Thursday, January 17, 2008

Interview with Chris Barrie

That's right, Rimmer! This was about Spitting Image coming out on DVD, though, for TVScoop :)

TVScoop: So series one of Spitting Image is coming out on DVD - I'm surprised it hasn't been out before, actually.
Chris Barrie: I suppose the satirical, topical sketch show isn't the kind of show you put out because it will obviously date so quickly. But I think now is a good time to put it out because it's like a little period piece, if you like, from 24 years ago.

TVS: Was it fun to do, while you were working on the show?
CB: Oh yes, it was immense fun. Quite a complicated show to do, of course. In this first series, what was magical about it was that we were actually doing live voices and puppeteering for a few weeks. But given that the puppets are about the size of a human being's torso hollowed out, it was quite hard work trying to do the puppets and the voices simultaneously, because the other studio workers couldn't get on with preparing the next set, you know? So we soon changed away from that, and recorded the voices on the Saturday, and then shot the pictures on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday - so it was quite a complicated show, which they would probably have trouble doing now.

TVS: I heard that the scripts were left quite late to keep them topical - which much have made it quite exciting, but also quite manic...
CB: Yes, well, what we used to do was on the Saturday we'd record most of the voices for the following week's programme, and then we'd also do a couple of topical sketches which were pertinent to the following night's show [Spitting Image went out on a Sunday, at 10pm]. And then the following Sunday morning we'd shoot all the stuff for that show, that night. And I do remember actually, that we'd do the odd late, live dub, just to prove that we were right up to date.

TVS: You got some great characters, didn't you? Prince Charles must have been great to do.
CB: Prince Charles was a key figure in the Royals, and still is obviously. But for me, strangely enough, because of the work Mike Yarwood did in the '70s on Prince Charles I felt sometimes that I was really doing an impersonation of Mike Yarwood doing Prince Charles. Whereas when we did Reagan, and people like David Coleman, Neil Kinnock and a lot of those people, I felt like we were breaking new ground.

TVS: With Reagan, do you know how Americans reacted to that? Because he was actually pretty popular over there, wasn't he?
CB: He was. I think they just took that stock attitude of [assumes American accent] "yeah, those satirical shows are always gonna have a go at the President..." so I don't think they received it as badly as they could have done, because they had their own pretty hard-hitting satirists.

TVS: Did you get much input into how your own characters developed, or was it quite heavily guided by the script?
CB: Um, generally really we were dictated to by what happened day-to-day. They would consult, like they'd say "we're thinking of doing this, that and the other, how would that affect the voice recording or the characterisation". Usually they only ever wanted to do positive and interesting things; change it to give a bit of new life.

TVS: What do you think the main aim of the writers was - to entertain, or to make serious political points...
CB: Well I think it was a mixture of the two. I think though that the most important thing they wanted to do initially was, not shock necessarily, but to make the political, media world take notice. When you've got a fantastic caricature of a politician or the Queen, you have an immense satirical tool there - a very powerful tool - and initially to shock was quite an important thing. Then the entertainment thing took over, and "let's make it as broad as possible" in terms of audience targets, and it became a really high rating show.

TVS: Do you think it could be made now? People say that the characters have gone out of politics.
CB: Well, I think there are one or two characters. I mean, yeah, we can't really name the cabinet or the shadow cabinet, but I don't think that's just to do with the characters, I think it's to do with the world we live in, and the niche entertainment that people have these days. You can quite merrily lead your life as a young person or an old person and never have to look at a politician. But I think to a certain extent, yes, there are some pretty boring politicians out there. But you could certainly have a bit of fun with Gordon Brown as a sort of bumbling meddler...

TVS: Ann Widdecombe?
CB: Ann Widdecombe would be fantastic. And Boris. Cameron could be a little puppy, a little terrier... The Royal Family you could still have a lot of fun with - the young Princes are now young men, and Prince Phillip's saying even more ridiculous things.

TVS: Do you ever hear talk of a comeback?
CB: Yeah, I've heard people talking about a comeback quite recently actually. But I think it would probably be a new team of people - the Jon Culshaw's of the world. So, I suppose you look back on the DVD, of series one from 1984, and it does look technically very dated, which is part of its charm. It's why I call it a period piece. It would be very different now. I don't think that the world we live in would allow the sort of relative clunkiness of an undeveloped programme to hit the airwaves.

TVS: Do you think Spitting Image had a lasting affect on how we think about those politicians?
CB: With a lot of people, their puppets are more memorable that the real people. Thatcher with the cigar and pin-stripe suit - and that famous sketch where she's at a restaurant and gets to the main course and the waiter says "And the vegetables, ma'am?" and she says "oh they'll have the same." She was such a dominant figure, and without getting too political about it, she in many ways was the last of a kind. Now we seem to have a more presidential, quite bland, almost silent control. The thing with Thatcher is that you always knew where you were. It's a very difficult thing to express, but I look back on it with fondness really, though at the time, like anyone else, we all had our apprehensions about the Iron Lady.

TVS: When you look at the list of performers and writers - Harry Enfield, Steve Coogan, yourself, Ian Hislop - it's like an entire generation of British comedy came through Spitting Image.
CB: It was a very good... I call it an apprenticeship, for comedy writing, comedy performing, comedy producing. John Lloyd was pretty much the top comedy producer at the time - he did Not The Nine O'Clock News, and then he went onto Blackadder and Spitting Image obviously. He was a top man, and being able to learn from him was an absolute treat for us all. And then in this early series we had lots of puppeteers doing voices as well. But as time went on we had Harry Enfield, John Sessions, Steve Coogan... Ian Hislop was writing, and Nick Newman his partner. I think Ben Elton may have done the odd thing. Guy Jenkins and Andy Hamilton wrote quite extensively for Spitting Image and they went on to do Drop The Dead Donkey and all that sort of stuff, and like you say, it was a great way to learn the ropes.

TVS: Did impersonation always come easily to you, or was it something you had to work at? I know a lot of people say that it starts in the classroom, mimicking teachers.
CB: For me, it's the same. It started in the classroom doing teachers, and then you start to get a few voices, like I had [assumes voices] "Kenneth Williams, ooh matron" and "Robin Day, World At One"... and David Coleman of course "extraordinary - one nil!" and Reagan, you know. So it came easy but the challenge for Spitting Image people was that sometimes we needed a voice for someone that didn't fit into anyone's repertoire, so we'd have four egotistical impersonators standing around a microphone trying to find the right voice! It can be rather crushing to one's ego... but that's life.

TVS: Do you still use your mimicry skills?
CB: Yes, if I'm doing an after dinner speech or a launch or something, I'll still flex that side of my life. It's still good to use what I suppose is a gift. You know, Rory Bremner, Alistair McGowan, Jon Culshaw, Bobby Davro - all those guys, it's just a gift you have for picking up the traits of other people's vocal mannerisms.


Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Excellent - so who's next?!!!

AnnaWaits said...

Haha nothing lined up at the moment. ;) But I hear a certain Noel Fielding has a new show on BBC Three coming out soon..... haha

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