The Iron Lady

I was unsure whether I wanted to see The Iron Lady, the biopic of the life of Margaret Thatcher that recently opened at the cinema. There were a number of reasons for this. First, I am not a particular fan of biopics. Even when well done they often seem far too long – did Ray Charles’ life really need nearly 3 hours to be told, or Johnny Cash’s two and a half? Were their lives really as momentous and dramatic as that of Mahatma Gandhi? Harvey Milk was clearly an important person in gaining a degree of mainstream acceptance of homosexuals in US public life and Sean Penn acted his part impeccably, but the story was too thin in itself other than for the importance of what he achieved.

That aside, which I appreciate is partly a matter of taste, I also had a degree of reservation about the subject matter. Partly because, of course, the subject of The Iron Lady is still alive and still, in the UK at least, a highly divisive and emotive character. However, this is not a criticism that was particularly directed at the BBC dramatisation of her early life The Road to Finchley so not the biggest issue. Any biopic will inevitably have some effect of crystallising a particular historical interpretation of its subject’s life so it is at the very least brave to attempt to do that with someone who continues to be alternately revered by some and reviled as the continuing cause of present national woes by others. Recently there has been a degree of public debate over whether Baroness Thatcher ought to receive a State Funeral when she dies. This ‘debate’ has unearthed any number of people willing to express the tasteless hope that she died as soon as possible and the glee with which this news would be greeted.

I also had personal reasons for being uneasy about watching the film. As regular readers will be aware I tend to support the Conservatives. However, this does not necessarily mean, contrary to what some might think, blindly revering Thatcher! Although, for some, any position other than unconditional hatred amounts to the same thing!

I was only just 18 when she was forced to step down from being Prime Minister. I remember the student indignation when the steward at college put the flag at half-mast when she resigned. But, having been brought up in rural Cambridgeshire, I had been a long way from experiencing much of the impact of her policies in the 1980s. It wasn’t that life had been particularly easy for me during those years – my father experienced a long spell of unemployment in the mid 80s as his industry (merchant navy) changed from being a highly paid one dominated by British shipping lines that had been going since the imperial pomp of Victorian times to one where, almost overnight the lines shut up shop and reflagged their ships in benighted places like Liberia and Panama to benefit from looser regulation, taxation and worker protection. My parents had done reasonably well out of the property booms but my mother then went on to be badly hit by the high interest rates that were the hangover to the boom engineered by Nigel Lawson for the 1987 general election, not really recovering until after Tony Blair’s second general election victory.

Nevertheless I went!

I hadn’t read about the film beforehand so the first shock was that the film is played in flashback from the perspective of the elderly Baroness of today, suffering from Alzheimer’s and hallucinating conversations with her dead husband Denis. I don’t know whether to any extent this is representative of her actual current physical or mental state or what her or her family’s reaction to this portrayal is. It left me a little queasy as, even as someone who won’t be figuratively dancing on her grave when she goes, it came across as a little too close to mawkishness and seeking human sympathy as special pleading. It was generally excellently played by Meryl Streep, I quickly banished my initial comparison with Catherine Tate’s foul-mouthed granny character, but still it seemed unnecessary other than to provide a dramatic device for telling the story.

Perhaps it is one of the features and drawbacks of biopics that there has to be some elision of the complexities and controversies to make a drama with a suitable arc and manipulation of the audience’s sympathies in this way. A similar thing was done in The King’s Speech where only recently did I learn that Bertie’s father was also a second son who had unexpectedly and without preparation been thrust into the throne (and also into marrying the bride selected for his deceased
elder brother). In that film, his father appears to be a terrible tyrant bullying him into taking a public role for which he was unsuited. He may well have been such a tyrant, but the reasons for preparing his second son this way while fearing for the unreliability of the heir apparent were clearly more complex and understandable.

Unlike the biopics I mentioned at the beginning, The Iron Lady is a short film. A political career stretching from serving tea to Alderman Roberts’ constituents in Grantham (coincidentally, the train I am writing these words on is just pulling out of Grantham station this very minute!) in the 1940s to her metaphorical defenestration in 1990 is covered in barely over an hour and a half. Naturally this means that there are big gaps and jumps in events and the director chooses episodes to illustrate a particular point or character facet more than to make a point about the event itself. This is not a bad thing and the film generally deals very deftly even with controversial matters. For example, in a very short space regarding the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War, we are told that the ship was sailing away from the battle zone but that there was some evidence that it could be doing this as a decoy, that sinking the ship probably led to the Argentine junta escalating and causing the terrible casualties on HMS Sheffield and that there was a risk that this could have led to the whole British fleet being defeated.

The battle with the unions is dealt with in rather more controversial style, focusing not on the miners strike of 1984 but of the strikes during Ted Heath’s 1970-74 government. This makes some sense in explaining why she, and, it must be remembered, much of the country wanted this battle and, as with the Falklands, to win it.

The film is interesting on the philosophy and motivations behind Thatcher’s rise and also her appeal. At one point, she says that for her politics was about doing things not being someone, as it is today. This chimed with me as a distinction that can be seen in the language used by the current Conservative and Labour leaders(see my take on Cameron and Miliband’s 2011 conference speeches). Whether she did the right things or not, it does help to show the irrelevance of whether people then or now thought she was a heroine or the Machiavel of leftist lore. Reams have been written about whether or not she was a feminist or out women’s rights backwards and I won’t add to that here, but the struggle to be accepted in the boy’s game or politics she faced through to her dominance in the 1980s is often overlooked or underestimated. However, on the basis of the distinction between doing and being, the balance is clearly intended here to be about her doing the things that had been denied to women rather than merely becoming an empowered woman . It probably wasn’t intended as the relevant scenes were almost certainly written, shot and edited before, but there is a contrast between the critical outrage over David Cameron’s supposedly sexist put downs of “calm down dear” and Thatcher’s response to being described as shrill. Perhaps the biopic of Yvette Cooper’s life to be made in 2050 will give a similar real riposte!

There’s a lot more to think about in the film, the constant threat of death and violence from the IRA that manifested itself in the murder of Airey Neave and the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton that could have killed Thatcher and half her cabinet, the way that appearance and presentation make a difference (although I was pleased that the elocution and restyling exercise didn’t go beyond echoing The King’s Speech).

The acting was generally excellent. Streep caught Thatcher’s nuances and change in tone perfectly. The dialogue writing was also good here – I can’t claim any expertise as I only saw Thatcher speak once live when she was talking after dinner at my Inn of Court when I was doing my compulsory dining to qualify as a barrister in 1994 but it didn’t jar. The supporting cast were also well played. In particular Geoffrey Howe was played convincingly by Anthony Head. At the time, in the days before ministers tweeting their reactions to events and personal slights in real time, the public’s view of what went on behind the closed doors of cabinet was limited. Spitting Image gave a feel for what might have been the dynamic, but the humiliation of Howe that was the straw that broke the camel’s back was very well done. It is perhaps a little sad for Head that in only a few years he has gone from playing a youthful Tony Blair-style PM in Little Britain to “dead sheep” Howe, but at least it shows his ability to escape being typecast for a second time after his Gold Blend years!

The one character I had a little difficulty with was that of Denis. From the Private Eye Dear Bill sketches it is quite possible that it was an accurate portrayal of a supportive, G&T and golf-loving private husband. Unfortunately, Jim Broadbent has, for me, played too many such men. It became too much of an amalgamation of Bridget Jones’ dad and his character in Mike Leigh’s Another Year.

In conclusion, it is an excellent and surprisingly enjoyable film that is well worth going to see. Put aside your personal reservations as I did unless you need your demons to stay inhuman.


Yorkshire Sculpture Park – Jaume Plensa

Yorkshire Sculpture Park has been one of my favourite family days out since moving to Leeds nearly 8 years ago. Even for those who are not particularly interested in modern sculpture, the park provides the setting for a nice walk in the country that has enough variety to be worth doing through the seasons. We hadn’t been for a few months so visited again at the weekend.

As usual we walked from the visitor centre across to the Longside Gallery along Oxley Bank which gives a good view on one side over to Barnsley (this is probably the vista that the over-enthusiastic local regeneration team’s consultants saw which inspired them to envision remodelling Barnsley as “a Tuscan hill town” – they clearly couldn’t have visited the town itself…) and on the other to the Emley TV transmitter. Last weekend it was incredibly windy to add to the challenge!

Unfortunately the Longside Gallery was closed, but there were enough sculptures along the way to make up for this and at least the wind was mainly behind us when walking downhill back to the main buildings.

Jaume Plensa - Spiegel 2010

James Turrell - Deer Shelter Skyspace

Andy Goldsworthy - Shadow Stone Fold (before OMB fell in the mud)

At the top of David Nash's Seventy One Steps

Emley Moor Transmitter

Winter/Horbelt - Basket #7

We then had an excellent and reasonably priced lunch at the cafe before going to see the Jaume Plensa exhibition at the Underground Gallery. Although the exhibitions there are usually good, we tend to visit them at the end of the circuit of the grounds when we are too tired to appreciate them (particularly if I’ve had to carry OMB on my shoulders up the hill…). I’m glad that we had stopped to eat and rest first this time, forced by the chill of the strong winds that had blown all round our walk,as it was a truly amazing exhibition and it would have been a shame to have just wandered round it quickly with half a mind on getting a hot drink.

I particularly liked that some of the exhibits were interactive and that the sculptor wanted you to hit (gently) the gongs in Jerusalem (2006) and to stroke the curtain of words in Twenty Nine Palms (2007). Although I like the Hepworth Gallery in nearby Wakefield and the curation and information provided there is very helpful in trying to give an understanding of the art, I always have the feeling with abstract modern art that I don’t quite get it. This was less of an issue with Plensa’s work. Even if I can’t claim to have understood it deeply, as most of it combined traditional beauty and elegance with words and quotations it was more accessible and satisfying in letting me feel I had appreciated it to some extent.

Silhouettes (Blake - Canetti - Valente) (2010)

Twenty Nine Palms (2007)

Alabaster Heads (2008-2010)

In the Midst of Dreams (2009)

Model for Silhouette

Jerusalem (2006)


See No Evil


Song of Songs I&II (2004)

Heart of Trees (2007)

Yorkshire Sculpture Park is always worth a visit but if you can make it before 22 January 2012 to see the Jaume Plensa show so much the better. And all for a fiver’s parking – that’s proper Yorkshire.


The Fun Police

Happy New Year! If I am slightly more irritable than usual, please bear with me as I am 6 days into stopping smoking. Of course I know all about the appalling harm to my health I incurred each time I lit up over the past 21 years and all the other myriad reasons why smoking is “a bad idea”. I know that nicotine is addictive. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t really like smoking – I did. I’m sure I’d enjoy it again if I lit up right now so don’t take those past pleasures away by calling them some form of false consciousness.

Sadly, the fun’s gone out of it now. Obviously, getting laid down low with an annual chest infection which was a portent of my future everyday life with emphysema wasn’t ever much fun either, but the Fun Police have won on smoking. They got their vital victory in getting the indoor smoking ban. Not that I get to go to the pub that much, but separating the good old pint of beer from his mate, the tab, was a crying shame. Not working in a traditional office meant that there wasn’t even the chance for the slight feeling of subversion of nipping out with the other renegades (usually secretaries who’d be more willing to divulge whatever gossip there was to someone rebellious enough to join them in their habit).  Worse, it has led to smoking becoming a furtive activity – so much so that even going into the garden was something I’d describe as “sneaking out”. In my own garden. So long to all that then.

However, even agreeing fully that smoking is a bad thing, is there really any need to treat smokers, particularly those hoping to be converted to the non-smoking majority, like pre-school children?

This is a picture of the centrepiece to the NHS Quit Kit that is being advertised on the TV. Yes, it is a sticker chart. I’ve given the stickers to OMB (they don’t say anything smoking-related). I’m sure if I got him puffing away he’d be very keen to fill in the sticker chart and to be rewarded for kicking the habit. But he is 5. Me, I’m 39 and looking forward to day 25 where the sticker chart says that in a couple of months my lung function could increase by about 10% and suggests “How about going for a walk”. Sorry, no-one told me I couldn’t keep my mobility scooter. No deal.

The whole pack is so patronising that it is tempting to flip back to the old smoker’s attitude I adopted for years while the habit became less and less socially acceptable and to say, screw you, I don’t want to be part of your gang. But of course, that just shows how awful smokers are. Not smoking – we are all agreed about smoking’s filthiness – but smokers. Perhaps it is the paranoia of a few nicotine-less days (although my helpful Quit Kit doesn’t put paranoia down as a side-effect) but I sense that the real focus of part of the crack down by the Fun Police is against the sorts of attitudes that have to be held by smokers for them to carry on with their nasty habit. They are horrible people who don’t live their lives on the basis of other people’s welfare – just on an assessment of the impact on their own welfare where they have used their terrible freedom to decide that they prefer to take the risks of harming their health alongside the pleasures of their habit. That cannot be allowed.

So, on to the next target of the Fun Police. Drinking. Now, I have actually also decided to stop drinking for January, but that is coincidental. The government wants to bring in minimum pricing for alcohol. Just as with the smoking ban, this is really just a way of discouraging or punishing a particular sort of attitude or person. People who might get along quite happily without drinking through the week but who, when they go out for a night out, might just want to get bladdered. The others, the alcoholics and the street drinkers, are going to carry on regardless, they’ll just get more desparate and more impoverished by their addiction. It is the ordinary folk who commit the crime of drinking because they like the effects of alcohol rather than an appreciation of the effect of terroir on the expertly kept wine offered by their sommellier who are being targeted. People having just the wrong sort of fun entirely. Young people’s fun. Ordinary people’s fun.

That doesn’t mean that the trouble that can be fuelled by binge-drinking shouldn’t be tackled – it should. Women shouldn’t be raped. People shouldn’t be assaulted. But, they also shouldn’t be made to feel that it is their fault if this does happen to them after drinking. They’re still the victim. It is good that the idea of a woman dressed up attractively is “asking for it” is becoming unacceptable. It is a bad development to bring it back in a wider form by letting the Fun Police vilify drinkers as “asking for it”. Particularly if this is then to be used to ration access to services as has been suggested by some – categorising alcohol-related injury and illness as self-inflicted.