands the face of Denis Thatcher, the last remaining Plasticine sculpture. ‘We’re rather fond of him,’ Peter Pluck admits.

 

Six Spitting Image puppets queue for a London bus

Brought together specially by TVTimes for probably the first and last time – six of the world’s most talked-about people, who are waiting to amuse you. The latex rubber caricatures are headed by a casual Mick Jagger, followed by the Queen, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Jackie Onassis and, bringing up the rear, Ayatollah Khomeini.

 

They were getting along nicely until three years ago when someone suggested: ‘Why don’t you make them move?’, and a television programme was proposed, they began a ‘long, horrible, process of research for financial backing and expertise’.

The difficulty of finding anyone who had ever attempted something like it on this scale before meant a shortage on practical advice and suggestions.

Three Spitting Image puppets

Puppet politicians: Norman Tebbitt (left), Tony Benn – and Edward Heath, as a clock.

They knew what they wanted – a satirical puppet show, using likenesses of the famous in which the aim would be, as script editor Hendra explains, ‘not a cheap and easy laugh, but an informed laugh. You may think the public view is bad enough, but look what goes on in private.’ In the end, they did it themselves.

The process of creating a moving, talking personality goes through a number of well-defined stages. First Fluck and Law watch videos and look at photographs of the subject and draw a strong caricature emphasising notable features. They insist it is not cruel, although Barry Manilow is depicted as simply a nose with a wig on. The model is then moulded in clay, cast in latex rubber and, when it’s dry, fitted out for handmanipulation, painted and dressed. Most of the puppets will be seen only from the waist up.

Bubbly TVTimes astrologer Russell Grant actually had the opportunity to meet his image face-to-face as you can see on our cover. His first reaction was one of alarm, he admits, until the photographer told him he ought to ‘thank his lucky stars’ because his was one of the nicest of the caricatures he had seen. Russell admits that his face did grow on him but, he says: ‘It still reminds me of a basking hippo in the Zambezi basin.’

The 30 trained staff in the puppet factory include eight puppeteers, two ‘voices’ – Chris and Steve – and a choreographer, Errol, who ‘dances’ with the few full-length models such as Mick Jagger. A team of writers from the worlds of comedy and politics are working up to the moment when the show is televised. They have a few ‘moles’ in high places. ‘If someone becomes newsworthy overnight,’ Roger Law explains, ‘we have to make the puppet in time for the show on Sunday.’

 

pictures by Roderick Ebdon

 

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