Twenty Years Ago Today: A Live Action Parliamentary Puppet Show!

A photorealistic image of John Major, the British Prime Minister Twenty years ago today, Spitting Image was between its fifteenth and sixteenth series, and therefore not on the air. Instead, the good folk of Westminster were doing their best to create a live-action Spitting Image sketch. Eyebrows were raised throughout Downing Street as a terrifying sound issued forth from the office of the Prime Minister: the monumental boom of an outraged Ulsterman.

It was an argument about the Northern Ireland peace process, of course. The loud Ulsterman was none other than the Reverend Ian Paisley, leader of the protestant Democratic Unionist Party. In those days, they were a group of hardliners who opposed any accommodation with the catholic opposition, but their support was needed if the process was to go ahead.

Behind Ian Paisley's booming voice lay the calculating brain of that most terrifying of creatures: a politician.

Paisley's refusal to participate was annoying the PM somewhat, and it's said that Mr. Major - a man caricatured by Spitting Image as so dull that his colour control was set to permanent monochrome - flew off the handle, shouting that Paisley was talking 'total rubbish', and throwing his papers around the room. Paisley - who needed no caricature for anyone to know that his volume control was set to a permanent maximum - claimed that he actually had to raise his voice to be heard.

Paisley dismissed the peace process as 'iniquitous and a farce' and 'a rotten sinking vessel which is going down now in confusion.' Major accused him of constantly misrepresenting the situation, and the bellowing continued to rise. 'I have a better voice than him when it comes to volume,' said Paisley later on, but it wasn't his office; after half an hour of the two men screaming at each other, Major threw him out.

Both sides were swift to present their own interpretation of events, with Paisley's being by far the more entertaining, depicting him as standing up for his principles in the face of a prime minister who threw his papers around the room in frustration. His intended audience was probably not the British government, nor even his true opponents, Sinn Fein - but his own people back home. As the years progressed, his intransigence would continue to win him support among Unionists until his party supplanted the former leading Unionist party, and took power after the eventual peace agreement. Because after all, the biggest fights in politics are usually more between allies than enemies, and in-fighting is vastly more popular (and profitable) than actual fighting.

And for those of you who can't remember what Spitting Image was all about, here's a reminder: