Today's Politicians? 'It's Difficult to Make a Puppet of a Puppet'
Peter Fluck made his name as the co-creator of Spitting Image. Now an artist, he says the current crop of politicians do a good job of satirising themselves.
“It’d be interesting to try and caricature Trump, Johnson and Farage, even though they already do a very good job themselves. Of course, there’s another issue. It seems to me that they’re already puppets.”
Peter Fluck – the man who, with Roger Law, created Spitting Image – is speaking from his home on the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall. Perched on the cliffs high above the Atlantic as it meets the English Channel, it’s a wonderful, remote spot. And one that, as the 2016 Referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the European Union approached, left the vessels passing below in no doubt of its owners’ political allegiance.
“I hoisted an EU flag up,” says Fluck, who lives there with his wife, the artist Anne-Cecile de Bruyne. “I bitterly resented the binary ‘yes’ or ‘no’ nature of the referendum, the way that none of the real, underlying issues were put to the electorate.
“I feel great sadness about Brexit. Being part of Europe is important, not least because by leaving Europe we’re taking ourselves away from the intelligence and knowhow needed to combat the biggest threat we all face – climate change.”
Messrs Trump, Johnson and Farage? “They’re already puppets, shielding the globalised money behind them”Peter Fluck
Fluck is as passionate about climate change as he was about creating the puppets that made his name and took Spitting Image to prime-time TV success, capable of drawing in audiences of up to 15 million in the 1980s and 90s.
“There’s not one world leader taking a lead, not one who is grappling with how we save our planet. Siberian forests are on fire, the ice cap is melting, life as we know it is heading for a seismic change – and all the world’s politicians can think about is their own self-interest.”
But if Fluck is despairing, he has also mellowed, not so much because of age – he is 78 – but because of what he has done with his life, post-Spitting Image. Fluck, who began his career as a freelance illustrator, returned to art. Initially he made wind or motor-powered mobiles, then he branched into ceramics and prints. Some six years ago, he devised a five-year plan, the result of which is an extraordinary piece of work that Fluck, throughout its gestation, called ‘The Tree Project’.
“I decided to shed as much as possible of my previous art education and experience from teachers, peers and many influences, to try to get to the bottom of myself or rather, the selfish bit in the middle of me,” he says. “I found it in my handwriting, something as personal as a fingerprint. I explored this with an abstract form of calligraphy without words or meaning; simply gestural shapes arranged to an effective aesthetic. This work enabled the drawings that became part of The Tree Project.”
All That’s Left is the muscular incarnation of the Project – an installation featuring a huge trunk of Monterey Cypress accompanied by 100 close-up photographs of the tree and sound by Tony Myatt, professor of sound at the University of Surrey. In Autumn 2018, it showed to great acclaim at Tremenheere Gallery in Cornwall.
Fluck admits that All That’s Left is an echo of his preoccupation with climate change. “I’d drive past this huge, beautiful but felled tree each day,” he says. “I became obsessed with it, its changes, its meaning, its tragedy. I had to chronicle it and try and work out what it meant.”
Fluck’s early searches for meaning were conducted at the Cambridge School of Art, where he met Law. Work took both men to London (where Fluck worked as a freelance illustrator creating covers for The Economist and as a political cartoonist for Labour Weekly) and, in 1976, they formed a partnership known as Luck & Flaw. The duo produced 3D caricature models for photographic reproduction by most major press and publishers worldwide and then, in their mid-40s – from ideas first germinated during their days of student radicalism – Spitting Image was born.
The show was a runaway success, but Fluck was not afraid to leave it behind. “I wanted to work on my own,” he says.
In 1992, he set out on a new life as an artist, later declaring, of Spitting Image, that “it was a lovely thing to have stopped doing”. Today, he has fonder feelings for the show: “There was magic in seeing a construction of rubber and cloth, dormant and storable, come alive on TV. We enjoyed showing young, talented people how to do the work better than we could. And it’s a nice feeling to be paid to ridicule celebrity and privilege.”
Which brings us back to Messrs Trump, Johnson and Farage.
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“They’re already puppets, shielding the globalised money behind them,” says Fluck.
Could he be persuaded to caricature them?
Fluck is hesitant. “I was always uncomfortable with the British establishment’s acceptance of Spitting Image – Hansard ordered VHS tapes of the show for the MPs to watch the next day, Jeffrey Archer even sent in voice recordings, asking for his puppet to be made. And it’s difficult to make a puppet of a puppet.”