My fair Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher's Long Walk to Finchley
A playful BBC drama depicts a young Margaret Thatcher as a coquettish yet steely character
Mrs Thatcher famously presided over a huge rise in unemployment, but down the years she has kept a large sorority of impersonators off the dole. Every portrayal of her from Angela Thorne in Anyone for Denis? to Patricia Hodge in The Falklands Play has found the Iron Lady in her prime ministerial pomp, handbag to the fore and blonde perm whipped into position. The Long Walk to Finchley, a new drama for BBC Four written by Tony Saint, enterprisingly visits her when she was still plain old Margaret Roberts, industrial chemist and merely an aspiring MP.
The long walk lasted a decade, from her adoption as the Conservative candidate in unwinnable Dartford in 1950 through the wilderness years in which five successive Home Counties constituencies chose bemed-alled war heroes as their candidate rather than a young woman with a formidable political intellect.
The drama has already unleashed a storm of protest from the general direction of the Daily Mail, where strenuous objections have been lodged at the idea that Maggie may once have trespassed towards some form of romantic liaison with Ted Heath, the man she eventually ousted as leader of the party. Heath was elected to his constituency in Kent with the support of candidates in neighbouring constituencies, one of whom was Miss Roberts, so they went back rather further than most people suspect. Out of this little-known fact Saint has spun an entertaining if somewhat farfetched theory to explain their subsequent antipathy.
“It got me thinking,” he explains. “Although its narrative is structured on real events, its tongue is firmly in its cheek. I think anyone with a sense of humour will enjoy the film on its own terms. It’s not intended to cause offence or upset anyone, but if people with an axe to grind want to take umbrage, that’s what they’ll do.”
Thus, in nodding to the ghosts of old Ealing comedies and the Boulting Brothers, complexities of character are streamlined for our easier pleasure. Thatcher’s family in particular is seen through the prism of her thwarted ambition: Denis, ever the long-suf-fering martyr to her relentless drive, the twins Mark and Carol neglected and already showing signs that they might one day get lost in the desert or disappear to the jungle.
For the entire soufflé to stay risen, the drama calls for performances of pinpoint exactitude, and it finds them in a brilliantly cast trio of leads. In the case of the publicity-shy Denis Thatcher, Rory Kinnear had not much more to go on than an interview he gave in his eighties to his daughter Carol. What emerges is a bumbling, sighing, surprisingly estuarine character, far removed from John Wells’s version. Sam West, scheming and glowering as Ted Heath, sucked up all the sources, not least a Monty Python flexi disc from 1973 called Teach Yourself Heath. “It’s absolutely merciless, he says, “but bitterly accurate.”
The latest in a long and distinguished line of actresses to take on Mrs T is Andrea Riseborough. At 26, her best work has been in the theatre, but on television she is better known as the devious young researcher in the politico series Party Animals. In this rather different political role she serves further notice of her remarkable talent for transformation, both physical and vocal. Her entire performance seems to come from the neck, the part of the body with which Thatcher semaphored her alertness and assertiveness, and from which the booming contrabasso voice would later emerge.
“A lot of people say she was led by her handbag,” Riseborough explains. “I think that is the manifestation of her drive. It’s a consequence, as is the neck. That whole birdlike pecking, all that comes from the fact that she was a very sharp, driven, motivated woman with complete conviction in social reform as she understood it. The frustration of always having done her homework better than anyone and being surrounded by an old boys’ club that she was desperately trying to break into and be accepted by – all of those frustrations come out physically because she’s trapped in this small woman’s body. Because she is so forthright as a woman she craned her neck to get her point across.”
The recognisable grammar of her physicality established, Riseborough and Saint go on to do something which will take many viewers by surprise. They make Thatcher a sympathetic, even a vulnerable, figure as her long hunt for a way into the patriarchal network of the Tory party lengthens through the 1950s. Though Geoffrey Palmer stokes up his ghastliness, Sir John Crowder, the retiring MP for Finchley who attempted to thwart her nomination as his successor, is a study in small-minded, puffed-up Tory parochialism. When she daringly takes the opportunity to pull rank and tell him quite how ineffectual a parliamentarian he has been, there’s no getting away from the fact that you cheer her to the echo.
“I don’t think she is a bad or a cold person,” Riseborough says. “She’s just nononsense. She didn’t waste time. You might say once she gets into power that’s detrimental. That’s not for me to judge. My Margaret Thatcher is not Margaret Thatcher.” Indeed. In line with the claim in Alan Clark’s diaries, Riseborough also contrives to make her sexy.
“The real Margaret Thatcher realised that she could use her sexuality to her advantage. I don’t think that that makes her a sexual creature. The way that I played her is that she is more aware from the beginning of the power that she can have over men and enjoys playing with that.” Not that she’s not so interested in sex per se that she won’t turn on the light postcoitus and bury herself in a law book, but in this version she has enough about her to ruffle the romantic feathers of the probably homosexual Heath. For West, who locates Heath’s repressed sexuality in the stiffness of his shoulders, there was therefore a fine line to tread.
“I didn’t really want to come to a decision about his sexuality that would contradict what I was asked to find in the film,” he says. “I don’t for a moment suppose Ted ever had sex with a man. What I got from the research that I did and talking to the people who knew him was that he was enormously polite and a great politician but difficult to like.”
Amid all the comic fantasy, that is the bullet point which emerges from The Long Walk to Finchley. When Thatcher is advised by a female constituency worker to play to her strengths when fighting to be adopted as the Finchley candidate, she doesn’t hesitate to say that her trump card is politics. But to those viewers who treasure their immunity to her charms, the drama helps to explain not only her singular allure. It also argues that her years of waiting were character-building. Ten years’ exclusion from the Tories’ all-male closed shop created a woman who would turn out, in the words of another speechwriter, to be not for turning.
The Long Walk to Finchley, Thur 12 Jun 2008, BBC Four, 9pm