Thursday, February 26, 2009 by

“Prime Minister, how are you?” “Fighting on, John. And your mouth?”

Upon such enervating trivialities history turns. The condition of the then-Chancellor of the Exchequer’s teeth commanded just as much significance in the fall of Margaret Thatcher as Geoffrey Howe’s desolate resignation speech or Michael Heseltine’s bombastic leadership bid. A quick afternoon nap in the office; whether to take that business trip to Paris; the vagaries of an infected wisdom tooth … in politics it is frequently the less obvious and the otherwise guileless actions that catalyse the most startling of consequences.

Margaret‘s greatest achievement was to colour such incidences with just the right degree of pathos so they appeared culpable but not melodramatic; to draw your attention to less well-known details of this universally familiar story with a subtle, yet brutal, poise. The results were startling. It’s safe to say that the sight of John Major in a sweater sitting on a sofa has never before been imbued with such toxicity.

John Major strikes a ruthless, smart-but-casual pose

An entire generation has passed since these events took place: long enough for them to fade from mere recollection and anecdote and become part of this country’s heritage, with cause and outcome clear to see.

Of those involved, only Ken Clarke remains in the public eye. Everybody else has retired, gone to the House of Lords or died.

All of this worked in the programme’s favour. A dramatisation rushed out by ITV in September 1991, Thatcher: The Final Days, suffered not just on account of its cardboard sets and unexceptional (as in unstylised) script, but because it was too soon. It could not compete with the resonances from the real thing that still lingered in the mind. Plus it had Sylvia Sims as Mrs T, who had the voice and the wig but nothing else.

Come 2009, however, and the real thing is so far in the past as to be ripe for reawakening on its own terms. Only John Sergeant’s reverse-doorstepping in Paris, and possibly the sequences involving Alan Clark (all of which appeared, nearly word-for-word, in BBC4′s 2004 adaptation of his diaries, including the occasion when Peter Morrison, Thatcher’s leadership campaign chief, is found snoring at his desk) seem over-familiar.

What a pleasure it was, then, to get reacquainted with the incredible fall-out to Howe’s speech, as opposed to the speech itself, given a nonetheless suitably under-the-top recitation by John Sessions; or the mood in Thatcher’s suite inside the British embassy in Paris once the result of the first ballot was known: a telling contrast between Morrison (Rupert Vansittart) panicking and Charles Powell (James Fox) sitting in the shadows giving a silent but deadly thumbs down.

Happy anniversary

Geoffrey proposes a toast; "now go fetch my shawl"

What perverse fun was to be had in revisiting the acclamations-cum-accusations that roared around Mrs T on the occasion of her tenth anniversary in office; or the even earlier Cabinet showdown following the Brixton and Toxteth riots in 1981.

And even the lengthiest flashbacks to 1975, when Thatcher challenged Ted Heath for the Tory leadership and won, defied convention by waspishly turning secondary aspects (Maggie clucking in her family home, Maggie doing a screen test) into matters of supremely primary importance.

Lindsay Duncan may not have quite got the voice of 1970s-era Thatcher (“like the book of Revelations read out over a railway station public address system by a headmistress of a certain age wearing calico knickers” – Clive James) but she certainly had everything else, enough to make anybody who lived through those times feel simultaneously entranced and enraged.

She even provided possibly more humanity than the lady would no doubt like to think she deserved; anybody who prides themselves in informing no less a person than the Queen that “one must always fight – what else is there?” wouldn’t think kindly of the nation seeing her blubbing over the breakfast table.


The levee breaks; Denis dabs the tears amid the toast

Duncan was assisted, nay honoured, by a style of filming that flattered her at every turn. At times it was enough to simply angle the camera straight at her and let that bewitching stare and the viewers’ emotions do the rest.

These were the points where the drama strayed close to GBH territory: a landscape of knowing pauses, cryptic glances and lingering reveries. One scene, where Thatcher appeared to be possessed by a childhood incantation, seemed almost a pastiche of a Bleasdale script.

At other points the lens ducked and bobbed and skulked in the shadows, as if afraid to get too close or reveal too much of the machinations in progress. Then suddenly the camera would be scuttling down corridors in pursuit of this or that character, then circling warily, then shifting focus mid-shot from foreground to background … a fusillade of technical acrobatics and playfulness, in short, that matched the script page for page. It was impossible to not be sucked utterly into this neurotic, demotic world.


The Boss barks at a minion; the camera takes cover

Plaudits must go to director James Kent and, in particular, director of photography David Odd, who in a neat bit of synchronicity also shot Thatcher: The Final Days.

Might it be more than just coincidence that both productions concluded in exactly the same way, with a shot of the protagonist staring directly into the camera with proud antagonism?

That closing frame came all too quickly. This was such a glorious ensemble and Lindsay Duncan such an utterly mesmerising prime minister that it was a shame a full-blown series could not have been produced about Thatcher’s entire premiership, rather than an unavoidably compressed stand-alone play.

Robert Hardy (Whitelaw), Philip Jackson (Ingham), Oliver Cotton (Heseltine), Kevin McNally (Clarke), Nicholas Le Provost (Hurd), Roy Marsden (Tebbit): they all effortlessly inhabited the skins of the once-ubiquitous Tory guard, while Ian McDiarmid pulled off that most remarkable of accomplishments, a portrayal of Denis Thatcher that for once made all the trademark quirks and foibles plausible, even sympathetic.


"There's lasagne in the fridge I've earmarked for tonight"

Unlike the subject herself, this was a drama that deserved to go on and on and on. So many decisions, conceits and schemes from that era are only now making their true presence felt upon the country, not least in the shape of the worst recession since the Second World War. So much of what was then established, in so far as the language and presentation of politics, is only now reaching maximum percolation.

There are many more seams to be mined, and Margaret set a template for those who are so desired to start digging.


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