Meryl and Margaret in the cinema

Last week I did what I occasionally enjoy doing – I went to the pictures. That noun, in itself, places me in my time and generation, so for ‘pictures’ read ‘cinema’. There is something in the large screen which inclusive, all-enveloping and in which it is possible to get lost. The fact that I go only occasionally is because films appropriate to my generation are rarely made nowadays. For the most part, they are violent, explicit, in-your-face and leave little to the imagination. But then, just to prove that it can still be done, along comes films of the calibre of ‘The Iron Lady’, in which the wonderful Meryl Streep plays Margaret Thatcher.

Last week I did what I occasionally enjoy doing – I went to the pictures. That noun, in itself, places me in my time and generation, so for ‘pictures’ read ‘cinema’. There is something in the large screen which inclusive, all-enveloping and in which it is possible to get lost. The fact that I go only occasionally is because films appropriate to my generation are rarely made nowadays. For the most part, they are violent, explicit, in-your-face and leave little to the imagination. But then, just to prove that it can still be done, along comes films of the calibre of ‘The Iron Lady’, in which the wonderful Meryl Streep plays Margaret Thatcher.

The genre is the biopic, which purports to tell the story of a life. More often than not, it takes artistic liberties to create a mood, to emphasise a characteristic, or to give that life an interpretation, a twist, favourable to the script-writer and film maker. And while both of these are women, Mrs Thatcher has never been identified as a feminist. She did not include women in her Cabinet. She never made a speech or wrote a paragraph encouraging women to push their talents into areas of life from which they had been, by custom, culture and laws, excluded. She did it all herself, with making any concessions, or special pleading, to gender.

Margaret Roberts was a clever girl, the daughter of a grocer, a status which brought much derisive laughter in the Conservative Party which she joined as a very young woman. She won a scholarship to Oxford, where she took a degree in Science and later in Law. She was driven by the Methodism of her lay-preacher father: hard work, personal responsibility, not asking the State to do anything for you which you could do for yourself. She was the definitive right-winger.

And I confess to being more than just a sneaking-regarder – I admired Mrs T, though every man I ever met did not have a good work to say of her. Neither did the left-wing Women’s Movement journalists of her time, who even descended to mocking her appearance, in what they described as her carapace of hair, the steel of her blue eyes, her ‘glitter’.

While the film gives us flashbacks to Thatcher in her triumphs and ultimate disasters, it does so from the background of an old, doddery woman; lost, lonely, demented, carrying on conversations with her dead husband, Denis, the love and support of her life. And though the real Mrs Thatcher must live in a pleasant, warm, bright house, with good furniture and beautiful pictures, the film fits her (Meryl Streep) into a dreary, dark, narrow set, artistically chose to emphasise her isolation.

This is art challenging life. It raises interesting issues. While films are made primarily for entertainment, how much should an art-form intrude into the most sensitive areas of a person’s life, while they are still alive? In decades to come, long after her death, historians will assess her and her times, her achievements, her failures and the consequences. But while she still lives, in what is allegedly a confused state of Alzheimers disease, should she be exposed to the prurience of the big screen?

What about privacy? And human dignity? Or does public service and political commitment include the risk of public exposure even in companionless and lonely old age?

It is an interesting question, and one which, no doubt, Mrs Thatcher in her prime, would have had something to say. And the flashbacks look at her prime, but only in the context of her present isolation.

They give us a brief glimpse of the Britain she inherited, riven by strikes and public disorder. An ordinary citizen going to work on any Monday morning could not rely on bus or train services. Public offices might or might not be open. Public services might or might not be available. All were subject to wild-cat strikes, and all of which she sorted out by legislation.

Her identification of ‘the City’ as the centre of world financial services, has gone into the lexicon of the English language. But ‘the city’ was London, where some people became very, very rich in financial trading. It was a clean industry. She had little time for the so-called dirty industries. The great manufacturing enterprises which gave much employment, and for which Britain was internationally famous, she dismissed because profit margins were too small.

So the balance of trade and industry in Europe has passed from Britain to Germany. During his final days as Prime Minister (Labour), Gordon Browne, in a reference to exports, said: “We have nothing to sell”.

The intransigence of her final years, her humiliation of her male colleagues in government, remain a sort of haunting challenge to women who might aspire to very high-level achievements. Is this the way women might behave should they finally achieve power? Does the same behaviour in men pass unnoticed, and thus accepted, because they always have had power?

Or was Margaret Thatcher a one-off, never to be reproduced in the same form again? Whatever one thinks about her, she has achieved an iconic status, and even at its most trivial level, in her presentation, smart suits, pencil skirts, print bow-blouses (Maggie chic) is becoming high fashion once more.

Like all good art-forms, a book, a painting, a play, a sculptor, a good film leaves us leaving the cinema asking more questions than we can answer. ‘The Iron Lady’ does that.

Now, if only the film industry would occasionally take a break from compulsory violence and ear-splitting noise, it might have all of us oldies racing back to the cinemas. In our droves! Preferably for the afternoon performances!