The relative size of the Spitting Image puppets of David Steel (Liberal leader 1976-88) and David Owen (SDP leader 1983-87) has been the subject of much speculation and amateur psycho-analysis. The Steel puppet was much smaller than the Owen puppet, and this has been the source of much ‘puppet-size anxiety’ for David Steel since then. He felt that he was portrayed as the junior of the two Davids and, probably correctly, believed that this undermined his reputation.
In reality David Steel is very slightly shorter than David Owen, but only by a small fraction. Having calculated from photographic evidence that this did not account for the difference, thoughts then turned to conspiracy theories, centred on the idea that the puppet creators had been persuaded to include a subliminal message that the SDP were the dominant partners in the alliance.
I have discovered the truth. When I was in Cornwall, I met Peter Fluck, member of the Fluck and Law team who created the puppets for the television series, and he explained to me the real reason for the differing size of the puppets.
In the early days of puppet-making for the programme, the creators decided to make less than life-size puppets, to save on materials. They then had scaled-down clothes made for them. After a while, someone worked out that it would be cheaper to use more latex to make the puppets life size, as there would be more-than-compensatory savings on the cost of the clothes, which could then be bought from charity shops.
Sometimes, truth is less strange than fiction – and sometimes accountancy trumps politics.