15 January 2012

Phyllida Lloyd’s 'The Iron Lady'

Much has been said and written about this film since the start of the publicity onslaught in the UK in mid-November. In support there seem to have been numerous private screenings for the movers and shakers before general release to the rest of us on 6 January. Months ago there had been a private MORI screening in Guildford (where Thatcher’s England endures presumably, though “Susan” from Farnham wasn’t struck). Unsurprisingly then, even before seeing The Iron Lady, I wondered what I could possibly add in this post, but here goes.

Firstly, there are three Margaret Thatchers in this film, summarised in the table below. 

The film is structured so that Roberts and Maggie are accessed through flashbacks triggered by Lady T’s finally disposing of Dennis’s (her late husband) clothes. There are too many flashbacks and there’s too much of Jim Broadbent’s jokey reincarnation of Dennis. My guess is that the Margaret Thatchers we see on the screen are divided about 45% Lady T, 35% Maggie and 20% Roberts.

The young Margaret is played competently by Alexandra Roach, but the Roberts period was dramatized well-enough quite recently in Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley, with Andrea Riseborough in the lead role. (Riseborough is shortly to appear as Wallis Simpson in W.E.). The Roberts’ grocery in the film appears to have been the only one where ration coupons were not required during the war.

Streep’s performance has been praised mightily and certainly her Maggie and Lady T were a tour de force of both acting and of makeup, costume and prosthetics. Oddly enough I found Lady T more convincing. Perhaps this is because only a few hundred people at most know Margaret Thatcher at 85 at first hand. Streep’s acting, particularly the voice and posture, seems highly credible to the rest of us, but we lack any benchmark. This puts her Lady T in the same category for most people as her turn as Julia Child in Julie and Julia. However, Maggie appeared regularly on television for over 11 years, and colour broadcasting had begun in the UK at the time she first entered the Cabinet. Those of us above a certain age watched her often in the years up to 1990. Also, during the Maggie period, she must have met thousands of people, including me. I thought, admittedly unlike some who worked closely with Thatcher, that Streep’s Maggie was very good but at times not quite on the button. However, I doubt if anyone else will ever do better than Streep.

The Maggie episodes include contemporary news footage leading, for example, to the sudden appearance on screen of a larger than life (and almost school boyish) Peter Allen. Despite this nod to realism, the Maggie parts of the story are also the most operatic and demand the greatest extension of artistic licence. For example, Prime Ministers do not march around Parliament with the rest of the Cabinet in their wake, like mediaeval courtiers trailing behind their Prince. But I have had a problem with differentiating dramatization and documentary when it concerns recent events. So I couldn’t help but be amused when Jonathan Powell, reviewing the papers on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show on 4 December, told us:
… my brother worked for Mrs Thatcher for eight years and she would cook him breakfast most mornings in the flat in Number 10 and he certainly would vouch that she would never have revealed herself in her decolletage to another man, absolutely not …
For nerds like me, the BBC is sitting on a pile of documentaries about the Maggie years made by Michael Cockerell and others and, according to the FT (£), their archive is being digitised for us to watch on a micropayment basis. So I shouldn’t complain about a film drama departing from the strictly factual. However, I found things became irritatingly detached from reality in the House of Commons scenes in The Iron Lady. While these provided ample employment opportunities for male members of Equity over 50, the Commons during the Maggie period was not exclusively for men with one exception. The chart below shows that Thatcher was not alone in Parliament in her time (1 of 25 women when she arrived, 60 when she left), that things improved under New Labour, and how much further there still is to go, as there are only 144 at present (including 82 Labour and 49 Conservative).
Women MPs as percentage of total, 1918-2010

Among the column inches which this film has generated, I thought Boris Johnson’s views were interesting “… [the] writer and director (neither of whom, I guess, would call themselves ardent Thatcherites) …” until he turned his piece into an excuse for City axe-grinding; Matthew Parris in The Times (£) is worth a read, despite his irritating self-references to “Mrs Thatcher’s clerk”; Tom Harris, after he saw the film tweeted “dearie me”, but then blogged his fuller opinion; Tim Robey in the Telegraph explained that someone seems to have had an expensive change of heart about the music - fallout from the MORI session perhaps? Charles Moore, being Thatcher’s official biographer, has to be read, and he made the point as others have done that
:… there can be no doubt that it is calculatedly unkind to take a real, living person and portray that person as demented, which this film does. Either such a portrayal is false and therefore indefensible, or it is true, in which case the poor victim cannot answer back. The making of the film is therefore exploitative, and it is bound to hurt anyone close to her, above all, her family. In this straightforward, moral sense, the film should not have been made in Lady Thatcher’s lifetime.
The right to privacy of a public figure once retired into private life, whatever their mental health, doesn’t seem to be up for discussion, however. Surely there is a debate to be had about the border between legitimate ‘public interest’ and ‘what the public might find interesting’ and might pay to see as a film? It is perhaps worth noting that Carol Thatcher, who has written articles about Lady Thatcher, appears in the film, but her twin, Mark, who as far as I know has never spoken or written about his mother, does not.

David Owen (a former neurologist) observed in the Independent that:
While neither factually nor medically correct in every detail, this film could achieve something important and enduring: acceptance that dementia, however it presents itself, is rarely an indication of a poorly functioning brain in earlier life.
and argued that ‘Hubris Syndrome’ is the psychological frailty which undermines leaders. My pet theory is that Prime Ministers, because of the stresses of the job (eg PMQs, the oversized and hyperventilating UK media, sub-standard personal accommodation in Downing Street, too much travel induced by the UK’s view of its world role) age in office at about 18 months a calendar year, making Thatcher about 92, not 86 (see Table below).

*6 months added for every year as Prime Minister
Professor Steven Fielding blogged some astute comments, in particular in noting the similarity of the plot to that of the late Anthony Minghella’s Truly, Madly Deeply:
In that 1990 British-made movie Juliet Stephenson plays Nina, a widow who refuses to come to terms with her loss. As a result her dead husband, played by Alan Rickman, keeps appearing until she realises that she has to move on and starts a relationship with another man. That Michael Maloney plays Stevenson's new love interest and is also Thatcher's doctor in The Iron Lady might have helped jog my memory.
David Cameron, (perhaps with an eye to the female C1/C2 over-30 demographic taken with Streep’s performance in Mamma Mia - just kidding), told the BBC:
It's a fantastic piece of acting by Meryl Streep, but you can't help wondering, why do we have to have this film right now. It is a film much more about ageing and elements of dementia rather than about an amazing prime minister. My sense was a great piece of acting, a staggering piece of acting, but a film I wish they could have made another day.
According to The People on 15 January Lady Thatcher watched a DVD of the film “with close friend Lord Bell at her home in Dulwich, south London.” They quoted a source as saying:
By all ­accounts she was left quite emotional as she watched her life story. She actually spoke of being ‘pleasantly surprised’ by what she had seen ­although emotions do ­appear to have got the better of her as she recalled her real-life response to events shown in the film.
However, on 21 January the FT (£) reported Lord Bell as saying that he:
has no plans to see [The Iron Lady] as it will not “make any difference to her legacy”.
And finally two things not, as far as I know, reported in the UK press. Firstly, The Iron Lady had its world premiere in Beijing on 19 November at the first U.S.-China Forum on The Arts and Culture. Maggie as a medium for the exercise of US soft power – perhaps they should have called it The Ironic Lady.  Secondly, the aria, sung by Callas, background music in the film as Maggie finally leaves Downing Street, is Casta Diva from Bellini's Norma and, of course, it was John and Norma Major who were about to move in.
Streep-Maggie, Lady Thatcher, Meryl Streep

Note: Data from Women in Parliament and Government, Feargal McGuinness, House of Commons Library Standard Note SN/SG/1250, 5 January 2012.


I'm giving this film an Anticipointment Index of 4 (out of 5 at worst). This reflects that it had a very high level of hype but was redeemed for its failings by Streep's performance.


Benedict Brogan (of the Daily Telegraph) in his daily email this morning reported
Conor Burns, Conservative MP for Bournemouth West, and Lady Thatcher’s chief representative in Parliament, tweets an update on her progress: “Lovely visit with Lady T this evening. Good chat about defence, Falklands and Welfare Bill. In great spirit”. Good to hear.


  1. The stresses of the job causes PMs to age more quickly? This interesting article, and particularly that point, led me to check the ages of pre-Thatcher post-war PMs (the 6-month 'stress' per year in office add-on in brackets - though my calculations are probably less accurate):

    Attlee 84.6 (87.7)
    Churchill 90.1 (95.9)
    Eden 79.8 (81.7)
    Macmillan 92.9 (96.4)
    Douglas-Home 92.3 (92.8)
    Wilson 79.2 (83)
    Heath 89 (90.5)
    Callaghan 93 (94.6)

    What seems to emerge is that the office of prime minister is associated with longevity, whatever the stresses might be. Even allowing for the probability of them receiving the best medical care etc., half of these men survived into their 90s and the youngest died in his eightieth year. Is the explanation that an above average resilience, both physical and mental, is necessary to achieve such high office?

  2. Thank you for this insightful comment. I don't doubt that you are right about the resilience required - and exceptional stamina when in office. An earlier post here concerning the traits of top politicians might also be of interest: http://westernindependent.blogspot.com/2011/08/top-politicians-birth-order-and.html

    1. Thanks for drawing my attention to your earlier piece on siblings and handedness. Even though the samples are fairly small (as is the above sample of eight long-lived PMs) the traits identified do seem to be more than matters of chance. I'd have expected the influence of parents to have been stronger, but of course this is not something as open to measurement.
      David Martin