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.