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The Week That Was: Icons

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WINSTON CHURCHILL POEM
AP

Two weeks ago, I joined hundreds of theatregoers in giving Helen Mirren a standing ovation at the end of another The Audience performance; the brilliant West End show in which she plays the Queen (again) in the weekly, fire-side conversations with her prime ministers.

On the night I went, the sell-out show had been hastily re-written to take into account Margaret Thatcher's death and funeral, which had taken place just a few days previously, giving the actor who plays Cameron a few new lines to learn.

For those who haven't been, rest assured it's as funny as it is poignant. In fact, can I suggest a two-hour stint at the Gielgud Theatre is worth over a term's worth of politics lessons for the country's GCSE students. The conversations might be imagined rather than fact, but as an introduction to modern-day history it certainly fulfilled.

Why the mention? We seem to be gripped by a certain nostalgia for our former PMs right now, whether that's in the column inches dedicated to the Iron Lady, or the announcement this week that Winston Churchill is set to be the new cover star of our £5 notes.

Bank of England governor Sir Mervyn King, the man behind the decision to give Churchill a new starring role in public life, claimed that the quote which will accompany Churchill's portrait - "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat" - was appropriate given the economic mess (he might not have used that exact word) the country finds itself in.

"We do not face the challenges faced by Churchill's generation. But we have our own", he told reporters who had turned out to hear about the launch of the 'Winston'.

"The spirit of those words remains as relevant today as it was to my parents' generation who fought for the survival of our country and freedom under Churchill's leadership."

I've nothing against Churchill popping up on our money - it's not actually the first time, having previously appeared on 1965 five-shilling pieces. Although it seems a little rude he's kicking off the only woman, the Queen not withstanding, who currently appears on any British banknote, social reformer Elizabeth Fry.

Still, if the public had its way, it could be David Beckham staring back at us as we fork over our fivers, or even Robbie Williams. Those being just two of the more contemporary figures offered up by well-meaning Brits.

We don't exactly make the male: female ratio easy for Sir Mervyn. Scroll down the list of public suggestions and I could find only around 20 women's names, with the majority of those authors (Austen, Bronte) or members of the Royal family (no nod for Kate yet, but give it time).

It's not a whole lot better in Europe, where the new five euro note will feature a woman, but a mythical one whose likeness is taken from a vase in the Louvre, rather than a real one. Step forward Greek goddess Europa with your Zeus seduction and Crete-ruling sons.

So, not so much a glass ceiling as a locked bank vault. No women worthy of a spot on our small change, and the only modern-day heroes we can think of men as famous for their hairstyles as their talents. Which sounds like a perfect moment to question whether we'd really have had the worst banking crisis in living memory if more women had been in charge? Answers on a postcard (or a decommissioned £5 note) please.

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