How one writer’s father found themselves operating a rubber Mrs Thatcher for a living.
By the early ’80s, John (who’s my dad, but I’ll be calling him ‘John’ for a veneer of maturity – like a child wearing a suit) had escaped both an asbestos factory job and the dole office to become a special effects partner with a cameraman called Richard. Success arrived early for their double act when they achieved renown in certain, rather niche circles for making foam latex puppets for a yoghurt commercial. Another duo, Peter Fluck and Roger Law, had achieved renown in somewhat wider circles with their still-life caricatures of politicians and the Royal Family, which were regularly featured on the cover of the Sunday Times supplements.
John never knew how work appeared with Richard, but it did, and sometime around 1982, he found himself heading to a converted chapel in Cambridge. He was at Fluck and Law’s studio to discuss a funny little idea they had called ‘Spitting Image’ – it would be satirical, political sketches starring their caricatures as never seen before: in motion. ‘We’d need you to turn them into puppets, good enough that we can take them round to production companies and demonstrate the idea,’ Law told them. The seminal yoghurt commercial ensured John and Richard got the job. The prototypes they would be making were of Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
There’s a road of red-brick buildings where Richard lived in Battersea, overlooking the park, called Overstrand Mansions. John rented a room there for decades and, due to our family’s precarious finances, we called it ‘Overdraft Mansions’. In the early years, the flat – usually the kitchen – also functioned as the special effects studio (much to Richard’s wife’s dismay). Fluck and Law arrived at the ‘studio’ of Overdraft Mansions and, despite being used to more professional environs, didn’t protest at being plonked in the sitting room, where they were left sculpting their dark grey American import plasticine to the unwavering burble of Radio 4. Every day, the same routine: sculpting, listening to the radio, hardly talking because they knew exactly what the other would do. ‘Neither of them ever did a whole sculpture,’ John remembers. ‘It was always a two-part, collaborative process: Fluck would do the form and Law the finishing – doing the final touches and the expressions,’ he says.
Meanwhile, the special effects duo had to overcome the problem of using latex foam to make the puppets, as latex shrinks 10-15 percent once it’s set, meaning Fluck and Law would have to scale the heads up by 10-15 percent – unless they could come up with another idea. Richard had already promised that they could. As Maggie began to take form, Richard suggested a silicone foam that wasn’t as flexible as latex, but equally wouldn’t shrink. It was a stroke of genius, in theory.
First, a two-part mould had to be made with an interior – this was John’s job. For the initial mould, he made a box around Maggie’s grotesquely sculpted face and filled it with silicone. In theory, silicone doesn’t stick to anything but silicone; unfortunately, in reality, it sticks to plasticine, and no one knew how to clean it off without damaging the moulds. While Fluck and Law continued with Reagan, Richard went in search of a cleaning agent, and returned brandishing a bottle of ‘trichloroethane’, saying: ‘This’ll work!’
It did work, very well indeed. Over a few days, with a tiny paintbrush, John cleaned off bits of plasticine stuck to Maggie’s mould, then Reagan’s, and as he was only using verysmall quantities of trichloroethane, he didn’t bother wearing a mask; as he says, they never bothered wearing masks – it was the ’80s.
Cleaning complete, John then made the interior moulds so a puppeteer could put their hand inside. Over the moulds he layered clay, making indentations on the lips so that a thumb and two fingers could operate the mouth easily. He filled the face with silicone foam, put in the inner form, put the back pieces on and then poured in the remainder of the foam to fill the mould. Job done – in theory. When John tentatively opened the mould, Maggie was so stiff it was like animating a potato. They couldn’t ask Fluck and Law to sculpt bigger masters, so the only alternative after all that was to use latex, and pray.
Cue more mess in Richard’s wife’s kitchen and then: the unveiling of the latex puppets! Being so long, and now less durable, Maggie’s new latex nose proved difficult to extricate from the mould. So difficult that on several attempts, it tore off. Mum remembers waiting late into night, tension saturating the room whenever Maggie’s nose was to be removed. Nobody breathed. Nobody said a word. One last time, John pulled Thatcher’s face from the mould, teasing the large and cavernous protrusion until it was free. The liberation of Maggie’s nose precipitated the beginning of something that would take political satire to the mainstream, but John just remembers being so tired by this point that it mightas well’ve been a yoghurt commercial. By comparison, Reagan’s face was a walk in the park and, to everyone’s relief, the latex didn’t shrink (much). Fluck and Law could put their hands inside Maggie and Reagan, and trying the white, foam puppets on for sizethey pushed them together cawing, ‘Let’s have a kiss!’
A few days later, my parents went to see my grandparents in Devon. John had a pint of Guinness in the pub, came back drenched in sweat and collapsed. He went to the family doctor, Doctor Butcher (a lovely man, despite his ominous name), who examined John’s eyes and said, ‘I’m afraid you’re jaundiced. Can you give me a list of the chemicals you’ve been working with recently?’
John gave him a list of everything he could think of – a vast, highly toxic list in its entirety, but Dr Butcher singled out one chemical: trichloroethane, the chemical John had been using to clean the plasticine off the silicone moulds of Maggie and Reagan.
‘It’s gone straight to your liver,’ Dr. Butcher said. ‘You have to stop drinking immediately, for six months, while your liver recovers from toxic poisoning.’
Mostly self-taught, and usually reserving caution in their work for the explosives, everyone was naïve and laissez-faire about the chemicals they used. ‘We never read a single safety leaflet,’ John says. And this was how my dad got chemically-induced non-specific hepatitis making the prototypes for Spitting Image. From then on, he read safety leaflets meticulously.