BBC's 'Vladimir Putin' talk show prompts sharp intake of breath in Russia

BBC's satirical show, called "Tonight With Vladimir Putin", uses a three-dimensional cartoon of Putin interviewing real guests in front of an audience.

LONDON (NYTIMES) - Whether it be the suspicion that he meddled in the Brexit referendum or the accusation that he ordered the poisoning of a former spy, President Vladimir Putin of Russia stirs strong emotions in Britain.

Now, the BBC is hoping to mine the Russian leader's fame - or infamy - with a comedy series presented by a digital effigy of Mr Putin, who cackles in a trailer for the programme that his next great geopolitical victory will be to host the "No. 1 chat show in the UK".

The satirical show, called "Tonight With Vladimir Putin", uses a three-dimensional cartoon of Mr Putin interviewing real guests in front of an audience, the BBC announced on Wednesday (May 22).

Whether the Kremlin will see the funny side is debatable.

"He doesn't often get mocked and I don't think that he'll like it," said Dr Joanna Szostek, a lecturer in political communication at the University of Glasgow.

"It's not going to help bilateral relations, obviously," Dr Szostek added, noting that Moscow was likely to see the show as politically motivated because it considered the BBC a propaganda arm of the British government. The tone of the show could feed the Kremlin narrative that Western criticism of Mr Putin was driven by an anti-Russian agenda, she said.

The Putin caricature begins the trailer provocatively. "Greetings, people of the 'United Kingdom'!" the digital puppet yells outside Buckingham Palace, miming air quotes in a less-than-subtle reference to the bruising political battles around Britain's departure from the European Union and the fractious elections for the European Parliament which are being held this week.

In the first episode, planned to air on June 14, "Mr Putin" - or "everybody's favorite bear-wrestling global strongman", as the BBC described him - will meet Mr Alastair Campbell, the one-time spokesman for former prime minister Tony Blair. In the next episode, the digital host will try "to get his head around feminism" in a discussion with comedian and podcaster Deborah Frances-White, according to the statement.

The sharp intake of breath from observers of Russian politics was almost audible after the BBC's announcement. Comments on Twitter from Moscow-based journalists and researchers included a face-palm emoji in reaction to the puppet's accent and a warning that the broadcaster was "playing with fire".

In Russia, such a caricature would be unthinkable nowadays. A show in the 1990s on the Russian network NTV, called "Puppets", featured a cartoon figure of Mr Putin and other prominent politicians, including former president Boris Yeltsin. But the show was discontinued soon after Mr Putin assumed the presidency in 2000 and nothing like it has been shown on television since.

Mr Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin's spokesman, dismissed the BBC show in a conference call with journalists on Thursday. "Lots of books have been written about Putin, lots of caricatures have been drawn, lots of puppets and cartoons have been created," he said.

"Putin hasn't read books about himself or looked at caricatures," Mr Peskov added. "He doesn't want to take after them. Let these caricatures take after him."

Russia Today, the English-language network that is widely seen as part of the Kremlin's propaganda machine, also raised an arched eyebrow.

"The show appears to be a regurgitated dystopian nightmare," the Russian broadcaster said on its website.

"Surprisingly, many people were able to overcome bouts of nausea and cringe-induced spasms long enough to air their disgust," the article said, citing negative reaction on Twitter.

A spokesman for the BBC said on Wednesday that the show's creators would not be available to comment.

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