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Thatcher had profound effect on popular culture

Mrs Margaret Thatcher was not just a political titan, she was a cultural icon - skewered by comedians, transformed into a puppet and played to Oscar-winning perfection by Meryl Streep.
The Straits Times - April 11, 2013
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Thatcher had profound effect on popular culture

Mrs Margaret Thatcher was not just a political titan, she was a cultural icon - skewered by comedians, transformed into a puppet and played to Oscar-winning perfection by Meryl Streep.

With her uncompromising politics, ironclad certainty, bouffant hairstyle and ever-present handbag, the late British leader was grist for comedians, playwrights, novelists and songwriters whether they loved her or - as was more often the case - hated her.


Mrs Thatcher's free-market policies transformed and divided Britain, unleashing an outpouring of creative anger from her opponents. A generation of British comedians, from Ben Elton to Alexei Sayle, honed their talents lampooning Mrs Thatcher.

To the satirical puppeteers of popular 1980s TV series Spitting Image, Mrs Thatcher was a cigar-smoking bully, a butcher with a bloody cleaver, a domineering leader ruling over her docile Cabinet. One famous sketch showed Mrs Thatcher and her ministers gathered for dinner. Mrs Thatcher ordered steak. "And what about the vegetables?" the waitress asked. "They'll have the same as me," Mrs Thatcher replied.

In the United States, Saturday Night Live got in on the act - albeit more gently - making the Iron Lady the subject of several skits. In one of them, Monty Python member Michael Palin played the prime minister shortly after her election in 1979, poking fun at her helmet of hair.


Pop was political in Mrs Thatcher's day, as the bitter social divisions of the 1980s sparked an angry musical outpouring.

"Whenever I'm asked to name my greatest inspiration, I always answer 'Margaret Thatcher'," singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, one of her most vocal opponents, said in 2009. "Truth is, before she came into my life, I was just your run-of-the-mill singer-songwriter."

Bragg was a member of the 1980s Red Wedge movement that campaigned against Mrs Thatcher and the Conservatives and for the Labour Party.

"I see no joy, I see only sorrow, I see no chance of your bright new tomorrow," sang The Beat, urging Mrs Thatcher to resign in Stand Down Margaret. In Tramp The Dirt Down, Elvis Costello imagined the day of Mrs Thatcher's death: "When they finally put you in the ground, I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down."

Former Smiths frontman Morrissey went even further, lyrically fantasising about Margaret On Th Guillotine".

But for some later musicians, Mrs Thatcher was a positive figure.

Former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell - who sported a Union Jack mini-dress as part of the 1990s girl group - tweeted on Monday: "Thinking of our 1st Lady of girl power, Margaret Thatcher, a green grocer's daughter who taught me anything is possible."


Mrs Thatcher has made appearances in several novels written or set in the 1980s.

In Salman Rushdie's 1988 book, The Satanic Verses, she was "Mrs Torture."

She was a major, though mostly unseen, presence in Alan Hollinghurst's Booker Prize-winning 2004 novel"The Line Of Beauty, set during the height of Mrs Thatcher's rule. The prime minister's appearance at a Conservative lawmaker's party - where she sends the crowd into a tizzy and dances to the Rolling Stones with the novel's young protagonist - forms the dizzying pivot of Hollinghurst's tale of 80s power and excess.


Mrs Thatcher's transformation into a stage and screen character started not long after she took office. Mrs Thatcher's personal papers include an account of an excruciating 1981 evening that she and her husband, Denis, spent at a West End farce titled Anyone For Denis?

On stage, Mrs Thatcher remains a potent figure, a shorthand for the 1980s. In the Olivier- and Tony Award-winning musical Billy Elliot, coal miners sing Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher, a song with music by Elton John and lyrics that say: "We all celebrate today 'cause it's one day closer to your death".

West End theatregoers are currently flocking to see The Audience, a play about meetings between Queen Elizabeth II and the 12 prime ministers of her long reign. The play is a gentle liberal drama, and Haydn Gwynne's strident Mrs Thatcher is gently rebuked by the monarch over her opposition to sanctions against apartheid South Africa.

On-screen, the character of Mrs Thatcher had a jokey cameo at the end of the 1981 James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only, but for left-wing directors, she was no laughing matter.

Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette was one of several 1980s films that depicted Mrs Thatcher's Britain as a land of poverty and racism as well as economic enterprise.

Others have mined the drama of a hardworking grocer's daughter who became Britain's first female prime minister. In the 2008 TV movie The Long Walk To Finchley, Andrea Riseborough played the young politician fighting for a seat in Parliament. The next year "Margaret", with Lindsay Duncan, depicted the end of her career via a Cabinet coup in 1990.

The most acclaimed recent screen Mrs Thatcher was Streep's turn as the aged politician looking back on her life in the 2011 film The Iron Lady. Streep won an Academy Award for a performance that humanised a divisive character.

Streep said on Monday that Mrs Thatcher's political legacy was "worthy for the argument of history to settle".

"It is hard to imagine a part of our current history that has not been affected by measures she put forward in the United Kingdom," Streep said. "But to me, she was a figure of awe for her personal strength and grit."


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