Saturday, February 28, 2009

Maggie, Maggie, Maggie - Out, Out, Out!

Rehabilitation of a long-disliked public figure can sometimes come from the oddest of directions. As mentioned in the last set of Top Telly Tips, I was very much looking forward to the BBC's film-drama Margaret (broadcast on BBC2 last Thursday). And, very good it was too - your actual proper BBC drama. Loosely based on John Campbell's two-volume biography of Thatcher published in 2000 and 2003 it was, according to the Beeb themselves 'an intimate portrayal of a woman on the brink of ruin; a very human story about the private Margaret behind the public persona as she loses her grip on the power she which has strived so hard to achieve.'

I was a bit worried before watching the film that it might be too similar in both style and tone to Granada's excellent Thatcher: The Final Days (1991), which covered, essentially, the same story. But the structure (with much use of flashbacks) made Margaret easily different enough to stand on its own merits. One of the other prime source texts for the piece (specifically, the back-stage shenanigans) appeared to be The Alan Clark Diaries (particularly the extensive details of the secret meeting held at Tristan Garel-Jones' home on the night after the first ballot when, most commentators now agree, three quarters of the cabinet got together and decided to, effectively, stage a coup). To be honest, Margaret really belongs in the same drama sub-genre as that clutch of excellent recent BBC4 bio-pics about important media nostalgia figures (Most Sincerely, Curse of Steptoe, Fear of Fanny etc.). Madly entertaining, loads of fun for political wonks who enjoy all the reference-spotting but, ultimately, still a work of fiction.

It was aided by an excellent - albeit, slightly mannered - performance from Lindsey Duncan in the title role. Indeed, it could be argued the actress was a shade too convincing at times – Lindsay managed to bring out the inate coldness of Thatcher; that icy stare and harsh voice although, thankfully, unlike Sylvia Sim in Thatcher: The Final Days she elected not to go down the impressionistic route... 'Lindsay Duncan makes an admirably vindictive Thatcher' noted Caitlin Moran in her Times review, before adding that 'If this was the Thatcher years replayed as Dynasty, then Geoffrey Howe was Krystle.'

Richard Cottan’s script was - broadly - sympathetic towards Mrs Thatcher. Though Duncan was superb throughout and portrayed the emotion that was in the script very well, the private, more vulnerable Maggie was, for many people who lived through the 1980s I think, a bit hard harder to swallow than the Maggie who shouted down her cabinet colleagues and played them off against each other for sport with an arrogant grin.

There was a very interesting article from the Guardian which suggested that some scenes that were, perhaps, more critical of Thatcher herself (including one, in particular, concerning the Falklands) were dropped from an earlier draft of the script:

I wouldn't mind betting one of the early drafts will be finding its way online sometime soon if our old chum "the insider" feels as strongly about it as this report suggests. It was certainly curious, though, that the Falklands (as an issue and as a political carrying card) was virtually ignored - except for a couple of throwaway references in one scene. For a lot of people (both supporters and detractors) that remains the single defining point of her decade as Prime Minister. Is it possible that, twenty odd years after Tumbledown and the Ian Curteis Falklands Play debacle the BBC are still cautious about even going near the subject for fear of offending somebody?

Of course, this is an era that I lived though and, as a consequence, for me some of the issues raised in the film have, perhaps, a far greater raw resonance than someone younger for whom this is all ancient history, no different from the issues covered in Rome or The Tudors. With regard to the 1983 election, arguably Thatcher's greatest ever political triumph, for example, it's possible that younger readers may not recall there were considerable exterior factors – not least in the South Atlantic - at work in the eventual outcome. The Tories may well have won in 1983 anyway (a week is a long time in politics, never mind fourteen months and the Labour party was a disorganised, self-imploding mess with a hobby of eating its own young in public at the time) but in April 1982, five minutes before a bunch of Argentinean scrap-men landed on South Georgia, that particular Conservative government was about as popular as the Black Death.

While Duncan made an admirable, in places unexpectedly tender, in others recognisably vindictive Thatcher - 'You don't make friends with your enemies, you destroy them' she spat, her face red and quivering with rage when asked to share a campaign platform with her nemesis Ted Heath - it was John Sessions as Geoffrey Howe who, in some ways, stole the show. Cottan's script and Sessions' astonishing performance made Howe - whom many people probably still remember as little more than a softly spoken 'yes man' (Alan Clark memorably describes him as 'a door mouse!') - come across as the ultimate dark maven of destiny. It was he, and not Michael Heseltine, who set Thatcher on the straight road to destruction - her destiny perhaps decided in the moment eighteen months earlier when, acting like a spoilt child, she imperiously told him 'Go fetch my shawl, Geoffrey' during an official function. Bigger empires have tumbled over lesser sleights.

Of the supporting cast, the always-reliable Ian McDiarmid was absolutely perfect as a tired, wryly caustic Denis. Some of the other performances possibly leaned a smidgen into the Rory Bremner territory, although on a subsequent Newsnight special three contemporaries of Michael Heseltine (David Steel, Roy Hattersley and Jonathan Aitken) all said that Oliver Cotton's performance was very close to the real life Hezza. Which, if true, would appear to suggest we all had a hell of a lucky escape. The excellent Michael Cochrane (one of my favourite actors over many years) was magnetic as a grumpy, thoroughly pissed-off and fatally loyal Alan Clark. James Fox gave a similarly well-nuanced performance as adviser Charles Powell whilst Robert Hardy was very good as a shadowy Willie Whitelaw, managing to easily disprove the frequently-voiced assertion that his acting style has only two volumes (loud and very loud). Kevin McNally not only looked the part but also managed to get Kenneth Clarke's manner and speech perfectly: 'No-one wants to see you humiliated, Margaret!' Also of note was Nicholas Rowe's Malcolm Rifkind. I haven’t seen Rowe in much recently - both he and McNally were also in Kenneth Brannagh's excellent 2005 drama Shackleton (as, indeed was Hardy). John Major, played by Michael Maloney – another actor I admire and whom I haven’t seen for far too long in anything approaching the quality of this - came across as a cold, scheming minor Bond villain (aided by an equally manipulative Kenneth Baker, played by Paul Jesson). The impression given was of a good old fashioned palace coup – initiated by committee - meticulously planned, staged with quiet dramatic brilliance, using stooges and fall-guys to do all the dirty work whilst leaving the Crown Prince, waiting twiddling his thumbs (or, in this case, having his wisdom teeth out) in the wings, to swoop in and save the nation. Never quite thought of Major in that way, myself. And, Maloney went down the Lindsay Duncan route and didn’t even attempt to get the Major-voice accurate which may have been a blessing in disguise. I somehow can't imagine a Blofeldian figure who speaks like a Star Trek fan.

And then, there was good old reliable boot-boy Norman Tebbit. Roy Marsden portrayed him as little short of a shouting bully. Mind you, again to go back to Alan Clark's diaries, that's exactly how Tebbit is usually portrayed in those. Indeed, a lot of his dialogue in the film seemed to have been drawn, almost ver batum, from stuff that's quoted in the diaries ... except that in a lot of cases, they actually cut down on the number of expletives used. (I met Tebbit once. Very odd man. Superb orator of course, and hugely popular in the country with that most curious of British creatures the working-class Tory - like my late-father, fr instance. Nasty, coarse and confrontational he may have been but, in many ways, he was infinitely preferable to the grey army of non-entities – many of whom were featured here - who replaced him in the 1990s.)

I particularly enjoyed the, now infamous, sight of that oily little twat John Selwyn Gummer (nicely played by Ian Hughes as a man who appeared as wet as a slap in the face with a haddock) blubbling like a girl as he tried to persuade Thatcher to quit with dignity. One can never get too much of a sight like that.

There was an odd little scene, too, with the great Rosemary Leach playing the Queen as some kind of vaguely mad old lady from down the road. And the portrayal of Carol Thatcher as a butter-wouldn't-melt frumpy little daddy's girl who could've used a decent hug from mum once in a while seemed utterly hilarious in light of some of the allegations that her many apologists have been making of late following Golly-gate about the BBC having, allegedly, 'had it in for her for years because of how much they hate her mother.' Oh, be still my sides... God save us all from Tory conspiracy theories. (Note, none of these apologists have yet offered a convincing explanation as to how, if the Beeb had/has such a collective hate-on for the Thatcher family, Carol was even employed by The ONE Show in the first place.)

It should be noted that the actor playing John Sergeant (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) appeared rather too old for the part and also looked not a little unlike a drummer with Motörhead. The sequence featuring him, however, led to the best single line of the film - Denis watching the events on TV and saying, in best pantomime tradition, "she's behind you, you pinko prat!"

Mind you, to this day I still don't know why the real John Sergeant didn't deck that blunt uppity bastard Bernard Ingham (played here, as … a blunt uppity bastard, by the excellent Phillip Jackson) right in the mush on national telly for throwing his weight around like some puffed up Mussolini. Who the Hell did Ingham think he was? He wasn't even a politician, he was a mere civil servant, a hired-hand, with no more right to tell the press where to stand when asking the Prime Minister to account for herself than he did to tell me which way to vote. After holding his tongue that night, not batting an eyelid to Arlene Phillips' jibes must've been a piece of piss for the Sarge.

The film pointed out, in a rather nice piece of dramatic juxtaposition I thought, that Thatcher's downfall was achieved by pretty much the same sort of backstage manoeuvering that Thatch herself (with more than a shade of help from Airey Neave and co.) did to Ted Heath in 1974. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Hell hath no fury, it would seem, like a backbencher crapping in their own pants because they can see an election on the horizon and their majority isn't looking healthy.

There has long been a theory - which has found some support on the fringes of Labour circles - that there was a deliberate 'scorched earth' policy going on by the Tory upper echelons during 1990-91 in the sure knowledge that something like Black Wednesday was just around the corner and that, an election in 1992 might well have been one worth losing. Certainly losing it would turn out to be the best thing that could ever have happen to Labour. This 'plan', such as it was, was said to have been scuppered not least because they (you know, 'They') had no power to stop a leadership election. I'm not talking about the MPs - they were mere transient figures – rather the theory refers to the actual power in the Tory party (at least in those days anyway), the money men. The James Goldsmiths, Conrad Blacks, Lord McAlpines, Rupert Murdochs and the like. The people who, on the night of the 1992 election at an infamous party at McAlpine's house, allegedly saved their biggest cheer for Chris Patten losing his seat. There's a very good piece on this subject in Brian Cathcart's Were You Still Up For Portillo? (Penguin, 1997). It argues that, essentially, the two things these people didn't count on in 1992 was, firstly, John Major and his soapbox and, secondly, the British people's last minute changes of heart when they actually got into the polling stations. It's not a wholly convincing conspiracy theory, of course - few conspiracy theories that don't involve the CIA actually are - not least because most of those people supposedly involved had something a vested interest in the Conservatives remaining in power at that time. But, it's a good laugh to speculate.

The reasons for Margaret Thatcher's removal from office when it happened were many, varied and complex. In trying to give voice to that situation any drama would have struggled to fit in even a fraction of them. I did think, however, that Margaret took a very sensible decision to use their last flashback sequence to highlight one reason that, many of those who have commented upon those events from an insider's point of view, have said might have been the final nail in her coffin. Not many people in the parliamentary party actually LIKED her all that much when push came to shove. Many admired her, certainly. Almost all of them respected her - even if grudgingly. Most feared her and her wrath (and many had very good reason to). But she was always something of an outsider to much of the party (the flashbacks to her election as leader in 1975 make that abundantly clear). And, added to that of course, when you rule with a rod of iron, intimidate and bully your colleagues to your way of thinking (Clark suggests that for the last three years he was in the cabinet she effectively used Geoffrey Howe as a doormat on an almost daily basis) and build your entire public persona around being someone who is inflexible, unbending and, most importantly, ALWAYS RIGHT(!) - "You turn if you want to, the lady's not for turning" and all that - then it's hard not to conclude that, sooner or later, when those same colleagues get even the slightest scent of weakness, they will pounce and they will rip you to pieces. It's the basic law of animal survival - a metaphor that Margaret took quite literally. A recurring motif was a voiceover of the young Margaret solemnly intoning Rudyard Kipling's poem The Law of the Jungle – 'The strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack' - reminding the viewer that Thatcher was not the only player in the Thatcher Years.

It’s hard not to wonder if Thatcher wasn't grinning from ear-to-ear as most of those who caused her downfall thmselves went down in flames during Tony Blair’s Great Cull of '97. As she, herself, had found seven years earlier, if you live by the sword, you die by the sword.

Thatcher's resignation was one of the defining "Kennedy moments" for my generation. I was working for the Employment Service at the time. (My bosses during the years 1983-90 included, at various times, several 'players' in this drama Tebbit, Alan Clark, William Waldergrave and Tom King). That day, in November 1990, when we heard the news, we shut the office early, went to the pub and had a effing party! That evening, I went to a rave at Whitley Bay ice rink where the Happy Mondays were headlining. Shaun Ryder's opening line was 'it's okay, kids, don't worry. Maggie doesn't live here anymore!'

Now, like Nixon and like Idi Amin, thanks to the power of the biopic, she's back. We've missed the milk-snatching, union-bashing, Belgrano-sinking, shrieking old harridan Little Englander something fierce, so we have. Politics has never been the same without you ma’am. And for that, we should all, probably, be grateful.