During an email exchange with Richard Kelly, Head of Politics at Manchester Grammar School and author of a highly regarded study of how Conservative Party conferences actually work, recalled:
‘Back in 1979, when I was campaigning for the Tories, I remember talking to some party officials about their attempt to sell Margaret Thatcher to a society still unaccustomed to women at the top. They told me that, though Gordon Reece et al had helped, the biggest helping hand had come from the popular TV series The Good Life, and one of its central characters, Margo Leadbeater.
Penelope Keith’s portrayal of this quintessential suburban Conservative, who managed to be formidable, outrageously illiberal and shockingly intolerant – while still commanding the sympathy of viewers – had allowed many Tories at grass roots level to spread the idea that Britain ‘needs a Margo’ to shake things up…an idea that apparently resonated with many of the programme’s mass audience. In other words, Penelope Keith helped (inadvertently I’m sure) to popularise and accessorise the whole concept of a woman like Margaret Thatcher storming into office.
The Good Life factor was duly extended by Margo’s on-screen husband, Jerry – a long-suffering, hen-pecked businessman, whose preference for a soothing scotch and fag contrasted with his wife’s almost constant state of agitation. Rather like Denis Thatcher, of course. Again, this helped male voters relate to the idea of world weary blokes just standing back, while letting a hyper-active middle-aged woman sort things out.’
All very anecdotal of course, but none the worse for that – although a cursory search of the online Thatcher Archive suggests that party officials certainly kept their belief in ‘The Good Life Factor’ from their Leader.
The Good Life was a very popular BBC sitcom that ran during 1975-8, that is the first critical years of Thatcher’s time as Leader of the Opposition. It was ostensibly about a married couple – Margot’s neighbours – who opted out of the rat race and embraced an ecological lifestyle. It was hardly ‘Thatcherite’ in its conception. But, recently, Will Cook in the Spectator suggested that the series – unconsciously – evoked themes that resonated with the new Conservative leadership, especially the character of Margot who he describes as – like Thatcher herself? – a ‘harridan with the heart of gold’. In fact according to Alwyn Turner, our leading cultural historian of the 1970s, from starting out as a second rank character, Margot (in whom he also sees Thatcher’s echo) ended up dominating the series. Sound like anyone we know? Be your own judge: here is Margot in action.
More research is certainly required! How many contemporaries recognised the Margot-Margaret link, and did the former really help to humanise the latter? The sitcom – as you can see from the clip – was painfully bourgeois and I wonder how many Yorkshire miners’ families watched it and with what effect? But perhaps The Good Life did encourage well-meaning middle-class voters into the arms of the Conservatives in 1979. Such people might have believed that Britain in the 1970s was in a trade union-induced ‘crisis’ – as many did – but perhaps needed to be convinced that Thatcher was not as hard-hearted as she sometimes appeared.
Thatcher was certainly aware of the need to soften her image, hence her – in retrospect – ironic quoting of St Francis of Assisi when she first entered Number 10 as Prime Minister
On the basis of work I’ve done on the relationship between politics and fiction, I would be surprised if the Conservative officials recalled by Richard Kelly were completely wrong: as A State of Play suggests fiction can influence how people see political ‘reality’, the former can give the latter meaning. In the book I also look at some 1970s sitcoms, for in many of the most popular series the central characters are identified as Labour or Conservative, as in Steptoe and Son and George and Mildred. But such figures are always men.
There was however one short-lived 1975 sitcom which depicted a suburban housewife elected to the Commons under Conservative colours. Yet, despite being first broadcast a few months after Thatcher became Conservative leader, My Honourable Mrs. was all about the MP’s husband – played by silly-ass actor Derek Nimmo – and how he coped with the domestic dislocations that followed her election. Margot as a woman, an active Conservative and (eventually) a central protagonist was as unusual in sitcom politics as was Thatcher in the real version.
Sadly Richard’s comments came too late to be included in my book. But I do mention that Penelope Keith went on to play an MP in an early 1990s sitcom, which ran for two seasons although is now largely forgotten.
In No Job for a Lady Keith however played a do-gooding, vaguely feminist Labour MP of the sort Margot – let alone Margaret – would have heartily disapproved.
An earlier version of this post was published at http://stevenfielding.com/blog/