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As any sane person knows, you should probably stay away from religion and politics as topics of conversation at parties – unless you’re looking for a fight.

In the UK, “Margaret Thatcher” is another no-go zone for kitchen table chats with strangers. She could be a sub-heading of the first two. People blindly believe in her with the same zeal as others hate her, and there are bizarre sects which venerate her for all sorts of reasons.

As for how she affects politics, well – that’s hardly worth addressing. Britain still lives in the shadow of that almighty twin-set and handbag. We’re still in the fallout zone of policies that she created more than a quarter of a century ago. It’s her Britain, and I’m one of Thatcher’s children.

I was born and brought up in what people now term a “housing experiment”. A working class area… Well, before the jobs disappeared, anyway. So you can guess my feelings towards the Iron Lady. She was nothing less than the demon of my childhood, someone whom I instinctively mistrusted whenever those death ray-blue eyes peered out at me from the television set, or flickered on the front page of rustled newspapers.

It could be that I conflated her in a way with a terrifying primary school teacher, a great roaring woman with similar elongated vowels who could freeze boys and girls to their seat with one flare of her eyelids. It wasn’t too much later, listening to my unemployed dad roaring at TV news reports showing miners and poll tax rioters being clobbered by the authorities, that I realised my fears were grounded in reality.

That’s my story – but of course, everyone’s is different. It was with this egalitarian conviction that I went to see The Iron Lady, Phyllida Lloyd’s take on the life and times of Margaret Thatcher. I had been thinking of not going to see it on political grounds, but as I have pointed out to a few scoffers since then, that’s kind of silly. I don’t have any kind regard for the Third Reich, but I’ve still seen plenty of movies which depicted what they got up to.

We’re on familiar, if not totally comfortable ground from the title sequence. Even the typeface on the credits seems to tell you precisely where you are with this film: British, plummy-accented Oscar-bait. Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, eh?

The first thing to say is that, yes, Meryl Streep is wonderful. Not just for her spot-on imitation of the Iron Lady, but for her mimesis of an old lady. Fitted with convincing prosthetics, Streep caught the movements, the exasperation, even the breathing patterns of an old dear very well. I suspect she might have to clear a little bit of space on her mantelpiece before the awards season is over.

Tory grandee Norman Tebbit and Thatcher’s daughter, Carol, don’t like this film, and that’s all anyone who believes that this project lionises Mrs Thatcher needs to know. It begins with her as a doddering old lady attempting to buy some milk; a wonderful sideswipe given her “milksnatcher” status as education secretary under Ted Heath’s government in the 1970s. Then it shows her struggling with dementia, pretty much a prisoner in her own home, with armed guards keeping her inside and governesses seeing to her every need.

Most controversially, Denis Thatcher is with her during these present-day scenes, troublesome in that Denis has been dead for years. His role is largely as a hallucination, which forms the most awkward parts of the movie. How do we know that Mrs Thatcher actively hallucinates about her former husband? Maybe she just forgets he’s gone, now and again, a far more believable scenario for a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Played by Jim Broadbent, pretty much the go-to guy for bumbling British husbands since his role in Iris, this Denis captures the buffoonery and fondness for the good life that we know so well from the man who shared a bed with the Iron Lady. What it also shows us, and what many Thatcher mythologists miss out in her origin story, is that Denis was already a very rich man when the grocer’s daughter from Grantham married him.

Ah yes, the grocer’s daughter. She’s very well served in flashback scenes. We first see her with her family in what I assume to be an Anderson shelter during the Blitz. Her father worries about having left the butter uncovered in the shop; the young Margaret, played by the disturbingly attractive Alexandra Roach, runs back into the shop to save the butter, even as the Luftwaffe turns the houses in her neighbourhood to splinters.

These scenes formed another great sideswipe; what person in their right mind would allow their daughter to put herself in such danger for a glob of butter?

The grocer himself, Alfred Roberts, played by Iain Glen, sets his jaw and declares: “Whatever happens, it’s business as usual tomorrow.” The young Margaret clearly adores her father for the stiff-upper-lip, can-do attitude (and you can see where her fortitude in the face of events such as the Brighton bombing came from). But I thought to myself: “How do you know there’s going to be anyone left to buy your butter tomorrow, mate? You might come out of that shelter to a street piled with body parts. Good luck having business as usual in that case.”

Also, her mother doesn’t seem to like her very much. I’m guessing that was important.

During Mrs T’s political trajectory to the head of the Conservatives, and then to the head of Government, it’s pretty much a tick-list of the controversies she oversaw. Yes, we see the rubbish bags piled up in the 1970s, and the notion of the unions having perhaps too much power over the economy. Then there’s her dealings with the hunger strikers and the IRA’s campaign, the UK’s plummeting employment rate, her devastation of industry, the crushing of the miners’ strike, the Poll Tax, sinking the Belgrano… rest assured, very little is missed out.

The most affecting footage is the old newsreel film of striking miners being squeezed by a gauntlet of policemen, and shots of poll tax rioters being obliterated by mounted officers. Increasingly, Mrs Thatcher is seen as cold, matching the cinematography’s omnipresent pale blue. It doesn’t matter who gets hurt in the short-term, she’s saying: I know best, and that’s what will be done. By the time she gets around to humiliating her cabinet colleagues, including her once right-hand man Geoffrey Howe (a smart turn by Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Anthony Head), the game is up for Mrs T.

This is a film that could easily become a stage play. It mostly takes place in quiet rooms, with the elderly Thatcher’s curtains twitching as she looks outside, or the magisterial Prime Minister holding court in state rooms and cabinet meetings. Tellingly, when large groups of people are involved, it’s when protesters are spitting abuse at Mrs Thatcher in her ministerial limo. One of the few regional accents you hear in this film is that of a Scotsman. “Call yerself a mother? Ye’re no’ a mother! Ye’re a monster!”

Apart from this, the public – the people – are locked away from this woman’s life and decision-making. Mrs Thatcher is shown as a youngster being sneered at by a group of girls as a grocer’s daughter. “Don’t follow the crowd, Margaret,” her father tells her. But being oneself and being separate from the crowd isn’t seen as a positive thing in the rest of this movie.

Things I’d like to have seen: the poll tax is covered, but we don’t see the Thatcher government’s staggering decision to use Scotland as a guinea pig for the policy one year before it was rolled out in the rest of the UK. For anyone overseas who doesn’t know, it was a supremely unfair tax rate which targeted the amount of people living in a house, irrespective of the notional value of the property or the occupants’ income. So, for example, a working class family of five, with two parents and, say, two older teens in full-time work, could in theory pay more than a pair of childless aristocrats living in a gigantic country estate. Mrs Thatcher reacted to the rioting and civil disobedience this charge caused in Scotland by completely ignoring it and continuing with the policy elsewhere in the UK… and guess what happened?

Also, there’s a hint of Thatcher as a heavy drinker, but not enough of one. Stories are now emerging about Mrs T’s whisky and soda habit, which often kept her out of bed into the small hours. I wonder how much her famous four hours’ sleep cycle was based on alcoholism, as opposed to drive and natural verve?

So, yes, it’s just about worth seeing. I thought its treatment of dementia was cack-handed and the only risible thing about it. Apparently you can banish the symptoms of dementia by throwing out old shoes. That’s one to keep under your hat, for later.

Did I feel sympathy for the Iron Lady’s travails by the end? Not at all. This is not based on vindictiveness, but from an observation which my partner made as we drove home from the movie theatre: “No matter how rich or powerful you get, time and death are a constant. There’s no getting away from it. It’ll bring us all down eventually.” In this, perhaps, there’s equality, if not justice.

Even at that, Mrs Thatcher and her acolytes should be thankful that she is in the position to be at a ripe old age. Despite what time might have done to her mind and body, she’s still around. There are many people whose livelihoods were crushed under the Iron Lady’s sensible heels who went to their graves cursing the day she took office. I thought of them before I went into The Iron Lady, and I thought of them after I left the theatre.

When she dies – and if god spares me until then – I won’t celebrate, though. Lots of people I know are looking out the bunting ahead of the event. But no matter what she’s done, I think celebrating the death of an old lady is a crass thing to do. But when Thatcherism dies – then, I might just permit myself a dram.

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3 Comments

  1. I want to see the film. It could be painful. I grew up in a South Yorkshire coal mining village. My dad was a miner. We suffered through 2 major strikes. Thatcher was the devil. But Arthur Scargill, the miners’ leader was a bit of a twat. Bloody horrible times.

  2. Seeing the footage of the rioting and the miners clashing with the police was shocking; it had been so long since I saw it. Mrs Thatcher’s government had an effect on my life. Cuts lead to teachers’ strikes; teachers’ strikes led to extra-curricular things like football teams being cut… Not to mention the effecft of decimating industries which were the cornerstone of whole towns, and even cities (Glasgow – shipbuilding; Sheffield and Motherwell – steel). I would never argue that Britain was perfect when she came to power, and the three-day week etc weren’t good things. But her solutions to these problems bring to mind Frank Zappa’s quote: “Treating dandruff by decapitation.”

    And yet, there are people who venerate her, and did very well out of her economic policies. Let’s hear from you…

  3. it’s her ‘no such thing as society’ bit that has affected me – the idea that everyone can get what they want simply by working for it, as if poverty and disadvantage and disability and any sort of compassion didn’t exist. My children were educated during the Thatcher era – 3 are (thankfully) hugely political (maybe I had something to do with that), but the 4th is signed up to the generation of Thatcher’s children.


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