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The Loveable Iron Lady?

There is little doubt that the Margaret Thatcher bio-pic The Iron Ladywhich has just been released, is going to court controversy and the excellent Daily Mash has already reported on a number of glaring errors in Meryl Streep’s portrayal of the ex-Prime Minister. But the debate that is already framing the release of the film is remarkably similar to those that surrounded previous fictional accounts of Thatcher’s life.

As someone interested in the connections between real and fictional politics, I know that an often-expressed concern is that by its very nature the bio-pic humanises its subject. Consequently such films have the effect of making the audience sympathise or feel empathy for the protagonist which it is further claimed is problematic (if not downright bogus). This criticism has already featured in early reviews of The Iron Lady, but was notable too on the broadcast in 2008 of both The Long Walk to Finchley and Margaret (one might even add Ian Curteis’ The Falklands Play which was finally broadcast the year before). There was even concern that in the case of Margaret the BBC had gone out of its way to alter the script in order to make the former Prime Minister more appealing. The implication of the charge was that in some sense viewers were not being presented with a truthful portrait of Thatcher in her pomp.

However lurking behind any apprehensions about the depiction of a sympathetic Thatcher is a more serious charge that the focus on the personal obscures the actual public aspects of the central character’s life. Effectively the actual politics of the period (and its consequences) are almost literally driven out of the picture. As a result viewers are offered a highly partial representation of events and are in danger of forgetting (or never knowing) what Margaret Thatcher and her governments did.

There is merit to this point of view. In these dramas outside events and public reaction to Thatcher’s policies, if mentioned at all, tend to be only fleetingly glimpsed in intercuts of newsreel of rioters or striking miners. In this respect it appears that The Iron Lady will be no different. Moreover, there are legitimate questions to be asked of the genre of ‘faction’; debates over the ethics and implications of it as a form of popular historical understanding. How ‘true’ is the story we are being told, what has been omitted, altered, composited – are we, as an audience being manipulated or misled? But we should also admit that a text does not exist in a vacuum.

The criticism that a film like The Iron Lady distracts audiences from Thatcher’s record firstly ignores the myriad of other fictional works that also exist but which do draw attention to the effects of her governments’ policies, from The Boys in the Black Stuff (1982) and Oi! For England (1982) through to Brassed Off (1996) and This Is England (2006).

But more importantly there is the extent to which any text is itself hyper-textual – that is, it forms a part of an interconnecting web of other texts that refer to it and to whom it refers to in turn. Our ‘knowledge’ of Thatcher is not simply confined to the portrayal in The Iron Lady but is informed by a maelstrom of opinion and conjecture linked to it. Thus, when Suzanne Moore makes the criticism that we ‘don’t see the victims of her [Thatcher’s] policies’ in the The Iron Lady we are at that very same moment presented with them as Moore (and similar articles that surrounded previous Thatcher bio-pics) goes on to fill the perceived lacuna. In fact there is the likelihood that we will be overtly reminded far more of the politics of Thatcherism by the making of The Iron Lady than if it had never been produced.

Finally as to the claim that politics is being pushed out of view by the focus on the personal in bio-pics, this is perhaps to ask too much of this particular genre and its conventions. But it is also to ignore what the genre can do. If we confine politics, and more specifically political activity, to the realm of policy papers or in depth discussions of economic strategy, bio-pics will no doubt disappoint. Yet politics is also carried out in terms of relationships, rhetoric, performance – boring meetings even – and it is political fiction that is often the only medium that reveals these aspects to us.

I would suggest that if some of us are unnerved to find ourselves sympathising with Margaret Thatcher as we watch The Iron Lady then it is doing its work and asking us to see or feel something we didn’t necessarily before. Our reaction could be to recoil and say, as Moore and others have ‘wait a minute it wasn’t like that’ or we might begin to assess how we think of a politician or how and why they conducted themselves as they did.

Either way we are asked to refresh our position: and that can only be a good thing.

Matthew Bailey

Published inArt, Fiction & PoliticsBritish Politics

2 Comments

  1. Martin Martin

    This depends on who ‘we’ think ‘we’ refers to (an interesting aspect of text and discourse studies with a clear application to Thatcherism is the subject of the pronouns of power and solidarity). If we are historically and politically engaged readers of this blog and/or were around when Thatcher was doing what she did and who got through it with a sense of proportion and distance, it might do no harm for us to have our interpretations challenged (yet again). If, on the other hand, we are dyed-in-the-wool, true-blue Daily Mail readers, people who are not politically engaged, who were not adversely affected during the ’80s (or who were, but who were persuaded by the Thatcherite discourse that it was their own fault because they were not go-getting enough, part of the enemy within etc etc), or if we are American Maggie-worshipers who believe that she put the beef into Ronnie and saved Britain from the unions and the West from the Commies, then this film will probably confirm us in our views.

    We who read this blog might be overtly reminded of the politics of Thatcherism if we see this film, but most of the people who see it will probably not read Suzanne Moore (and probably think the Guardian is a free local newspaper anyway) or the rest of the criticism that fills the lacunae. Nor will they have seen Boys from the Blackstuff, Brassed Off and the rest. The Iron Lady will therefore simply perpetuate the discourse of its title and then take its place in the vast archive of hagiographic bio-pics.

  2. Mike Killingworth Mike Killingworth

    Is there not also the question of that section of the electorate (and therefore of the potential audience for play or film) which voted for her in 1983 and 1987 and then felt bad about it? A ‘humanised’ portrayal might soothe and so attract such people. (The same might be said of Blair and no doubt will be in a dozen or so years’ time.)

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