Exultant reactions to Margaret Thatcher’s death – which took various forms from street parties and burning effigies, to a concerted internet effort to get the song ‘Ding Dong the Witch in Dead’ into the top of the charts – shocked and dismayed some members of the commentariat. Predictably members of the Conservative Party from Prime Minister David Cameron downwards condemned the rejoicing, but so too a range of cross-party voices expressed unease at speaking so ill of the dead, and taking pleasure in Thatcher’s demise.
Any surprise at the strength of people’s reactions is perhaps also a measure of the fact that for more than a decade Thatcher had been forgotten. She had certainly been forgotten by the leadership of her own party, which was anxious to regain electoral favour by distancing itself from memories of Thatcher’s last years in particular and the vast unpopularity of the poll tax.
But if we move back to Thatcher’s time in office, and look in particular at what was said about her through the lens of satire and parody, then the violence of the recent reactions becomes less surprising. This after all was a woman and a leader whom parodists were prepared to send up by depicting her as a murderous, castrating, alien creature.
My new article ‘A Creature Not Quite of This World’: Adaptations of Margaret Thatcher on 1980s British Television looks at some of the ways that satirists brought Thatcher onto the screen.
Many might recall Spitting Image’s depiction of Thatcher as a deranged, de-sexed monster, illustrated above. However, one of the most striking instances comes in an episode of the Channel Four series, The Comic Strip Presents called “GLC: The Carnage Continues”. The episode, broadcast in 1990, is a typical example of parody, in that it extrapolates to absurd proportions an actual historical event, in this case Thatcher’s abolition of the Greater London Council when it was led by “Red Ken” Livingstone. The story uses the political conflict between Thatcher and Livingstone, but exaggerates it to a degree. Livingstone, envisioned in the story as a Charles Bronson action hero, but absurdly realised in the flesh by Robbie Coltrane (with Dawn French playing Cher playing his girlfriend) engages in gun battle with Thatcher’s forces in defence of County Hall.
The Thatcher in this story was a formidable enemy; equipped with a robotic arm, and as eventually revealed, actually an alien creature (albeit one dressed in blue, with impeccably coiffured hair and carrying a black leather Asprey handbag), she rampages through the story.
The gun battle at the climax of the Comic Strip was at least a vision of violence in the streets of contemporary Britain that did not come to pass in reality; if there were riots aplenty under Thatcher, at least none involved guns. But that the 1980s parodies are at once so violent and so quick to see Thatcher as a freakish distortion of humanity helps us understand why some people recently came onto the streets; these parodies freeze in time perceptions of Thatcher that have lain dormant for a while but now, with the right catalyst, have re-emerged.