The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Frank Mannion Headshot

Thatcher at the Movies

Posted: Updated:
THATCHER
PA

Margaret Thatcher was often criticised for her absolute disinterest in the arts, particularly cinema. Hanif Kureishi, the screenwriter of My Beautiful Launderette, once wrote that: "Thatcher had no understanding of what a central place the arts have in British life. Or how good Britain is at producing books, films, theatre and music." The left-wing singer-songwriter Billy Bragg claimed that Margaret Thatcher was his greatest inspiration, providing him with seemingly endless material for his songs of political disaffection.

Her policy towards film was disastrous - she abolished the EADS Levy, a levy that had for almost four decades provided a percentage of box office receipts to British movies. So even if Thatcher did not seem to understand the importance of cinema in British society, she certainly inspired a new breed of film directors - Ken Loach, Stephen Frears, Peter Greenaway, Neil Jordan and Mike Leigh created some of their best work in the eighties.

Looking back now, it could be argued that the Thatcher period was the golden age of British film. Chariots of Fire, My Beautiful Launderette, Mona Lisa, Scandal, Local Hero and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and Withnail and I - show the depth and range of film-making in Thatcher's Britain.

But, to this day, the pubs of Soho are filled with film folk who lament the dark days of Thatcher and, in particular, the savage cutting of arts funding - conveniently ignoring that it was in fact Thatcher's government that actually created Channel 4, the channel that actively funded British feature films, eventually morphing into Film4 (the company behind the Oscar winning hit, Slumdog Millionaire).

On screen, she has been shown in many different guises from the shrill caricature of Spitting Image to the ambitious grocer's daughter from Grantham in The Long Walk to Finchley. The apotheosis of course is Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, playing Thatcher in her latter years as she suffered from dementia, for which she won a fourth Best Actress Oscar. Streep was quoted as saying: "Margaret Thatcher was a pioneer, willingly or unwillingly, for the role of women in politics. But to me she was a figure of awe for her personal strength and grit...To have withstood the special hatred and ridicule, unprecedented in my opinion, levelled in our time at a public figure who was not a mass murderer; and to have managed to keep her convictions attached to fervent ideals and ideas - wrongheaded or misguided as we might see them now - without corruption; I see that as evidence of some kind of greatness, worthy for the argument of history to settle."

Of course, Thatcher's closest political ally was the former actor and President of the Screen Actors' Guild, Ronald Reagan. But in England, there was no love lost between Thatcher and UK's only actor-politician MP, Glenda Jackson. Jackson, a double Oscar-winning actress (for Women in Love and A Touch of Class) and Labour MP for over 20 years, savaged Thatcher in Parliament last week, saying that she wreaked "the most heinous, social, economic and spiritual damage upon this country", adding "a woman? Not on my terms". For the record, Jackson is my local MP and I voted for her in the last election.

As I researched this blog, I could not find an instance in any interview where Thatcher talked about the film industry or indeed any mention of a film. So, it would seem safe to assume that movies were of no importance to her. Yet, I know first hand that this was not the case. In fact there was one film that inspired her political career and aspirations. 20 years ago, when I was a law student at Cambridge, Thatcher came to town for a book signing of her autobiography, The Downing Street Years.

There were hundreds of students queuing outside Heffers bookshop for her signature. The queue progressed in hushed silence as Thatcher signed her name dozens of times without looking up once. When it came to my turn, the silence was broken, by my asking: "Lady Thatcher, what is your favourite movie?" At the time, I was hoping to become a movie producer - this probably explains why I asked such a ludicrous apolitical question, for which she had the perfect political answer.

She looked up at me in shock, her sang-froid momentarily shaken by the impertinence of the question and possibly also the surprise of hearing my Irish brogue. She paused and looked genuinely unsure how to answer, but as she continued to sign books, she recovered and ended up talking happily to me for the next ten minutes about her love for movies.

She recounted how she adored the black and white movies of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and the amazing choreography and complexity of the dance routines. But her favourite movie was the 1940s biopic, The Young Mr Pitt, which chronicled the life of the youngest ever Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger. It was a propaganda movie and one that Churchill was said to have admired and had allegedly been involved in funding.

It was also one of the biggest grossing movies of 1942, at a time when Thatcher was only 17 years of age. It left its mark on the impressionable teenager - she admired the "marvellous" performance of Robert Donat. She would "never forget the closing scene of the film", where Pitt the Younger addresses Parliament, proclaiming "England has saved herself by her exertions and will, I trust, save Europe by her example". Then, as dramatically as any Oscar winning actress, Thatcher's voice dropped, as if she were confiding in me, and whispered conspiratorially "that line encapsulates my own political vision."

So, on the day when Thatcher is finally laid to rest in that great movie set in the sky, it seems fitting to remember that a trip to the movies would provide a teenage Thatcher, with an unexpectedly fitting political epitaph. At least, in her eyes...

Around the Web

Margaret Thatcher - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Margaret Thatcher | Politics | The Guardian

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher - Wikiquote

Mourners pay tribute to former British PM Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher funeral to bring London to a standstill

Margaret Thatcher funeral: Welsh miners pay respect despite anger towards the ...

Security tight for Margaret Thatcher's funeral in London

Margaret Thatcher funeral: Northern Ireland guests attend