Friday, August 10, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Margaret!" from 27.2.2009

This piece is taken from my reviewblog in 2009
"For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf,
And the strength of the Wolf is the Pack "
~Rudyard Kipling, "The Law of the Jungle"

It seems apt that the BBC 2 drama “Margaret!” should be shown yesterday at the end of the awards season which started long-ago with the Golden Globes, passed through the BAFTA's and terminated with last weekend's Oscars.

This is not because prizes may well come the way of this piece of work. Given its quality they probably will. To me it seems apt because of its similarity to the compilations of clips shown to illustrate the nominees or the career of someone about to be honoured. In such montages the common thread is the featured actor; otherwise dissimilar and sometimes dissonant scenes are strung together, linked only by one central figure. Incorporating several diverse styles and moods, “Margaret!” in some ways creates the same impression.

Written by Richard Cottan, responsible for the brilliant “Hancock and Joan” (reviewed on this blog on 31 March 2008/ ), the play charts the fall from power of Margaret Thatcher over eleven dramatic days in 1990. It pacily covers a lot of ground and its occasionally dark tone and atmosphere sometimes oscillate in a manic way. As Margaret Thatcher, Lindsay Duncan ranges strikingly between Glenn Close in “Damages” to Cate Blanchett in “Elizabeth” and from Caligula in “I, Claudius” to Margot Leadbetter in “The Good Life.

The mood of the piece shifts as rapidly as events and Margaret’s fortunes. At the beginning we have complacency as Margaret blithely prepares for the Lord Mayor’s banquet. At the same time her morbidly ovine nemesis in the shape of Geoffrey Howe is writing his resignation statement. Although it did not actually start his leader on her disastrous downhill path, Howe’s dramatic speech gave her an irresistible shove down a hill that, all too soon, turned into a veritable Cresta Run.

From the outset, Margaret’s stubbornness and overwhelming pride are compounded by an arrogant refusal to consider sane advice. Hubris is in the air and it is plain that a personal tragedy of Greek dimensions is brewing. This is all set against a Shakespearean backdrop of storming irritably around the Palace of Westminster surrounded by flunkies and yes-men whilst plotting continues behind pillars, in smoky tea rooms and in tentative coded telephone calls with pauses as meaningful as Pinter. The palace setting is no accident; we are concerned with life in all its duplicity at Margaret’s court as if it had been that of good Queen Bess or Catherine de Medici.

As PM, Margaret is as regal and imperious as the ruffle on her gown to be worn to the Lord Mayor’s banquet. She flounces around with courtiers being fed only information she wants to hear which ultimately costs her throne. In a telling scene, Rosemary Leach, entirely plausible as the real Queen, discreetly hints at the dangers posed by her ministers. In a later reflective moment Margaret acknowledges her insight.

Some attempt is made to explain how she grew into what she became. Margaret poignantly confides that her parents had wanted a boy and treated her as such. We learn of the huge influence of her Councillor father Alf Roberts and how young Margaret followed him around the committee rooms of Grantham, mixing in his very male political world.

As a recurrent theme, we hear her repeated childhood recitation from Kipling's "The Law of the Jungle" with tell-tale Lincolnshire vowels, later to be expunged only to emerge in her memorable cry of “frit” in the Commons. These few lines speak volumes - of elocution lessons, self-improvement, the values that made the Empire and the bloody battle for survival as a grown woman in the jungle of politics.

We watch her confrontation with a sour and dismissive Ted Heath before standing against him as Tory leader and her bitter refusal to take his call of congratulation when she won the general election. The strength of Margret's vitriol when roused still surprises after all these years; she seethes and fulminates in almost Dalek mode "You don't make friends with your enemies, you destroy them!"

We note her Pygmalion-like willingness to do whatever was necessary to achieve her ends: her tutelage by Airey Neave to secure the leadership and later change of speech patterns and demeanour under her Henry Higgins PR guru to increase her electoral appeal.

In what has become a cliché, we observe the scant attention paid to her daughter Carol even to the extent of overlooking her examinations during the election. We also see her blind favouritism towards the charmless Mark, exemplified by the scene when she wipes his shoe whilst awaiting the telephone call summoning her to the Palace to kiss hands as the first woman Prime Minister.

Throughout, we also see a bastion of normality, common sense and loyalty in husband Denis. He calls her “love,” like any husband just back from the golf club, which is not something one could imagine from any of the Tory grandees on show, even Norman Tebbit. Convincingly played by Ian Mc Diarmid as one of the few men on show with any degree of genuineness, Denis is a constant, always there before, during and after her career to pick up the pieces and pour very stiff drinks.

Against her hard core of truly loyal supporters – Denis, Crawfie, her dresser and Norman Tebbit are balanced her party.

Necessarily their characters are presented somewhat one dimensionally. Amongst the conspirators, as Michael Heseltine, Oliver Cotton is all blond mane and eyes burning with loathing. Ultimately he learns to his chagrin that he who wields the dagger does not get to wear the crown. Robert Hardy gives convincingly rheumy-eyed patrician performance as Willie Whitelaw, whilst Kevin McNally conveys Kenneth Clarke with an accurately blokish matter-of-factness.

Occasionally, the characterisation slips over somewhat into caricature as with Margaret’s PPS Peter Morrison, who comes to resemble Piers Fletcher-Dervish in the “New Statesman.” He is shown asleep with feet on his desk as the enemy were gathering strength and generally underestimating the opposition. It is suggested that this ultimately had more than a little to do with the PM’s demise. One kept expecting Alan Clark - intelligently played by Michael Cochrane - to poke Peter/Piers in the eye or give him a Chinese burn, just like Alan B’stard.

Counteracting the lightening sketches of many of the leading players is John Session’s Geoffrey Howe whose voice and slightly comatose delivery capture his subject authentically. The profound eventual effect of his resignation speech renders its deadpan delivery all the more dramatic.

Flashback also proves useful in explaining the depth of loathing of her senior cadre of ministers as when Margaret ruthlessly belittles several at a reception to mark the tenth anniversary of her administration. By that stage the plotting seems to be taking place before her very eyes and Margaret hands out ritual humiliations in public – as when imperiously ordering Geoffrey Howe to fetch her shawl or insultingly patronising an amiable Cranley Onslow, influential chairman of the Tory backbencher’s 1922 Committee.

The combination of explanatory flashback and tense ongoing narrative is intended to bring the drama to its ultimate tragic conclusion. Devices such as clunky sound effects and grainy lighting straight from “Damages” are interposed with revealing reflective monologues to camera from “I, Claudius.

The growing personal discomfort of an exhausted Margaret supported by her husband and dresser, receiving vitamin shots, drinking a lot of scotch and taking solace in work is set against a backcloth of silly unhelpful tears from a loyalist, who looked not unlike John Selwyn Gummer, and the on-going self-serving calculation of those slyly waiting to benefit from the impending assassination.

Throughout the play, Lindsay Duncan rides the wave of the enormously larger than life character like a master surfer. We see Elizabeth I, Patty Hewes, Caligula, and Eliza Doolittle combined into one fascinating giant actress bestriding the stage like a permed colossus.

Her Margaret is tireless yet exhausted, worn yet glamorous, vicious and loving and knowing but gullible: altogether a mass of contradictions.

Lindsay Duncan manages to put aside her own political views on Mrs Thatcher to present this multi-faceted personality. Her creation is much too large and complex to be described as just "sympathetic." She is vulnerable and lovable at times but she is also harsh, vengeful and unkind. At others she is maternal and considerate. She is basically a force of nature with a place in history, not in a confining pigeon hole. Ultimately, history must judge for it is there that she has her place.

This drama shows accurately enough how certain of her flaws were compounded by the faults of some of her supporters and coincided with effective action by the ambitious schemers who opposed her. Thus the scenario for her tragic fall to be acted out was set and the price for her hubris was paid.

Looking back upon the ten days or so that let to her downfall, it was apparent to most contemporary observers that Mrs Thatcher was doomed from the first ballot and perhaps from when Geoffrey Howe sat down at the end of his resignation statement. So powerful and compelling was Lindsay Duncan's performance, however, that we focus largely upon Margaret's own myopic perception of events and how she developed into what she became.

Such was my fascination of the complexities of Margaret’s personality, the multi layered performance of Lindsay Duncan and the thoughtful writing that I was never really fully engaged with the mechanics of her assassination or the perspective of the “lesser men”, if not “pygmies”, that slew and succeeded her.

As drama “Margaret!” was wide ranging and outlined many of her formative influences as well as explaining how the “coup” or “assassination” – call it what you will - took place. It was entertaining and thought-provoking.

Leaving to one side the specifics of her policies, Margaret Thatcher had become a formidable figure by the end of her time in power. She had also been much affected by the experience - not all for the better.

Whilst I would leave it to others to decide if, as the saying goes, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” one thing is clear: “Prolonged terms of office may damage and delude”. Accordingly, our legislators might consider whether it is in the best interests of us all to place some limit upon prime ministerial terms.

The almost casual ease with which some close colleagues - members of her own "Pack" - unseated Margaret, in a manoeuvre unheard of for an incumbent Prime Minister, owed much to party rules that enabled a relatively small cadre to invoke procedures resulting in her removal.

Remembering the young Margaret's incantation of Kipling's "Law of the Jungle", it is ironic that the mother of deregulation and the acknowledged master of detail should owe her demise to the fact that other big beasts of the jungle knew its Law better than she.

In hindsight, perhaps the key "Law of the Parliamentary Jungle" is twofold: first, the devil is in the detail, so know the ground rules and secondly, whilst the opposition sits in front of you, your enemies sit behind. 

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