The Iron Lady does its subject and her legacy proud—but I hope Lady Thatcher never sees it
As part of the publicity campaign for The Iron Lady, a group of media mavens were invited to dinner at the house of the director Phyllida Lloyd, where they met the star of the film, Meryl Streep. Columnists including Liz Hoggard, India Knight and the sainted Polly Toynbee were among a group who were presumably chosen not just because they were prominent female names in the media but also because they would not have been immediately identifiable as Thatcher sympathisers. Also there apparently, debating the lasting effect of Britain’s first female prime minister and the pros and cons of this highly anticipated cinema portrayal, were Tracey Ullman, Janet Street-Porter and Jenni Murray.
I have no idea who said what, but since that evening, there’s been a trickle of press articles of the I-hated-her-but-you’ve-got-to-give-her-credit-where-it’s-due variety. These are the sort of pieces which aim to show the broadmindedness of the writer who, while remaining firmly on the correct side of things politically, nevertheless possesses the ability to identify genuine achievement.
I’m sure everybody had a great evening, and that it was nice to meet Meryl. But the scenario also struck me as an oddly sad one. Did not these women feel small, unimportant, impotent, as they picked over the reputation of this genuinely towering figure, one of their own sex, whose place was assured in global history regardless of what they personally might have felt about her? Did they realise moreover that it is usually the fate of commentators and their various positions to be of significance finally only to their colleagues? And were they aware that it was one of the defining characteristics of Margaret Thatcher that she was supremely indifferent to what people like them thought and wrote?
It was lucky for Thatcher that when she was in power she genuinely didn’t care, didn’t even seem to register the intelligentsia, for it is difficult to think of a public figure more mercilessly and intemperately attacked by it. And the more she ignored them, the more crazed they became. Gender, class snobbery — nothing was too downmarket for these highbrows. She was denied an honorary doctorate from her old university Oxford-a shameful, petty act. The director and all-round renaissance man Jonathan Miller held his nose as he attacked her for “her odious suburban gentility”. Dame Mary Warnock mocked her “elocution voice” and “neat, well-groomed clothes and hair, packaged together in a way that’s not exactly vulgar, just low”. It has been remarked upon that whereas few Americans knew little and cared even less about Ronald Reagan’s humble origins, there was surely nobody in Britain who wasn’t aware that the Prime Minister’s father was a provincial shopkeeper; indeed Alderman Roberts became part of the folklore surrounding her.
Thatcher won the economic wars, and she never lost an election. The liberal establishments who shape our culture have never been able to forgive her for this, or for the fact that they were largely irrelevant to her. So since her downfall in 1990, they have worked pretty tirelessly to take back “the narrative” of the Thatcher years, and have successfully managed to brand the 1980s as one of the darkest periods in modern British history, dominated by an individual with at the least dictatorial tendencies or more possibly a serious personality disorder. However supposedly balanced the portrayal of the lady herself, we are ultimately left in little doubt that she should be regarded ultimately as a Bad Thing, albeit one who possessed admirable personal traits of tenacity and drive and the like. In giving a little ground in this way, the overall negative view of her is confirmed. This was most strikingly illustrated by the BBC drama Margaret, in which Lindsay Duncan presented a spiteful, brittle prime minister whose bullying tactics managed at the same time to fascinate and carry the audience along.
There are many — including perhaps those who delight in telling us how they plan to celebrate Baroness Thatcher’s death — who have doubtless been hoping the same of The Iron Lady. They will be disappointed, for those who, like Lord Tebbit, have talked of the film as being a left-wing fantasy, are very wide of the mark. Indeed it is hard to determine not just its political hue, but its very attitude to politics itself.
Told in flashback, the film is essentially a survey of one life and how it interacted with and, most importantly, shaped national events. We first see a rather doddery Lady Thatcher (an unrecognisable Streep in heavy make-up) attempting to buy a pint of milk at the local corner shop, alone, anonymous and bewildered by rising prices. Rattling around her house, and having decided to finally dispense with her late husband’s clothes, she is assailed not just by memories and thoughts of her life and career but by the imagined presence of Denis (Jim Broadbent) himself. Their banter forms the setting in which the obviously wandering and befuddled former PM attempts to make sense not just of her past life but her much-reduced present. Wartime in Grantham, courtship and marriage, and adoption as parliamentary candidate through to electoral victory, the Falklands and the Brighton bomb are episodes which are touched on to varying degrees — sometimes as merely vignettes — and included insofar as they shed light on the central character.
Much of this is exhilarating in the way that cinema recreations of events from living memory (such as in The Queen, and The Baader Meinhof Complex) tend to be. Other characters — Airey Neave, Geoffrey Howe, Michael Heseltine (a terribly miscast Richard E. Grant) are sketchy at best, mere supporting players, there to bask in reflected glory or store up resentments for future use (strangely, there’s not even a mention of Arthur Scargill). They have little to say, and hardly impinge — there is barely a scene in which Thatcher isn’t central and dominant.
There was the usual carping when it was announced that Streep was to play Thatcher. But having seen her, I now cannot envisage an English actress who could have pulled it off so spectacularly. The things which tend to get in the way with this actress — the chilly technique, the mannerisms, the layer of artifice, that studied quality — all of these become strengths here, coalescing to bring to life a figure who, while surrounded by people, is always apart from them, always singular. It is a remarkable performance. Perhaps that Streep is American helps bring out further the fact that for much of her political career, Thatcher was something of an alien being in her chosen landscape — a lower middle-class woman, not of the Establishment, not accepting of the political orthodoxies and, initially, not taken seriously.
She is given some speeches in which she clearly sets out her principles. At no point is she obviously mocked. The sexism and snobbery she faced at the beginning make themselves felt time and time again and we are invited to admire her response. The lack of guile, the complete sincerity will surely flummox younger viewers for whom politics naturally means just spin and dissembling.
And for older ones, it might bring on intense nostalgia. The script, by Abi Morgan, completely conveys the brilliant clarity of the character, a clarity which ensured that whether you adored her or fiercely loathed her, Thatcher paid you the compliment of meaning exactly what she said. But it’s not just the quality of public life depicted in the film which might make some wistful. It is quite simply that the country Thatcher governed — glimpsed here in archive footage — already looks unrecognisable (clips of the massed ranks at the Tory party conference show how remarkably shrunken party politics now is). Contrary to the official line pushed by BBC apparatchiks and the like, there was during that time a remarkable unleashing of energy, a real sense of renewal. Much of that zest has been squandered; it is hard sometimes not to feel that Britain has carried on where it left off, that Thatcher’s 11 years was a kind of hiatus and that we are back on the wrong road. But her time — which coincided with my twenties, after years of being formed by vaguely left-wing teachers and college lecturers — allowed one a feeling of heady relief; one could believe for the first time that the national game was not necessarily up, that decline wasn’t the only option open to us, that we should celebrate this, and the fact that there was somebody who instinctively thought and felt the same as us residing in Downing Street.
Nostalgia, admiration, even inspiration — I felt all these things on leaving the screening of The Iron Lady. Why, then, do I hope and pray that Baroness Thatcher never gets to see it? It is simply this: it has been made almost as though she is no longer with us. When Helen Mirren played the Queen, the events depicted were already a decade old. There was a safe distance into which fiction could step. Here, when Streep settles down on the floor to look distractedly at old home movies, when she converses at length about the price of milk with her long gone husband, we are forced to assume that this is how Lady Thatcher now lives. Has any other real life figure ever been portrayed in such a way? It is unquestionably movingly done, and structurally, it works. But the timing is badly wrong.