Kate Maltby

Spitting Image the musical made this Jew uncomfortable

The puppet masters do try to fight antisemitism but they seem to forget about one offender

June 29, 2023 11:44

In May 2016, Tyson Fury was filmed voicing some classic antisemitism. JC readers probably remember the rambling interview in which Fury mocked the general public for allowing ourselves to “be brainwashed by all the Zionist, Jewish people who own all the banks, all the papers, all the TV stations”. These “Zionist, Jewish people” were supposedly part of a new world order that instructed people to “shag your animals”.

We already knew that Fury’s engagement with his fans was built on the worst kinds of chauvinism. Previously asked about women in sport, his choice contributions included the line: “I believe a woman’s best place is in the kitchen and on her back.” After his May 2016 rant went viral, Fury apologised for “some things which may have hurt some people”, with the caveat that “though it is not an excuse, sometimes the heightened media scrutiny has caused me to act out in public”. Let’s assume he won’t be getting a Righteous Among the Nations award any time soon.

Most Jews haven’t forgotten Fury’s antisemitism. Visit the supposed home of British satire, however, and you’ll discover that other people have. Idiots Assemble: Spitting Image The Musical is the latest stage romp based on the long-running Spitting Image television programme. With more than a nod to the Marvel superhero franchise, it features a set of misfits who team up to take down Boris Johnson and his gang of global powerbrokers intent on stealing King Charles’ crown. (All represented, of course, by Roger Law’s superb puppet caricatures.) Who is the salt-of-the-earth comrade who provides the muscle? Why, one Tyson Fury.

Let’s be clear about one thing. As satire, Spitting Image takes everyone and everything as a target for scorn. No one in this musical is upheld as a hero, with the unnerving exception of Volodymyr Zelensky, whose brief appearance in puppet form abruptly shifted the audience response on the night I attended from popcorn-chucking cynicism to unadulterated adoration. Our team of warriors may be saving the world from the evil Tories (yes, there’s plenty of that), but they’re also vain (Meghan Markle), lairy (Angela Rayner), or po-faced (Greta Thunberg). The result is frequently very, very funny. Hence the title, Idiots Assemble.
The problem is that elsewhere, this show explicitly rejects antisemitism. Or thinks it does. When Ant and Dec host a talent-contest (naturally) to put together our band of well-intentioned idiots, Kanye West nearly gets a spot — until he opens his mouth and releases a string of antisemitic profanities.

It’s not comfortable listening to “Jew this” and “Jew that” spluttering across the stage of the Phoenix Theatre as an audience chuckles. But then again, Spitting Image was never about comfort, so much as capturing a hard cruelty in the world, heightening it and reflecting it back. At least the joke’s on West and his delusion of nobility. He’s rejected from the gang of good-guys: we can’t have antisemites on the team saving the UK. So did everyone forget Fury’s own track-record in this area? Perhaps it’s as simple as that.

What’s surprising is that two of this show’s writers, Al Murray and Matt Forde, have a particularly admirable track record of challenging antisemitism wherever they find it. (Not everyone in the Spitting Image team has the same reputation.) Forde even spoke at the 2019 #EnoughIsEnough rally in Parliament Square, and has been viciously trolled by antisemites ever since.

Perhaps we should deduce that there’s just so much antisemitism to keep track of in contemporary pop culture that even writers with the best history of opposing it can’t keep up. The comparison between West and Fury reminds us of how dangerous this can be. West’s antisemitism has become infamous: so much that it defines his fleeting cameo. So have we run out of capacity to call out other, “lesser” antisemites? It’s a bleak state of affairs when antisemitic hatred is so normalised that we can’t keep on top of all the public figures circulating it.

Spitting Image sets itself up to deflect any potential criticism. The script includes a parody of the imagined audience member, salivating at the prospect of satire targeting “people I don’t like”; complaining when the targets don’t reflect his prejudices. The humour does have a political centre of gravity: anti-Tory but also anti-woke, reflecting a level of market research as to where West End audiences actually sit. But the franchise is at its best when it draws attention to other people’s hypocrisies.

By calling out West as an antisemite, but giving Fury a pass, it exposes a blind spot of its own.

June 29, 2023 11:44

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