Thursday, August 09, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "The Long Walk to Finchley" from 7.7.2008

This piece is taken from my reviewblog in 2008


Apart from our beloved Countdown, the only programme I Skyplussed (assuming it’s now a verb) during a recent summer holiday was The Long Walk to Finchley on BBC 4. Unlike many TV dramas, this one did not seem to be the subject of much pre-broadcast promotion and general hoopla. I’m not sure why not. Perhaps its material and general tone was considered sensitive with its subject still with us, albeit in relatively quiet retirement.

Written by Tony Saint, the play used a partly fictionalised and partly comic format to tell the story of the struggle over a decade of Grantham-born, Margaret Roberts - later Thatcher - to be adopted as a candidate and gain election as an MP.

Starring as the Blessed Margaret was vivacious, 26 year old Andrea Riseborough who brought the part to life with a vital and riveting performance that wrung the most out the script. Clearly based on long study of her character’s vocal and physical mannerisms, tics and inflections, her Margaret came to life and dominated the screen. Knowingly, her every nuance is nailed: the slow speech, softening of tone, leaning forward to convey emphasis and a slightly scuttling, forward-leaning totter of a walk with handbag clutched.

The piece tells the tale of Margaret’s struggles in the 1950's to overcome prejudice and simple antagonism to gain acceptance as a female parliamentary candidate. From early on, Margaret had the capacity to alienate others as well as to inspire admiration. The prejudice and sexism on display – as represented by Geoffrey Palmer’s convincing bigoted retiring sitting MP - does not reflect well on the Tories at local or national level or on attitudes in the decade as a whole.

As ever on BBC 4, the production values were superb. The lavish sets, clothes and cars – especially Denis’s, tart-trap Jaguar – oozed authenticity and period feel. The leading ladies’ dresses, hats and hair were dazzlingly accurate as were the interiors such as the Thatcher kitchen and sundry smoky committee rooms.

Characterisation and the writing generally worked well in narrating Margaret’s struggle and parallel progress of her professional and private life. Her efficient transformation from chemist to the Bar is explained and presented with a light touch as is her meeting, courtship and subsequent marriage. That relationship was surprisingly touching.

Throughout the narrative, Margaret’s relentless energy and drive, work ethic, obsession with politics and acumen is explained in development. Obvious markers are set including her need only for four hours sleep a night and ability to keep many balls in the air at once, such as controlling the minutiae of the family breakfast seconds before leaving for an important meeting: a formidable force of nature indeed. The influence of her father, Alf Roberts, the dour and pragmatic Grantham shopkeeper and councillor is lucidly presented.

Similarly, the character and contribution of husband Denis is shown with clarity. Well-observed by Rory Kinnear, Denis comes across as a sensible, likeable and level-headed. His 1950's southern golf club bar speech patterns and accent were spot-on. The point is accurately made that he was an able and successful businessman. He is unselfish and devoted to his wife and is prepared to sacrifice much to allow her to pursue her career.

His lengthy disappearance to Africa on business is inconvenient at the time when he was required to be on display amongst the candidate’s spouses at Finchley, but it was he who devised her more feminine approach, a change that helped her gain her goal. The Denis we see, seems to match the reality of a plain-spoken, honest and decent man and not the caricature of Dear Bill fame. He was prepared to accept the implications of a wife in the limelight but without losing his own identity or fondness for gin, cigarettes, golf or refereeing a game of rugby.

The twins, Carol and Mark are presented as neat and tidy Enid Blyton children, all shorts and cardigans and sensible Clarks shoes for playing in the manicured garden. There is some suggestion that Mark is mummy’s favourite; fittingly, he has a darker edge with a slight hint of Damien from The Omen.

Some of the more interesting episodes made up the fictionalised and comic elements. Silhouetted in her strapless evening gown on a dark balcony, a coquettish Margaret importunes an alarmed Ted Heath breathlessly – and implausibly – “take me on your journey to power”. Her propositioning didn’t ring true and was discordant, but amusing.

Subsequently, her virtual seduction of the chairman of candidates when complaining tearfully of discrimination – all sighs, tears, heaving bosom and crossed legs - was over-the-top and hilarious. It did contain at least a grain of truth in that in her career Margaret was reputed to use elements of the feminine side of her character to gain advantage - if not so grotesquely as depicted here. Didn’t the President Mitterand once describe our first female Prime Minister as having the eyes of Caligula and lips of Marilyn Monroe? I doubt he would have waxed so lyrical about John Major, let alone Ted Heath.

The comic content included some rather unexpected slapstick with ice cream whilst a young chemist. There developed an almost uncontrolled jokiness with a running gag of predicting future events. They included not very subtle references to Grocer Heath, Carol in the jungle, Mark being lost in the sand dunes and also going to Africa, Margaret’s mission regarding milk for schoolchildren and a tour de force rant of unlikely prescience bellowing at an overcharging French waiter “I want my money back!”

The thread running through the story of the romantic frisson between Margaret and a constipated-looking Ted Heath, memorably played with a kind of teeth-gritted angst by Sam West, was the most dangerous ploy used by Tony Saint. Doubts over Heath’s sexuality were actually voiced and, with a touch of farce, a matchmaking Tory lady set up the encounter on the dance-floor which concluded with Margaret’s unsuccessful plea on the starlit balcony.

What united these two awkward outsiders was not romance but lust of a different kind - an unbridled desire for success and perhaps power. Ted ultimately helped Margaret through the selection process to defeat the be-meddled, chauvinistic old–guard because his father had been a builder and he understood the slights Margaret had endured. Also one wonders whether he had been touched by Margaret’s note of sympathy on the death of his mother to overcome his natural antipathy and help her – to his eventual cost.

The Long Walk to Finchley was entertaining but worried me in many of the ways that Filth: the Mary Whitehouse Story had done. On the surface, both plays represent a revisionist trend at the BBC.

For me the Mary Whitehouse play failed – despite a superb cast - because it distorted her significance. Her story was trailed and presented as a David and Goliath battle of the small provincial woman against an arrogant, metropolitan BBC to stem a tide of filth.

In fact, Mary was an increasingly media-savvy moral re-armer, oblivious to the artistic merits of some of the work she decried. She was prepared to throw the good out with the bad to promote the fundamentalist values she espoused and to damage the liberal causes of which she disapproved. Mrs. Whitehouse became much more than a victim and the play tended to lose sight of this.

In the case of the Long Walk, one may have even more problems with Mrs Thatcher and her eventual impact upon social cohesion, the values in this country and its communities and measures such as Clause 28.

This play did accurately reflect her early political views, such as the threat of communism and the trade unions. For the most part however, it focussed on the development of her personality and the struggle to achieve a massive ambition against overwhelming odds of sexism and class prejudice. It fantasised and exaggerated on occasion, but did not distort the underlying truth regarding her journey. It amounted to a thought-provoking and entertaining piece of work.

It also had the advantage of being embellished by the performance of the fascinating Andrea Riseborough for whom great things lie ahead.

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