Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Mrs Thatcher, are you trying to seduce me?

James Ellingworth finds that there are those who quite enjoy being under the heel of an Iron Lady

The Student, 03/03/09

“Prime Minister, you look to die for,” the voiceover purrs as the camera lingers on Maggie’s lips in a manner that suggests this BBC drama will be something along the lines of an M&S advert: “This is no ordinary Iron Lady...”
With the acting somewhere between Elizabeth I and Lady Macbeth, even wearing a ruff at one stage, Margaret veers between reviling Thatcher for her politics and worshipping her as a sex symbol, a feared but desired dominatrix of the right wing.
A two-hour drama about a 1990 Conservative party leadership contest might not seem like automatically riveting viewing, but this portrait of the downfall of a uniquely polarising figure is compelling, despite some heavy-handed treatment and occasional ridiculous moments, including a string of brutal verbal assaults on opponents, and some slightly clumsy attempts to show her vulnerability.
Not only does she break down as she announces her resignation to the Cabinet, there is also a bizarre scene with an awkward attempt at psychological analysis of a phrase she uttered during her resignation, “It’s a funny old world”, producing the following awful pseudo-Freudian dialogue:
“I was Daddy’s but not Daddy’s girl, do you see? That’s what they laugh at now isn’t it? Me as a man. That’s funny ha-ha. Me as a man. Ha-ha. It’s a funny old world.”
When the script isn’t trying to delve into Thatcher’s childhood, it does manage to present an interesting portrait of Thatcher’s control over her exclusively male circle of admirers and rivals.
A string of flashbacks show how she exerted her authority over them - in a forceful manner somewhere between a matronly schoolmistress and a lion-tamer, -and creating as an end - and in the process creating a group so cowed and obedient that none of them is willing to tell her she cannot go on.
The scenes when the realisation sinks in on both sides that she is finished are excellently poised, her shocked silences balanced with despair, even tears on the part of her closest acolytes. In keeping with the drama as a whole, the acting ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous, sometimes within the same scene.
In the lead role, Lindsay Duncan is spot-on in echoing Thatcher's voice - hectoring, forceful and unnaturally deep - which was the product of voice coaching taken by the Iron Lady to make her seem more masculine. Margaret also shamelessly plays on Thatcher as a sex symbol, to the point of having her look permanently 20 years younger than in reality.
This leads to some very odd moments, especially in her scenes with her daughter, which imply that Maggie must have given birth at some point in primary school.
The men around Thatcher are largely played by the same group of actors who circulate around BBC dramas playing posh men, endlessly cropping up in Hustle, Spooks and Doctor Who, here spending most of their time skulking around darkened offices as TV politicians always do.
There are some excellent performances among them, in particular Thatcher’s perennial rival Michael Heseltine, who is is portrayed as a superb snarling Tigger of a man, swearing profusely as he bounces around the set; and John Major , who becomes is a sinister silent assassin, biding his time as his rivals destroy one another.
On the other hand, Norman Tebbit, the Iron Lady’s enforcer, has an accent that migrates from his native north London to the Yorkshire moors, sometimes within the same sentence. The Queen is strangely dumpy, looking more like Aunt Bessie than Elizabeth II.
Overall, Margaret shows occasional flashes of potential greatness as a psychological portrait of such a difficult subject, aiming for politics as Shakespearean tragedy, but is all too often let down by a cack-handed approach, and some moments that are truly bizarre.
It’s a funny old world.

Brown on student politics

Gordon Brown, Prime Minister and ex-News Editor of the Student, comments on the futility of student politics

Pipes and promises have mixed uneasily this week with the realities of student power.
Despite the talk of food, failures and flats (did they promise 300,000 or 400,000?) and the usual diplomatically announced campaign meetings that never take place, today's climax to a week's electioneering will not belie the real victor. Apathy is streets ahead.
Who in fact wants to make himself a student politician? The wild-eyed idealist, the worried incompetent or the shaggy radical?
Beyond the facades of second-hand rosettes, lewd posters, non-candidates and even modesty (with in Churchill's phrase a lot to be modest about), two types of student politician can be detected: the politician who wants to see ideas put into action (and usually doesn't wait around very long if they aren't), and the politician who wants to see himself in action.
The ego trip is by far the most compelling explanation for the student politician. Either he is conscious of his own social inadequacies or he is dreaming up a career in real politics. But who ever makes it? Is the SRC debate - home of irrelevant debate and pissed-off members - really the breeding ground for our nation's leaders?
The most important thing about a student politician, however, is that he cannot do much. Once at the top of his greasy pole, he is supported, like a rope the person it hangs, by a diffuse, disorganised and apathetic student body whose interest does not even reach to the level of throwing flourbombs.
His mandate is a myth - only highly emotional issues like the South African shares [the University owning shares in companies in apartheid South Africa] give him power from below - and I know for sure that when the results are known, the University secretariat will be counting the vote, taking out their log tables and working out their percentages to prove how unrepresentative the new president is: "Ah, Mr Turberville - Drummond - Manley - McLean. I see 8.7 per cent of the students wanted you."
And at the other extreme our student politician is told he is below a University administration of professors and bureaucrats to whom power comes naturally.
He may attend sherry parties (and hopefully vomit) and sip tea with the powers that be but he himself is not a power. He and his funds are responsible in theory and in practice to someone else.
Sooner or later (and for most unfortunately it is later) our student politician will have to come face to face with the dreadful truth that the realities of power are that he doesn't have any.
What he is doing is manning the University's least popular committees and making up the numbers at formal occasions: propping up in fact an undemocratic and authoritarian system (which he doesn't believe in) without being able to change a thing.
So can a politician achieve anything? I believe he can - only by first realising the limits of the possible. That his actual power is minimal; and that his real power is as a propagandist - in providing ideas and policies for changing the whole of university government, and as an administrator - putting money to better uses.

This comment first appeared in the Student in 1971. It has been edited for clarity

Candidates pledge pay cuts as race reaches its climax

The Student, 03/03/09

James Ellingworth

Three of the five EUSA presidential candidates have pledged to take a pay cut if elected, adding another twist to an already eventful campaign.
Liz Rawlings, Oliver Mundell and Benedict Robbins have all said that they will either give part of their salary, currently around £20,000, to charity, or plough it back into EUSA.
Robbins has even gone as far to say that, if elected, he will only claim a wage to cover his basic needs, describing the role of president as 'an act of service', adding: “I don't see why I need to get paid.”
Mundell said that he would donate any money above that required for his living costs to charity, and called for salaries to be set on an individual basis, according to the elected candidate's needs, adding that a typical EUSA wage should be 'around £11-12,000.'
Rawlings told the Student that she would 'absolutely' take a pay cut, saying: “If it's in line with the current economic climate, I wouldn't want to be earning more than other graduates.”
She added that she saw 'no need' for EUSA salaries to be above £16,000, but rejected Mundell's call for salaries to be set on an individual basis., saying: “I don't think that's helpful, or that any other graduate scheme would set their pay levels based on a student's background."
Tim Goodwin, president in the 2006-7 academic year, was the last EUSA figure to take a pay cut as part of a campaign pledge, returning £1,300 to the association, although current president Adam Ramsay recently revealed to the Student that he has donated a 'large chunk' of his salary to charity.
James Rodger, one of the two candidates who have not said they will cut their pay, said that this 'should not be an issue', and that “the pay is fair, for what is essentially a graduate-level job.”
“Having said that, however, I would consider supporting societies who needed money for particular events I was keen on through grants from my own pay cheque,” he added.
Thomas Graham told the Student: “If I am elected I intend to earn every penny I'm paid, working full-time and concentrating 100 percent on the job right from day one.”
One current EUSA sabbatical told the Student that sabbatical salaries are calculated by adding 25 percent to the rate of student support for postgraduate research students.
This figure would place the salaries of next year's president and vice-presidents around the £18,500 mark, equating to £1,200 per month after tax, although it would also mean that EUSA sabbaticals' salaries are set to increase below the rate of inflation.
The source also described the way salaries are paid as 'dodgy', saying that he had never signed a contract to cover his work for EUSA.
There was a further development after Mundell revealed that he had considered pledging to live off a £7,000 wage as part of a campaign for a minimum income guarantee for students, but had been discouraged by current sabbaticals Adam Ramsay and Guy Bromley.
Ramsay told the Student he had not 'forced' Mundell to drop the policy, but admitted having discussed the topic with him. He added that any pledge of this sort, while 'a very noble thing to do', could discourage poorer students from standing for EUSA positions.