A woman, scorned

Margaret Thatcher was a lightning rod whose policies and personality provoked a wealth of protest and satire in songs, films and books, writes James Kidd

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 April, 2013, 2:56pm

"Politics is about people. It's about the person in front of you. So always look them in the eye. People'll remember you for it. And if they remember you, that's half the battle."

This quote is taken from Tony Saint's The Long Walk to Finchley, the 2008 BBC film that provides arguably the finest portrait of Margaret Thatcher to date. This brisk advice, offered to the young Margaret Roberts by her father, Alfred, has gained fresh resonance in the past fortnight since the death of the former British prime minister, aged 87.

It may be two decades since Baroness Thatcher - otherwise known as Mrs T, the Iron Lady and soubriquets too crude to print - became Britain's longest-serving leader of the 20th century, but she has not been forgotten. Miles of newsprint from across the world have picked over her achievements - using enough paper in all likelihood to stretch the way from St Paul's in London, where her funeral was held last Wednesday, to Hong Kong.

Thatcher's death has been respectfully acknowledged in China as well: by President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, as well as by Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. More than one commentator has wondered whether her privatisation of state-owned business offers a road map for the Communist Party.

Above all, Thatcher will be remembered as the prime minister who negotiated - often with extreme reluctance - the handover of Hong Kong with Deng Xiaoping back in 1982. She was removed from office in 1990, seven years before the city returned to China.

Thatcher's genius for polarising opinion has saturated her obituaries. Glowing tributes (largely from politicians past and present) have crossed swords with remembrances of a more angry hue.

Some of the most furious have been delivered by writers, artists and actors. Perhaps the signature artistic memorial so far has been the unexpected success in the British pop charts of Ding Dong the Witch is Dead from The Wizard of Oz. A campaign attempted to push the 51-second song to No1, a distinction it missed by about 5,700 sales. This glorious failure put the BBC in an awkward position when it was counting down the recent top 10: the song was mentioned rather than played in full.

This controversial and often complex cultural response to Britain's first woman prime minister is actually par for the course. Thatcher inspired a triple-album's worth of angry pop songs in her heyday. Furious skinheads queued up to shout abuse. The Larks set the classic miners' strike chant - Maggie Maggie Maggie (Out Out Out) - to music that made The Sex Pistols sound like Beethoven (in fact, they stole the verse from Led Zeppelin).

What is appealing about her is the drive, the energy and the will. The self-belief in the face of pretty formidable odds
Tony Saint, screenwriter of the Long Walk to Finchley

Not everyone sounded quite this cross, even if they were. Morrissey's Margaret on the Guillotine from his post-Smiths debut Viva Hate asked in the most plaintive tones imaginable, "When will you die?" Well, now he knows. But at the time, the "wonderful dream" of the song's title had him investigated by the British police.

Arguably pop music's stand-out depiction of Thatcher's Britain was The Specials' Ghost Town, which described recession, inner-city devastation and imminent violence over haunting keyboards. The Specials made a more pointed protest via the tribal rhythms of their cover of Bob Dylan's Maggie's Farm ("I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more") - which was given a less interesting reinterpretation by Paul Jones' The Blues Band.

The Specials were one of many acts lured into Red Wedge, a loose, and in retrospect ill-advised, musical collective that sought to promote a flagging Labour Party. Other Wedgers included a post-Jam Paul Weller, Elvis Costello, The Communards and Billy Bragg. Bragg's tear-jerking anthem Between the Wars is one of Thatcherism's musical high points; the well-meaning but earnest Red Wedge was not.

Possibly because Thatcher felt so unassailable during the 1980s, so seemingly certain of herself and her policies, satire had a field day with her. It could even be argued that she inspired an entirely new wave of humour, better known as "alternative comedy". Driven by angry young men such as Rick Mayall, Adrian Edmonson and Alexei Sayle, this loose movement took Peter Cook's elegant satire boom of the 1960s and flushed it down the toilet. Vulgar, rude, and obsessed with bodily functions, alternative comedians found an ideal target in the remote, unflappable and perfectly ironed surfaces of Thatcher's power. Despite their otherwise impeccable politically correct credentials, one wonders whether Mrs T inspired some latent misogyny.

The Young Ones, alternative comedy's masterpiece, boasts a cast list which today might bankrupt even a Hollywood film: Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Robbie Coltrane and Emma Thompson all appear. Thatcher was both the sitcom's assumed bête noir (the main characters were poverty-stricken students) and, in the right-on fury of middle-class anarchist Rick, an all-too easy scapegoat for everything that's bad on the planet - ever. Take this exchange from one episode: "Well, who do you suggest we blame? Thatcher!"

If The Young Ones assumed Thatcher was a political icon, the long-running satirical puppet show Spitting Image played its part in making her one. "The show was harsh and confrontational because Thatcher was harsh and confrontational," Spitting Image co-creator Roger Law said recently. Thatcher's image mutated over the years - from US president Ronald Reagan's idea of a stern English sex goddess into an increasingly inhuman, insane, leather-clad harpy. But her puppet helped fix her rise, and her fall, in the public imagination.

The pathos of her finale - alone and abandoned in the House of Commons - felt like a genuine expression of regret, at least at the passing of a satirical golden age.

Spitting Image's Thatcher was voiced by a man, Steve Nallon, an expert at navigating the way her honey-toned voice could suddenly crescendo into fog-horn intensity. Other Margarets include Jennifer Saunders, Maureen Lipman, Greta Scacchi and Lindsay Duncan.

Arguably the most famous portrayal is Meryl Streep's eerie photocopy in 2011's Oscar-winning The Iron Lady. My favourite is Andrea Riseborough in The Long Walk to Finchley. A sort of "Thatcher begins", it depicts an aspirational but uncertain young woman fighting for her political life against Neanderthal party officials.

For Long Walk writer Tony Saint, it was vital to portray Thatcher outside her usual frame of reference - to imagine her as a fully rounded individual rather than a potent but two-dimensional icon. "I feel lucky that I got to write about her character free from the poison of her era in government. What is appealing about her is the drive, the energy and the will. The self-belief in the face of pretty formidable odds."

Saint's proudest moment with The Long Walk to Finchley was when an audience burst into applause in a scene where Thatcher brought a pompous Conservative grandee down to earth. "I thought, 'This is amazing. They have managed to forget the context long enough to root for this woman.' That's the good fortune about writing about her as a younger woman fighting battles, when the stakes are personal as opposed to political."

It is notable that cinema and television have been more successful, especially in recent years, in depicting the Iron Lady than novelists. This owes something to Thatcher's own sense of style and theatre, shaped by her father, husband Denis, and global advertising firm Saatchi and Saatchi. True, she appears in blockbusters by Frederick Forsyth ( Icon, The Fourth Protocol) and Jeffrey Archer ( First Among Equals), but there she is a plot device - shorthand for political power in 1980s Britain.

A more subtle walk-on part occurs towards the end of Alan Hollinghurst's Man Booker-winning The Line of Beauty: "She came in at her gracious scuttle, with its hint of long-suppressed embarrassment, of clumsiness transmuted into power." Once again, however, Thatcher exists as much in her onlookers' gaze as her own right: "The faces of the welcomers … grand though they were, had a look beyond pride, a kind of rapture, that was bold and shy at once."

Entire books could be written - and already have - about what Thatcherite art might look like. This, in turn, would require further lengthy dissertations on what Thatcherism actually meant. Does Martin Amis' Money fit the bill - a sharp, nasty exposure of greed, selfishness and materialism? Surely those episodes in New York make it a Thatcher-Reagan co-production? Hanif Kureishi's wonderful My Beautiful Laundrette crystallised the opportunities opened up by Thatcher's free-market economy, as well as its pitfalls.

Bruce Robinson's comic classic of squalor and desperation, Withnail and I, contains possibly the subtlest allusion. Driving out of a squalid London, Withnail notices a road sign warning of "accident black spots": "These aren't accidents," he yells in drunken delirium. "They are throwing themselves into the road gladly. Throwing themselves into the road to escape all this hideousness."

The "hideousness" was Thatcher's constituency of Finchley.

The debates will rage for some time yet, just as the songs, books and movies will continue to be made. The Iron Lady may be dead and gone, loved and hated, but she has been remembered. Just like her father predicted.


Song and dance

Margaret Thatcher may not have cared passionately about the arts, but she left her emphatic mark on them.

Under her watch from 1979 to 1990, Britain saw a shift away from public subsidy to corporate sponsorship, a transformation of the Arts Council from an independent agency to an instrument of government, and the growth of a siege mentality in arts organisations.

In 1987 her arts minister, Richard Luce, announced that "the only test of our ability to succeed is whether we can attract enough customers". And, on one of the many occasions when she took National Theatre director Peter Hall to task for complaining about arts underfunding, she pointed to the popularity of British theatre the world over.

"Look," the prime minister said with a menacing, jabbing finger, "at Andrew Lloyd Webber."

It is no accident that Thatcher seized on Lloyd Webber as a symbol of what theatre should be. He embodied everything of which she approved: entrepreneurial skill, a world-famous brand-name, the ability to make money.

It seemed apt that the musical should become the dominant form of the 1980s since it represented Thatcherism in action: what it celebrated was the triumph of individualism and profitability. Where British theatre in previous decades were famed for its writers, actors and directors, in the 1980s it became identified with its musicals - Cats, Starlight Express, Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon. Even the big national companies were seduced into believing a popular musical was a passport to survival.

But as the 1980s progressed, more and more dramatists explored the psychology and consequences of Thatcherism. The play that offered the sharpest attack on Thatcherite values came from the supposedly apolitical Alan Ayckbourn.

In A Small Family Business (1987), without ever mentioning Thatcher but to devastatingly comic effect, the playwright pinned down the essential contradiction in her beliefs: you cannot simultaneously sanctify traditional family values and individual greed. If you do, he implies, you end up with a family that owes more to the mafia than morality.

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