Warning: some readers may find the subject of this article distressing
Over Christmas, I came upon a once off BBC documentary made in 1994, with a rather glaring title of “From Walpole’s Bottom to Major’s Underpants”. Though apprehensive at first, my pre-occupations were put aside to indulge, in my opinion, in a truly hidden gem.
Through former Tory Party Cabinet Minister Kenneth Baker's narration, the documentary gave a highly informed and raucous history of political satire and cartoonist’s love affair with political figures and leaders in the UK. The show began with what is now called “Prime Ministers” or First Lord of the Treasury as they were once known. This is due to the fact that being called ‘Prime Minister’ was used as an insult for someone who ironically had too much power.
Robert Walpole was certainly a man that had a lot of power. Walpole’s 21-year rule as PM was known as the ‘Robinocracy’ due to his constant power growth and the immense amount of money he made from being the man of the hour or in his case two decades. But while Walpole’s power increased over his rule through corruption and granting patronage, so did the increasing emergence of cartoonists who caricatured his bulging presence.
This is Walpole's bottom. As he straddles the treasury, all who look for influence in society must kiss Walpole's rear end. As its described in the documentary, it is brown-nosing, it is rude but also it shows Walpole's genuine both physical and mental substance. He was powerful and corrupt and therefore you had to draw him as big, burly, and fat. The 18th century was an excitingly hedonistic time and with no censorship laws on cartoons and prints, you could get away with drawing your political leaders as excessively fat and often in some state of defecation. For example, as in one cartoon, a PM along with his followers disembowelling the body politic' of the nation. It is on this issue that Kenneth Baker, who is no stranger to being harshly caricatured, believes that modern politicians are much more modestly drawn by cartoonist due in part to the constant primmed and polished nature. In recent times that has somewhat changed with former President
The absence of highly rude and vulgar cartoon imagery in modern politics is certainly clear, with the odd few cartoons making their way onto the fronts of well known newspapers or crucially being widely disseminated. In a more recent interview in 2012, Baker did point to this saying that former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband was 'shown to look like a Wallace and Gromit character.' This attempt at comedy does not exactly arrive at a laugh let alone a cackle, and most certainly is not very memorable.
Looking back to cartoonists like William Hogarth (1697-1764) and James Gillray (1756-1815), who are considered the founders of printmaking in the cartoon profession, were never the type of person to shy away from portraying a politician or a person in vulgar ways. In fact, they revelled in doing so, especially when it came to the male ‘member’.
The Earl of Shelbourne (left) who was an unpopular Prime minister from 1782-1783, is portrayed as tea pot though his spout is ideally placed as his 'bulging crotch.' Gillray and other 18th century cartoonists were keen on highlighting the male ‘member'on politicians, or at the very least, portray them as one. This was the highest style of cartooning, drawing them in some state of fornication, often in a very brutal way.
Another victim of this, even though being one of the more popular and successful Prime Ministers, was William Pitt the Younger. Throughout his long period of political domination starting in 1783 until around 1806, He was portrayed as tall, skinny, and very stiff.
As in the picture on the left, Pitt's crotch area is conveniently covered with royal seal of the
monarchy, which portrayed his only real feeling of 'getting off' was power and political
substance. This constant portrayal of being stiff, and rigid earned the common saying of
“Pitt was stiff to everyone he met except to the ladies”. Pitt was thought to have died a
virgin as he was so dedicated to the workings and governance of state.
This is where Spitting Image came in. Originally, in the 1980’s Spitting Image, at its height, had nearly 15 million people every Sunday night watching very familiar looking puppets acting and singing out the scandals, crises, daily political lives, Royal Family, and all things famously high society.
Now today, if you have never heard of Spitting Image, puppets sound juvenile and on paper, unfunny. The show was rude in its delivery like the 18th century cartoonists and nobody was safe from their attacks. No matter how nice or pleasant you were in public life, you could be ridiculed, in every sense of the word.
Margret Thatcher who dominated the 1980s as Prime Minister, was portrayed as a business-like suit wearing dictator, along with her so called ‘Vegetable’ Cabinet members, all feebly scared of her and her constant bullying of them. Not to mention they also had a Hitler lookalike puppet who was Thatcher's neighbour and would often give her policy advice. Norman Tebbit a cabinet minister, and loyal supporter of the 'iron lady' was played as this government thug, who would beat up other cabinet members and members of the public and would occasionally eat their children was eternally known for this portrayal and certainly lived up to his caricature
Despite all this brilliant brown-nosing of Thatcher and her Successor John Major, who was painted eternally ‘Grey’ and boring, both won each election in 1987 and 1992. Spitting Image stopped airing in 1996 only to be rebooted last year in what might be described as a much-needed return.
Inspired by another long running Tory Government, full of individuals who are in many respects a caricaturists dream. In fact, just like the old series of Spitting Image, world leaders and celebrities are still targets. Especially now with the already fabulously and dashingly ugly former US President Donald Trump who in many respects deserves to be absurdly portrayed in puppet form.
Spitting image truly lives up to its promise with the former President who is seen as this disgustingly fat orange individual who can pull his own anus out, which then writes his infamous tweeting binges for him. Boris Johnson also suffers from the same fate of being a plump puppet always seen constantly stuffing his face and bumbling on every second word he speaks. The examples are endless.
The cartoonists of the 18th century lay the groundwork for comically holding our leaders to account and along with Spitting Image and many other mediums it still holds true today. To laugh at someone of power is important because we are free to do it and it keeps the people of elected power and people of influence in constant reminder that you're certainly not perfect nor often pretty.
Not just that it shows humility in our appearance to be able to indulge in some self-deprecation and mockery is essential for a healthy democracy. It can also be incredibly funny and show great artistic skill in whoever undertakes it, therefore I urge everyone who reads this to go out and do your duty to watch Spitting Image, read the Waterford Whispers, look back on the old 18th century cartoons or any political cartoons as it may inform you in more useful ways than you think.
Link to “From Walpole’s Bottom to Major’s Underpants”:
Part 1: https://youtu.be/7mk1Y6w00tY
Part 2: https://youtu.be/P-Ye7_fEpaM