Network mounting 'Spitting Image' update

LONDON — “The biggest joke about ITV’s comedy is that there isn’t any,” a former program topper at Blighty’s commercial network wryly confessed a few years back.

That is not true today, although most critics would carp about the hit-and-miss nature of much of what’s been delivered so far.

There have been sketch shows, stand-up vehicles, sitcoms and now, most ambitious of all, an attempt to forge a modern version of “Spitting Image,” the puppet satire that made TV history in the 1980s.

By any standards, “Spitting Image” redefined the parameters of what TV comedy could achieve and showed that smallscreen puppets didn’t have to be cute to get audiences hooked.

Of course, not all the sketches and lampoons worked. But the show’s grotesque take on the Reagan-Thatcher era was both barbed and hilarious, and still reonsates more than two decades later.

“Headcases,” which bowed on ITV 1 April 6, is being described as “Spitting Image” for the “Shrek” generation.

This is another way of saying that, whereas the original program used characters made from rubber, the new show uses computer-generated animation to create a cast of caricatured celebs and pols.

Manchester-based CGI studio Red Vision, the people behind the special effects for feature documentary “Touching the Void,” is responsible for animating “Headcases.”

Its work has already won two BAFTAS for best visuals in the past two years.

Certainly the animation for “Headcases” is slick and technically impressive, especially when you consider that this is topical satire so the work needs to be done against a very exacting deadline.

But it is also, as some reviewers have noted, somewhat soulless. However well executed, CGI puppets lack the personality of the best “Spitting Image” puppets.

There are, however, notable successes and the scripts are sometimes spot on, not least in the running gag about Princes Harry and William attempting (and failing) to be regular guys, hanging out in pubs and ordering pizzas.

This kind of programming does not come cheap and if ITV Prod. is to recoup its investment “Headcases” will need to emulate “Spitting Image” and succeed internationally.

With foreign sales in mind, the show is big on poking fun at Hollywood A-listers like Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Steven Spielberg and Posh Spice AKA Victoria Beckham.

In fact, caricatures based on celebrities work a lot better than the political pastiches.

The depiction of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown as a Victorian miser feels flat-footed and portraying the African tyrant Robert Mugabe as an avuncular farmer misses by a mile.

At least “Headcases” does a deft job on the new French leader, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is cast as a vain, middle-aged disco dancer.

But whatever this show’s shortcomings its arrival is a welcome Sunday night pick-me-up; to hammer home the point, ITV1 is transmitting the series in the same 10 p.m. slot that “Spitting Image” once inhabited.

It’s too early to tell whether it will generates enough success — the early shows are getting around 4 million viewers and a 19% share, a decent enough audience for late evening — to land a second series.

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