Before making the film W.E., Madonna said she chose Wallis Simpson as a subject because, if you brought her up at a British dinner party, she would instantly start a debate. Now far be it for me to argue with the material girl herself but if you really want to split the room at a dinner party, or an office, or a pub, or even just a bus stop, there's only one name you need to mention - Margaret Hilda Thatcher.
So how did I end up playing her?
For the last three years I've starred in the hit 'drag comedy cabaret musical extravaganza' Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho, which has gone from being a 15 minute sketch performed above a pub in Battersea, to having critically acclaimed and sell out shows at the Edinburgh Fringe and Leicester Square Theatre, and is now just about to start another run at the E4 Udderbelly on South Bank. But it all started in 2012, when the playwright Jon Brittain invited me to his Halloween party.
Me as Maggie - image by Mihaela Bodlovic
I don't know why but I set my heart on going as Mrs Thatcher, but a few weeks before the night itself, I went on eBay and bought a power suit, pussybow blouse, heels, wig, and of course a handbag complete with a pint of milk inside. When I arrived at the party everyone laughed, we got some great photos, and then we all went home and forgot about it. Well, everyone except Jon and I.
So when she died the following year and Theatre503 asked Jon if he'd like to contribute to a night of shorts based around Thatcher in response to her death, he wrote to me on Facebook and asked me if I'd like to play her. Now, as someone who dreamed of being an actor but somehow got sucked into a nine to five career that was a very easy question to answer, but it was followed by a much harder one: 'What does Margaret Thatcher mean to you?'
I grew up in Widnes in the North West in a Labour voting family, I would never vote Tory and I would never have voted for Thatcher. In many ways I hate what she did for the country. But... she had played a rather unusual role in my life. My grandparents on my mother's side are Conservatives. They adored Thatcher and I learnt as a child that if I were to do an impression of her it would make them laugh. As I grew up I remained fascinated by her, her mannerisms, her way of holding herself, the image that she so carefully maintained.
As a young gay man I challenged no clichés by being obsessed with Barbra, Liza and all the other divas and it always struck me how much Thatcher had in common with these great gay icons. She was a strong woman in a man's world, she was witty, she was determined, she was principled, and she never gave up. She had all the hallmarks of a gay icon. Except she had none of the love from the gay community. And for a very good reason.
I started school in the early 90s when Section 28 was still very much in place. I grew up knowing what it was like to have a teacher not answer a question about homosexuality. To have children's homophobia go unchallenged. The atmosphere it perpetuated was so oppressive that I didn't properly come out until well into my first year of university. It was Mrs Thatcher's fault. Her government brought it in.
Only she didn't seem to have too much of a problem with gay men. If anecdotal evidence is to be believed, she actually got on quite well with them. Certainly there were a fair few in her cabinet. So how could someone who seemed to not have a problem with gay people on a personal level cause so much damage to their community with just one policy? One policy that would forever deny her a place in the heart of even some of the most right wing of gay men, one policy that I personally was a victim of, one policy that she could have opposed.
Think about that. What a difference that would have made. To have the most powerful woman in the country, the most powerful person in the country, come out in defence of our community. It wouldn't have undone the damage she'd done in other ways, but it would go someway towards redeeming her. But she didn't. And as a result her photo would never join Barbra, Liza or any of the other divas adorning my fridge.
So in Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho, we put that right.
The show is an imaginary story about what would have happened had Maggie changed her mind and supported gay rights. It's a comedy, it's got dance numbers, it's quite rude, it co-stars Peter Tatchell as played by Ray Winstone, the MP Jill Knight as played by a pantomime dame and the gay ghost of Winston Churchill, but it's also heartfelt. The story is fundamentally about what life could have been like if just one person had chosen to make a difference.
After the show we have a line up where Maggie meets the audience and thanks them for coming. I've had many conversations in character with people who have seen the show, I've met people who just enjoyed it as a comedy and some who have taken a lot more from it, I've been challenged and congratulated, I've been photographed and shouted at, but crucially, when people leave, they do so talking about what they've just seen.
They talk about gay rights, they talk about Thatcher, they talk about her counterparts today. Of course, I know we haven't changed the world with the show, but I also know we've started a lot of conversations. And I think that's important. Just like Madonna (and BT for that matter) I think it is good to talk.
'Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho' is currently touring the UK, and will be at the Udderbelly Festival at London's Southbank on 21st April, 19th May and 15th July. For all dates and tickets click here.
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