I am currently making a feature documentary, 'Still Spitting' - from puppets to porcelain - about British satirical artist Roger Law.
Still Spitting, a documentary feature film directed and produced by Michael Coulson tells the story of Roger Law, the evil genius behind the hit TV show Spitting Image, and his search for a new life after puppets.
For 12 years satirical artist Roger Law was the scourge of British politics. His Spitting Image television series, which used cruel life-size caricatures to take aim at the world's politicians, was must-watch viewing in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. But after the show ended in 1997, Roger all but disappeared. What happened to this creative genius? Still Spitting tells his story.
Documentary filmmaker Michael Coulson was granted unparalleled access to make a film about Roger's life - travelling from England, to Australia and the porcelain workshops of rural China to tell the tale. It’s an amazing story of an artist rediscovering the creative spark that made him famous – but which nearly destroyed him in the process. It’s about his dedication - drawing in the outback of Australia, and surviving a dramatic flood in China that threatened to destroy months of his work, his uncompromising nature as evidenced by his archive of biting satirical images of all the major politicians of the 1980s and 90s, and most of all it’s about his desire to do things his way. At the heart of the film is Roger’s passion for making things and his desire to create a new kind of artistic legacy, not one molded in expanded foam ready to be put in front of a camera, but this time a series of gigantic pots, covered in his drawings, and made from something more permanent - porcelain - which he hopes will still be around to be admired, long after the hundreds of hours of video of Spitting Image recorded on tapes in his archive archive have crumbled into tiny unplayable fragments. It’s ultimately an inspiring story of an artist overcoming a mid-life crisis on the closing of the TV show and his uncompromising determination to rediscover the creativity and skills he thought he'd lost. As we discover, Roger is definitely Still Spitting
Still Spitting, documentary feature. Duration 65 minutes. Directed and Produced by Michael Coulson. Executive Producer Margaret Matheson. A Three Humans Inc production.
After 12 years of ‘Spitting Image’ – a biting satirical television show he’d help create but which he feels is destroying him, Roger Law finds himself at a turning point. Thinking himself “ too old to be retrained, and without any discernable talent for domesticity - in short, very thoroughly rinsed up” – the famous caricaturist leaves everything behind him - home, wife family, dodgy finances and transports himself to Sydney, Australia. Directed and produced by Michael Coulson, ‘Still Spitting’ is a documentary feature film telling the story of how Roger Law confronts his personal crisis and forges a new creative life on the other side of the world.
In his first interview with Roger Law filmmaker Michael Coulson is hit with a bit of a bombshell. When asked how he feels about Spitting image, the satirical TV show that made him famous, Roger says he hates it and he hates puppets. This was not the answer the filmmaker was expecting and the documentary enters unchartered waters.
Roger's television series Spitting Image was watched by over a quarter of Britain's adult population each Sunday night at the height of its 12-year run. Its spin-off records, books, comics and videos have sold in the millions and the show was franchised in many countries around the world. So why Roger’s answer?
Born and brought up in the England’s Fen country, a bleak marshy land once popular with outlaws on the run from authorities reluctant to get their feet wet, Roger escaped the family construction business and went to Art school in Cambridge where he met Peter Fluck. On the strength of being able to make each other laugh they formed a creative partnership - Fluck and Law. They spent many years in their Cambridge studio "ripping the piss" out of the world’s political leaders with 3 dimensional cartoons modelled from dustbin loads of plasticine. The caricature models were of the highest quality and were commissioned by the top newspapers and magazines in the world.
“It didn’t take a genius to work out if you could make the cartons move you might be on to something” is the way Roger explains how Fluck and Law mutated into the hugely successful tv show Spitting Image.
Roger tells us how, after the initial fear and excitement, the pressure of producing puppets for the weekly television show began to feel like serving a life sentence. He felt creatively compromised working to a deadline which allowed for no time to finesse the work he was producing, and began to look for a way out. Roger was in charge of producing the puppets each week to fit the news cycle and was unable to produce artwork to the level he was used to - there just wasn't time - and compensated by drinking too much. “I lost control of the craft. It turned me into a foreman shouting at people, rather than the artist I was before.” At the closing of the final series of Spitting Image Roger, thinking himself “ too old to be retrained, and without any discernible talent for domesticity - in short, very thoroughly rinsed up”
In bright sunlight, Roger Law rides the Manly Ferry across Sydney Harbour and declares his love for Australia. He gazes at the famous Opera House the and tells the story of how in the 1990s, after 12 years of working on the hugely successful weekly satirical puppet show Spitting Image, he packed his swimming trunks and left England to lie in the sun on Bondi Beach and retire. As the Ferry pulls into Circular Quay where the convict ships used to dock he says when he first arrived it felt like "someone had just turned the lights on", and on a characteristically beautiful spring day in Sydney, it's easy to see what he means.
But Roger's desire to make things proved stronger than the lure of the beach, and soon he looked for a new form of expression. Being a political caricaturist, Roger has always had a rather skewed view on life and is drawn to the weird and grotesque. In Australia Roger became fascinated with the flora and fauna around him and, following in the footsteps of historic British figures like Joseph Banks, John Gould and some French explorers who, according to Roger, "were more interested in eating their finds than recording them", he is on the constant look out for unusual wildlife to draw. He finds creatures washed up after storms on Bondi beach and takes them to his studio located in a Victorian Pavilion on the beach front next to the ladies dressing rooms; he goes walkabout with his sketch pad, drawing plants and creatures and also some of the human characters he meets in the land of Oz where everything seems to surprise.
He spends time in his studio, sorting through the pile of sketchbooks, selecting drawings of plants and creatures to redraw over and over again until he transforms them into 'caricatures'. Now the TV show is finished he wants to make something as beautiful as he considers the puppets of Spitting Image were ugly – and he wants to do it on his own terms. He's taking these drawings of Australian flora and fauna to China where he is making an artistic statement very different from Spitting Image - in clay – porcelain in fact. Oddly, this big man, Roger is well over 6 foot with the build and salty dog appearance of an 18th century Buccaneer, has a taste for fine porcelain.
His love of 'pots' -as Roger calls fine porcelain - was born when Spitting Image was in full swing and Roger was looking to diversify by making and selling Margaret Thatcher teapots and Ronald Reagan coffee pots.
In the ceramics gallery of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge Roger looks into the face of a huge stoneware owl and explains that this is where the idea of producing caricatures in clay came from - the work of the Martin Brothers, the Victorian potters famous for quirky ceramic ware like the owl.
Roger started a company called Glazed Expressions and went to the Potteries to mass produce his 'ugly mugs' . The business was never financially successful and Roger sympathises with Wally Martin who often had to make quirky pots to satisfy customer demand when he would have rather been making other pieces like the pots decorated with scenes from natural life. Roger admires the pots and dreams of the pot he is looking to make something on a considerably grander scale – a really Big Pot.
Roger in is Jindezhen, the porcelain capital of China. He takes us to Big Pot factory on the outskirts of the town set in a valley by a stream. The stream seems very picturesque when the weather is dry but as Roger soon finds out, it can flood and put all the work at risk. The unfired pots are basically mud so if they come into contact with water they disintegrate.
He is fascinated by the way contemporary Chinese artists combine modern ideas with traditional techniques. Nothing is more traditional in China than porcelain. In the “Porcelain City” of Jingdezhen, where the Chinese craftsmen have made ceramics for over two thousand years, Roger finds a way to combine his love of making things in clay - like the heads he used to make for ‘Spitting Image’ - with his drawings of Australian wildlife. The pottery workshop has teams of where master craftsmen who produce some of the most intricate and enormous ceramics in the world. Roger has his own two- man team of young porcelain carvers whose job it is to carve into his big porcelain pots a series of reliefs based on his drawings from Australia. Roger spends hours each day drawing directly on to the dry clay ready for the carvers to cut into them. The resulting images are as witty and beautiful as his caricatures were rude and ugly.
He says he struggled to hire Chinese craftsmen to do the work he wants and eventually found16 years olds and “bullied them” into working for him. He doesn’t speak the language so either indicates what he wants with his drawings or asks a young Chinese interpreter called Baichu to translate. The workshops – dusty and polluted –are too hot in the summer, and too cold and damp in the winter. Roger Law, whose gold teeth, bushy eyebrows and swiveling “scary eyes” are eerily reminiscent of the satirical puppets he used to make, doesn’t hold back from saying what he thinks. Throughout the working day he delivers a personal, sometimes caustic and sometimes entertaining commentary on the work he is doing on the Big Pot and how it differs from grinding out puppet heads for the TV show. The challenges he faces with materials and manpower although specifically Chinese bear remarkable similarities to his time at the Spitting Image workshop in London’s Docklands where he had teams of young artist technicians creating 14 new puppets each week to feed “this impossible machine, television”. He laughs at the ironic situation he now finds himself in - he’s recreated a Spitting Image scenario in China with “all these 16 year olds working for me and a workshop I keep going back to, so history repeats itself”.
He discusses the unique qualities of porcelain and the difficulties of working with the material which has a relatively low plasticity and is difficult to shape and perform the way that Roger wants it to. He is worried because he has persuaded the Chinese craftsmen to use different techniques than they traditionally use to create the graphic look he wants and he is unsure if the pots will survive being fired in the kiln. All the months of hard work he and his team have put into the carving of the pots may be wasted.
At the age when most of us would rather 'put our feet up' Roger is wrestling with a myriad problems - sickness from porcelain dust and the freezing cold working conditions, and the confusion caused by the language barrier. Roger has had to employ Baichu to try to smooth out cultural differences and help with negotiations. Despite their very obvious differences – Baichu is half Roger’s height and more than half his age – they get on very well. Baichu seems to enjoy Roger’s sense of humour and is impressed by his reputation and work ethic. She is aware of Roger’s temper and sometimes she has intervene when he finds himself I a dispute with a technician or the manager of a factory.
Baichu takes Roger to see the various factories that make things in Jingdezhen. As they walks the streets Roger sees private enterprise, in the form of the local potters taking over and everywhere he looks he sees people making things on a different smaller scale. He loves the energy and invention he sees in the streets stalls and small factories all around him. He is reminded of his time as a child in England, still very much a manufacturing nation in the 1950s.
Roger loves the spicy food found in China and sweating over a bowl of noodles, he reflects on his time spent in Jingdezhen. He explains that although here are benefits to working in China there are also disadvantages - the pollution, cold damp conditions and cultural differences are having an effect on him - he's getting older. As he nears completion of his pot ready to be fired his mood, at first sour, becomes more contemplative as he reflects on the process of making things and the risks of failure that are all part of the process. If the “Kiln Gods” aren’t happy his pot may crack in the kiln and then all the months of work will be wasted. But he is aware of the risks and hopes he will be fortunate and the Gods will smile on him. He will be happy when his latest batch of big pots is safely at his brother's farm in the Fens but he will be in England when they are be fired.
In England a massive sea container full of his Chinese porcelain has arrived at the farm. The unloading begins. It is the moment of truth. He hopes his big pot is ok. He would like to think it will still be around to be admired long after the hundreds of hours of video of Spitting Image recorded on tapes in his archive in the Fens have crumbled into tiny unplayable fragments.
Still Spitting is a film about Roger Law’s unexpected personal journey from the Fens in England to Bondi beach, and porcelain workshops in China, to make a lasting statement to rival Spitting Image – a Big Pot, decorated with Roger’s Australian drawings and carved in porcelain. “Something as beautiful as Spitting Image puppets were ugly.” As we follow Roger on this quest he gives us a close-up view of his creative process and fights against the odds as he struggles with language problems, air pollution, floods that threaten to destroy months of work and the kiln gods who could blow it all to smithereens.
Roger Law, whose gold teeth, bushy eyebrows and swiveling “scary eyes” are eerily reminiscent of the satirical puppets he used to make, doesn’t hold back from saying what he thinks. Throughout the film he delivers a personal, sometimes caustic and sometimes entertaining commentary on the work he is doing on the Big Pot and how it differs from working “ a life sentence” with the TV show. As he nears completion of his pot ready to be fired his mood, at first sour, becomes more contemplative as he reflects on the process of making things and the risks of failure that are all part of the process. If the “Kiln Gods” aren’t happy his pot may crack in the kiln and then all the months of work will be wasted. But he is aware of the risks and hopes he will be fortunate and the Gods will smile on him. He would like to think his amazing carved pot will still be around to be admired long after the hundreds of hours of video of Spitting Image recorded on tapes in his archive in the Fens have crumbled into tiny unplayable fragments.
Michael was given permission to select images from Roger’s amazing archive – over 30 years of Fluck and Law caricature work, and unparalleled access to his most recent projects. Over 100 hours of footage was shot - of Roger discovering lost treasures in the Spitting Image archive in England, drawing the flora and fauna of Australia, and surviving a dramatic flood that threatened to destroy months of his work in China. The film also features interviews with original Spitting Image voice artist, comedian Harry Enfield and Spitting Image producer, John Lloyd of Q.I. and Blackadder fame, and some very funny clips from the TV show.
It is clear Roger Law is Still Spitting. He never lost his obsession with making things. He just wanted to be away from the tortuous rigors of weekly television production and be able make something as beautiful as the puppets were ugly.