John Roughan

John Roughan is a Weekend Herald columnist

John Roughan: Iron Lady still casts a long shadow

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Meryl Streep, as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, points the way ahead for Britain. Photo / Supplied
Meryl Streep, as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, points the way ahead for Britain. Photo / Supplied

In an antechamber of the House of Commons there are four nameless black statues of British prime ministers of the 20th Century: David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher.

A tour guide, a woman old enough to have known Britain before 1979, introduced them to us one by one. She gave Lloyd George and Attlee longer tributes because some of us might not have recognised the first war's prime minister and I for one could not have identified Attlee.

The Labour leader who defeated Churchill at the end of World War II and presided at the creation of Britain's welfare state, including its still-prized National Health Service, is depicted as a tightly coiled man who looks uncomfortable on his plinth.

When we came to the last statue - a thin, striding, strangely girlish figure with an unmistakable face and hairstyle - the guide had not much to say beyond telling us that while the others had been done posthumously, Mrs Thatcher saw to her own.

She said it in that wry, slightly disapproving way that Britons of her age usually adopt when they talk about Mrs Thatcher today.

Younger ones, which means anyone under 50 who would have been no more than a teenager when she came to power, can be forgiven. They cannot have known what Britain was like before her.

When I was there in November, newspapers were carrying columns from 40-somethings who had been treated to a pre-release screening of The Iron Lady.

Their reviews tended to begin with an impassioned recall of how much they had loathed her at university and still disliked what she did. But to their surprise, and evident embarrassment, the movie had made them feel something for her.

They wouldn't call it respect exactly, and sympathy was a little too obvious since the film dwells on her dementia, but they said they were moved in some way. A film that manages that much is undeniably successful, though when I saw it last weekend I was disappointed.

The most memorable line in the script for me is uttered by Meryl Streep's Thatcher when she sees an old news clip on television and says, "I don't recognise myself."

I wonder whether the real Baroness Thatcher is still capable of watching a movie and what she would think of this one.

It touched all the right bases, included all significant events and faithfully represented her view of them. Meryl Streep's impersonation was brilliant, the make-up was amazing (how do they do those sinews in an elderly neck?) and she respected her character.

She deservedly won best actress for the role at the Golden Globes this week but the film did not win best picture. It touches all the right bases, but only touches them. It doesn't bring them alive.

Unlike its subject it is a film without conviction, and it asks for a sympathy vote, which Mrs Thatcher would never have done.

I had the good fortune to see Britain for the first time in 1978, arriving about six months before she was elected. I had come through the Soviet Union and northern Europe.

Immediately, I was struck by how dismal everything seemed in contrast to what I had just seen of Scandinavia, West Germany and France. Britain was like a grimy old house that had seen better days.

The people looked drab, pasty and down-at-heel. Service was sullen. It was a little like the Soviet Union but in one way it was worse. Russians knew there was an alternative.

The British saw no alternative to an economy that had to be negotiated with trade unions. Strikes had brought down the Heath Government in 1972 and union leaders regularly darkened the door of 10 Downing St during the Wilson and Callaghan years.

The public knew nothing could be done without the agreement of names such as Jones, Scanlon, Scargill, names that never appeared on their ballot papers. Conventional political commentary held this to be an inescapable fact of life.

There was an all-pervading cynicism in the place and it continued through that strikebound winter of 1978-79, right up to the day in May that Thatcher was elected.

Nobody thought she could win. I was working on a newspaper in Wales and renting rooms in the home of an elderly couple who made it clear they voted Conservative. They didn't think she would win.

I watched her on television during the campaign. I couldn't imagine the great unwashed voting for this haughty woman with her household economics, who made cheesy statements about Britain being great again. When she said these things, people didn't know where to look.

Afterwards, nobody admitted voting for her.

She built her own monument, she was an example to the world. But she will die before she gets the biography she deserves.

- NZ Herald

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