Thursday, 26 February 2009

Margaret: Only a Grocer's Daughter?

I've just been watching BBC2's Margaret: 110 minutes of prime-time drama, and what one imagines (and the BBC presumably hopes) is still considered to be 'talk-about' television. Certainly they're talking about it on Newsnight as I write - √Čtonnant, non? - but the minute I saw the rogue's gallery of a panel they'd invited (Hattersley! David Steel! Jonathan Aitken!) I couldn't find the off-button fast enough, albeit sadly not before they led off with Hattersley, spluttering his usual sanctimonious rheumy-eyed rubbish.
I felt that Margaret was well-written, boldly structured, very well cast and played across the board, and directed with plentiful verve and imagination, if also a few inevitably ponderous strokes. Still, something's bugging me - perhaps on the back of Tony Saint's also very smart and amusing film of last year about Thatcher's early rise, The Long Walk to Finchley, from the same production company as Margaret.
Simply put, in treating politics contemporary dramatists seem unable to look past the gleeful backstage elements of the Rise to Power & the Fall from Grace: in Thatcher's case they have Alan Clark's celebrated Diaries to give them most of the aces on the latter score, and they seem to feel her gender then provides all the novelty required to make these old planks solid underfoot. Sure, Margaret was very good at evoking the bitterness of Thatcher's unseating of Heath; the clearly insecure stridency of her first term of office that could even have been her last had it not been for Galtieri; and a sort of clammy revenge of the emasculated among her last cabinet circa November 1990. I think R.W. Johnson summarised it best in the London Review of Books while reviewing Major's and Lamont's memoirs:
"[N]either account gives us the rich cheesiness of the truth... By 1987, when the Leaderene had won her third straight election, the Cabinet was stacked with rabbits, nerds and characters with sufficiently low testosterone levels to endure repeated handbagging. Crucially, when Thatcher announced that she was going to take advantage of her victory to bring in the poll tax – which no one else much believed in or liked – they simply nodded it through... the full lunacy of the thing was clear to all save Thatcher. A major recession had begun, unemployment was rising sharply, inflation was 8 per cent and going up, and the bank rate had been raised to 15 per cent in a desperate attempt to shore up the pound, which had fallen badly as the huge payments deficits caused by Lawson’s boom reached unsustainable levels. When the boom collapsed, producing a house price implosion and the misery of negative equity, the nemesis of Thatcherite economic policy was evident to one and all. The result was political catastrophe... Most remarkable of all, the electorate, which in January 1990 had said by a margin of 50 to 36 that they expected the Tories to win the next election, had by April swung to a 56-23 majority prophesying a Labour victory... Thatcher was on the ropes and it was entirely her own fault."
How did it come to that? What was the driving force that carried three general elections, only to fall to pieces so completely? Why was Thatcher such a divisive figure, to the degree that if you revisit the 'good' British drama made during her time in office you find a blinding torrent of furious polemics against her, and nothing in her favour other than by the proxy of 'mainstream entertainment'? Maybe the novelty has waned since we who witnessed Thatcher's ousting have since seen another three-time pollwinner PM ditched by their own Party.
In focusing on Thatcher's private neurosis and the psychodrama of that cabinet, the frenzied air of betrayal, the sniping personal relations, the antagonism of the sexes and the hidden injuries of sexism... I felt Margaret was a fine effort that also took the road of least resistance. No single drama can cover all the bases, not least of a life such as Thatcher's. But I wonder still - with all this revisionist stuff afoot, and so much Proustian/Freudian revisiting of the political flashpoints of the period - is there not room for a dramatic study of what Thatcher actually did with power, or the true ramifications of same that we live with today? Rich pickings there, no question.

No comments: