Thursday, 12 January 2012

Margaret Thatcher stole my milk


A book I saw in an Oxfam recently - with a brilliant cover.

Margaret Thatcher’s face, 10ft high, sailed past me the other day while I was waiting to cross the road. I shuddered at the sight, so close to my own face. Thatcher was plastered across the side of a double-decker bus as promotion for the new film The Iron Lady, which was released on January 6 and sees Meryl Streep take on the former Prime Minister.
Yesterday, I braced myself and went to watch the film. By coincidence, yesterday also saw current Prime Minister David Cameron state that UK film industry should only invest in “commercially successful films” – rather than pledge support to art films and help expand the UK film industry: an industry already at risk after the UK Film Council was abolished by Cameron’s government last year. The way things are going, the UK will soon no longer have a discernable film industry, rather it will have a poor cousin of Hollywood, albeit from the wrong side of the family.
But back to The Iron Lady. It’s a film so heavily weighted with problems that it’s difficult to know where to start. So here’s a quick list:
- Meryl Streep. She’s a fabulous actress but she is wrong as Mrs Thatcher. You can plaster Meryl in as much ageing make-up and cement hairspray as you want, you can dress her in (expensive-looking) dowdy blue dresses and old-fashioned jewels… but Meryl will always look beautiful and glamorous. Neither of which are words anyone could realistically use to describe Maggie. Meryl’s accent is also patchy – at times perfect Thatcher, at other times Miranda Priestley.
- Phyllida Lloyd. This is the woman who previously directed Meryl in the box office musical smash Mamma Mia, based on the Abba musical. And now she’s directing Meryl in a political biopic. I was just waiting for Pierce Brosnan to appear, and start singing the Chicken Song from Spitting Image.
- The atmospherics of the film. From the opening scenes of a doddery old lady going to her corner shop to buy milk, to her return to her wealthy, staffed house, you know this is going to be one of those warm, cuddly British films. The subtle lighting, the crisp sound, the softness of the speech… they’re the same effects used by Working Title to repeatedly popular effect in their resurgence of contemporary heritage cinema. None of which reinforce what I know of the baroness.
And this is what I know of Thatcher Thatcher, Milk Snatcher (the subject of playground chants up and down the country):
I was born in 1978, the year before Margaret Thatcher came to power. I was 12 when she was ousted in 1990. I remember the name ‘Thatcher’ being discussed over the kitchen table, and being thrown out of the television and radio. I remember the gloomy talk at school about the Falklands, the upset for friends whose dads were fighting, and the celebrations when the war was finally won. It wasn’t until I was older that I learned what the letters ‘IRA’ stood for, but I always knew they were a terrifying bunch of people with bombs – bombs targeted mainly at Thatcher and London. I remember the woman being re-elected, and I remember her being ousted when John Major came in. I remember the Spitting Image puppet of Thatcher, and then of Major eating his peas in black and white. Before that, I remember waking up one morning to be told that the Berlin Wall had been pulled down the previous night. More than anything, I remember the Lloyds crash of 1989 – a disaster that still affects my family.
I also fondly remember the mini bottles of room temperature milk with blue plastic straws that we used to have every morning at school. One of us would be dispatched to the school canteen to come back with the crate full of rattling glass milk bottles to be distributed to the class. I remember how that warm milk tasted, sucked up through my straw. And then I remember it no longer being there anymore. Thatcher Thatcher, Milk Snatcher.
Clearly, the memories of a 12-year-old are limited and are going to be affected by the influence of a closed world: parents and teachers. But Thatcher has continued to afflict the society she famously claimed didn’t exist. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned more about her and how to recognise her shadows and entrails creeping over our current economic and societal miseries.
When I was in my 20s I had a relationship with a man who was 15 years older than me, and who had always been politically active. This meant he was 16 when Thatcher came to power in 1979 and 27 when she resigned – and this meant his experiences of living under Thatcher were removed from my playground ones.  Looking through his 1980s photo albums, he told me about living in London squats, living on the dole, Rock Against Racism marches, Clash concerts on the other side of the Westway, working in the crèche at peace camps… He positively hated Thatcher. Retrospectively, to a naïve 20-something me with a lot to learn, it looked romantic, but it wasn’t.

Stand down, Margaret
And that’s the problem with The Iron Lady. They’ve looked back on Thatcher’s life and cast a romantic glow on it. Maggie’s relationship with husband Dennis is the central driver of the film’s narrative – showing her as an ambitious young politician who falls in love with a kind businessman: a man who supports her drive to succeed, who dotes on their children (even if she doesn’t), and who loves his wife ‘MT’ (empty) unconditionally. Margaret’s grief for the long-dead Dennis is the device that holds the narrative threads together, attempting to show a vulnerable old lady with possible dementia who is lonely without her partner.
I’m now married to a man from Belfast who grew up used to his schoolbus being searched by police for bombs every day when it went past City Hall.  Having now learned about The Troubles (recent and local history was not on the curriculum at my schools), I know that Northern Ireland also experienced the awful weight of Thatcher, but in a different way to England. In England we experienced her negative interference, bad policies and blinkered views to detrimental effect. But it was worse in Northern Ireland. Thatcher refused to negotiate with terrorists, so the political prisoners in Northern Ireland, the men on hunger strike (as exemplified in Steve McQueen’s staggering 2008 film Hunger) were left with their demands and requests going unanswered, and prisoners starved to death because she refused to intervene. Thatcher did nothing. Not one thing. She rarely even visited Belfast. The IRA were notably most active during Thatcher’s reign of non-negotiation, but it was John Major who began the peace process with Sinn Fein. Major could do with a little more applaud for repairing some of the damage done by Thatcher.
The Iron Lady spends so much time focussing on the Maggie and Dennis love story that it leaves itself little time to dwell on the hideous policies this astonishingly ratchety woman was responsible for: eradicating socialism; supporting capitalism; cutting income tax for very high earners from 83% to 40%; privatising state industries and state housing; pushing for Victorian family values; national recession; endless inner-city riots; bringing down the mining industry. Oh, and pitching our men into a bloody and pointless war just so she could win a second term.
More than anything I am concerned that younger generations, who know little or nothing about Thatcher, will not only look at The Iron Lady and think this is an accurate portrayal of a toxic leader, but they will also think she looked as glamorous as Meryl. There are some who have said it is unkind to make this film while Thatcher is alive. However, I don’t understand why – this film does a better job of making Margaret Thatcher seem like a normal human being than even Max Clifford could.

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