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The Thatcher era: how did it make you feel?

by
03 January 2012

Glyn Paflin sees a film that is said to ‘raise a host of big life issues’

Bravura: Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) with Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head) in The Iron Lady

Bravura: Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) with Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head) in The Iron Lady

WHEN Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street, she had been Prime Minister for practically half my lifetime. Her party’s success in the polls in 1979 had enabled our class of Essex 12-year-olds to vote enthusiastically, within months, for both the Liberals and (in contrast with a free Commons vote pledged in the Con­servative manifesto) the death penalty for murder.

By 1990, I was a reporter on the Church Times. Staff watched the news of Mrs Thatcher’s departure on a black-and-white TV, and drank Prosecco or sat, head in hands, in barely silent grief, according to taste. I recall someone saying to me that politics would never be carried on with the same level of high camp ever again. Indeed, John Major’s was a greyer but calmer world. (We didn’t bargain for Tony Blair.)

I share that with the group, since that is the sort of thing we are being invited to do after seeing Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady (Cert. 12A), on release in UK cinemas from to­day. Explicit reference to religion plays only a tiny part in it, although we do hear the inevitable “Prayer of St Francis” outside No. 10.

Yet the Christian charity Damaris Media, “making a positive contribu­tion to contemporary culture”, is providing resources, including video and audio clips from the film, as free downloads or on DVD, to encourage church and community groups to “run discussions examining the many life issues featured in the film”.

It speaks of “a woman who broke through the barriers of gender and class to be heard in a male-dom­nated world”, and “a host of big life issues such as overcoming prejudice; balancing family and career; making a mark; coping with change; celeb­rating achievement and dealing with regret”.

Both Pathé, the film company, and Damaris had high-enough hopes for take-up by church groups to organ­ise, through Premier Media, a view­ing for church leaders in London in early December. “Meryl”, we were told, was very keen that we should all discuss it.

And so she should be; because it is, after all, primarily her triumph. “Wasn’t she wonderful?” a younger friend who did not live in the UK in the 1980s said to me recently of Mrs Thatcher, Prime Minister. I gave a nuanced reply; but there is no need to be nuanced about Meryl Streep as the “Iron Lady” and as Lady Thatcher in her widowhood and mental con­fusion, the scenario that frames episodes from her political career, the two cleverly elided.

Streep’s performance is both technically brilliant and emotionally sensitive, finding sympathy where, indeed, a British actress might have felt inhibited by closer acquaintance with life as it was for many in the UK at the time. From one point of view, the film is the love story of Margaret and Denis Thatcher: Jim Broadbent as the hallucinated Denis is not so good a physical match as Harry Lloyd (the young Denis), but is a great foil to the earnest Streep. Olivia Colman (Alex Smallbone in Rev) gives a touching performance as their daughter, Carol. The adult Mark is “off” (in South Africa).

In an excruciating Cabinet scene, Mrs Thatcher humiliates her Chan­cellor, Geoffrey Howe (the splendid Anthony Head), forgetting that she is not his schoolmistress. I wonder, however, whether Streep — or rather the screenwriter, Abi Morgan — could have gone further to show why Conservative MPs did decide at last that it was time to bring down the curtain on such a vote-winning per­formance.

So, back to the discussion: “How do you think Margaret might have felt as she entered the House of Com­­mons for the first time? Can you identify with feeling like that from any situations you have faced in your own life? . . . What do you think ‘equality’ meant for Margaret, and what does it mean to you? If you have ever been held back by others’ views of you, how did it make you feel?”

How did it make you feel? I wonder how one could even ask near a closed pit or an ex-steelworks. But how did other women in politics at the same time feel? That is a question that the film doesn’t so much dodge as render impossible to consider, since you would think from seeing this version of the Thatcher story that Barbara Castle and Shirley Williams, to name but two, had spent the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s chained to their kitchen sinks.

This is perhaps the most obvious flaw of a film that portrays Lady Thatcher as “the” woman in politics of her generation, facing barely dif­fer­entiated ranks of scary men on the Opposition benches — never mind the sexism slapped feistily down by the young Margaret Roberts (Alex­andra Roach) in an early en­counter with a constituency selec­tion panel. The almost unsex-me-here approach to realising a woman’s political am­bition which we see nursed by Airey Neave (the charming Nicholas Far­rell) — was that the only way for­ward?

They were, to be sure, already con­frontational and violent times: the film brings that back vividly as it estab­lishes an auditory and psy­chological link between wartime bombs on Grantham, the car bomb that killed Neave, and the bomb in the Grand, Brighton (oddly, the film almost underplays the Thatcher resili­ence that morning). And I had forgotten how extraordinary the scenes were after the Falklands vic­tory. As with the miners’ strike, this is an episode for which the direc­tor makes telling use of news foot­age.

All in all, this film is a gracious tribute to the woman to whom I am grateful for “snatching” our half-frozen, half-lukewarm school milk so soon after another five-year-old had vomited it over my desk.

www.damaris.org/theironlady

Printed resources and DVD (£5 for p. & p. etc.) from Damaris Trust, PO Box 200, Southampton SO17 2DL

www.damaris.org/theironlady

Printed resources and DVD (£5 for p. & p. etc.) from Damaris Trust, PO Box 200, Southampton SO17 2DL

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