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Thatcher had profound effect on popular culture

LONDON: 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, Thatcher was grist for the mills of comedians, playwrights, novelists and songwriters who – as was most often the case – despised her.

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

To the satirical puppeteers of popular 1980s television series “Spitting Image,” Thatcher was a cigar-smoking bully, a butcher with a bloody cleaver, a domineering leader ruling over her docile Cabinet. One famous sketch showed her and her ministers gathered for dinner. Thatcher ordered steak.

“And what about the vegetables?” the waitress asked.

“They’ll have the same as me,” Thatcher replied.

“Saturday Night Live” got in on the act 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 1979 election, poking fun at her helmet hair.

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

“Whenever I’m asked to name my greatest inspiration, I always answer, ‘Margaret Thatcher,’” composer Billy Bragg 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 for the Labour Party against Thatcher’s Tories.

“I see no joy, I see only sorrow,” sang The Beat in their “Stand Down Margaret.” “I see no chance of your bright new tomorrow.”

Elvis Costello imagined the day of Thatcher’s death in “Tramp the Dirt Down.” “When they finally put you in the ground,” he croons, “I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.”

Former Smiths frontman Morrissey went even further, lyrically fantasizing about “Margaret on the Guillotine.”

At least one later musician liked Thatcher. “Thinking of our 1st Lady of girl power,” former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell – who sported a Union Jack minidress as part of the 1990s girl group – tweeted Monday. “Margaret Thatcher, a green grocer’s daughter who taught me anything is possible.”

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

In Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses,” from 1988, she was “Mrs. Torture.” Despite his political opposition to Thatcher, Rushdie remembered her Monday as a “considerate” woman who had offered him police protection after the novel brought a death sentence from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini.

She was a major, though mostly unseen, presence in Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize-winning 2004 novel “The Line of Beauty,” set at the height of Thatcher’s rule.

The prime minister’s appearance at a Tory 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.

Thatcher’s transformation into a stage and screen character started not long after she took office. Her 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, Thatcher remains a potent shorthand for the 1980s.

In the award-winning musical “Billy Elliot,” coal miners sing a tune called “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher.”

“We all celebrate today,” they wail, accompanied by music by Elton John, “‘cause it’s one day closer to your death.”

After polling the opinion of the audience, The London production of “Billy Elliot” kept the song in Monday.

West End theatergoers are currently flocking to see “The Audience,” a play about meetings between Queen Elizabeth II and the 12 prime ministers of her long reign. In this liberal drama, the monarch gently rebukes the strident Thatcher (Haydn Gwynne) for her opposition to sanctions against apartheid South Africa.

On-screen, Thatcher’s character had a jokey cameo at the end of the 1981 James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only.”

For left-leaning directors, though, she was no laughing matter. Stephen Frears’ “My Beautiful Laundrette” (1985) was one of several 1980s films that depicted Thatcher’s Britain as a land of poverty and racism as much as one of economic enterprise.

More recently “Hunger” (2008), Steve McQueen’s lacerating work about the final days of IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands, ends with a parliament speech from Thatcher, declaring she would never acknowledge IRA prisoners’ political status.

Others have mined the drama of a hardworking grocer’s daughter who became Britain’s first female prime minister. In the 2008 television movie “The Long Walk to Finchley,” Andrea Riseborough played the young politician fighting for a seat in Parliament.

The most acclaimed recent screen Thatcher was Streep’s Academy Award-winning turn as the aged politician looking back on her life in the 2011 film “The Iron Lady.”

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

As to Thatcher’s political legacy, she said that was “worthy for the argument of history to settle.” – with The Daily Star

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 10, 2013, on page 16.

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