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Becoming Maggie: Maryl Streep, Haydn Gwynne and others on playing Thatcher

Geoffrey Macnab looks at the dramatic representations of Mrs Thatcher, while the actresses (and one actor) who have played her share their experiences of a daunting role

In film and on television, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has been shown in a bewildering number of guises – the grocer's daughter from Grantham in a hurry, the ingenue, the Darth Vader-like war-monger, the wicked witch, the tragic heroine and the Boadicea-like warrior queen draped in the Union Jack. Most of the portrayals have been determinedly superficial.

Thatcher's problem was that she was so easy to impersonate. From the mid-1970s onwards, Scottish comedian Janet Brown had extraordinary success in playing Thatcher simply by dressing in roughly similar clothes and mimicking her slow and husky voice. Brown's Thatcher was seen on everything from The Mike Yarwood Show to the 1981 James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only.

Brown's portrayal was accurate without seeming funny or subtle. By contrast, on the satirical show Spitting Image the Thatcher puppet's grotesquerie was accentuated by impressionist Steve Nallon's strident and very aggressive voice. This really was Thatcher in wicked witch mode, as close as you could come on screen to Gerald Scarfe's vicious cartoon depictions of Thatcher as a gimlet-eyed harpy.

Jennifer Saunders took a refreshingly left-field approach when she tackled Thatcher in Comic Strip Presents... The Hunt For Tony Blair (2011). Saunders, who played the PM in Comic Strip skits in the 1990s, took Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard as her inspiration. Her Thatcher flirts outrageously with Tony Blair (Stephen Mangan), who is on the run for mass murder.

More nuanced portrayals were eventually given in the dramas that depicted the politician in her youth, making her first tentative steps toward Downing Street. In The Long Walk To Finchley (2008), young Margaret Roberts was played by an improbably glamorous Andrea Riseborough, who effectively conveyed both her early diffidence and her ambition and obstinacy.

Some very good actresses played her without being especially convincing. Lesley Manville was cast as Thatcher in The Queen: The Rivals (2009) but seems too decent and kindly. That's not a problem that afflicts Lindsay Duncan in the BBC's Margaret (2009) in which she played the PM as Clytemnestra.

Inevitably, most screen portrayals of Thatcher appear puny by comparison with Meryl Streep's Oscar-winning turn in The Iron Lady (2011).Streep captures Thatcher's vanity and ambition but also her vulnerability at the end of her life when her faculties are failing. There is also a very appealing performance by Alexandra Roach as the ingenuous young Margaret. It at last offered a Thatcher with some emotional depth.

Meryl Streep

The Iron Lady (2011)

Margaret Thatcher was a pioneer, willingly or unwillingly, for the role of women in politics. But to me she was a figure of awe for her personal strength and grit. To have come up, legitimately, through the ranks of the British political system, class-bound and gender-phobic as it was, in the time that she did and the way that she did, was a formidable achievement. To have won it, not because she inherited position as the daughter of a great man, or the widow of an important man, but by dint of her own striving. To have withstood the special hatred and ridicule, unprecedented in my opinion, leveled in our time at a public figure who was not a mass murderer; and to have managed to keep her convictions attached to fervent ideals and ideas – wrongheaded or misguided as we might see them now – without corruption; I see that as evidence of some kind of greatness, worthy for the argument of history to settle. To have given women and girls around the world reason to supplant fantasies of being princesses with a different dream: the real-life option of leading their nation; this was groundbreaking and admirable. I was honoured to try to imagine her late life journey, after power; but I have only a glancing understanding of what her many struggles were, and how she managed to sail through to the other side.

Alexandra Roach

The Iron Lady (2011)

I didn't share a trailer with Meryl, but in the mornings we'd have our fake noses put on together. I'd be walking to set and would catch my reflection and think 'Who the hell is that?' I had a nose, teeth and that wig. The teeth were super-helpful. As soon as I put them in, I'd understand why Thatcher would make certain sounds. I did feel a big responsibility – everybody knows how Thatcher spoke – but Meryl definitely had the tougher job. I had more artistic licence because there are only two recordings of her being interviewed before she was 33 and that was when I stopped playing her.

As I was growing up I heard her name over and over from people around me. There were two or three mines in my small town, Ammanford [South Wales]. My grandfather was a miner from the age of 12 and my dad was a policeman during the strikes. So my grandfather was on one side of the picket line and my father was on the other. It was a huge issue in the house. My dad says, “We'll never escape Thatcher now, with you playing her,” I went to the social club back home at Christmas and I was bit nervous about it but they just wanted to know what I was doing. There was no animosity at all.

When I got the film I hoped it would be my big break. It has been. I've moved up a gear. It's quite dear to me, The Iron Lady and I think it always will be.

Haydn Gwynne

The Audience, Gielgud Theatre (2013, ongoing)

Thatcher hasn't been seen on stage for a long time. People were really up for enjoying that. Now the audience is very nervous about how to react and whether they're allowed to enjoy it. We are still quite superstitious about not speaking ill of the dead. For a moment, I could feel that I might have been affected with their nerves. Obviously, I am on stage with Helen [Mirren]. We both took a mental deep breath and went “OK, there's no difference. It's the same scene and the same show.” The audience came quickly back on board and realised they were allowed to enjoy it and to laugh. Of course, there was an added frisson.

What I am playing is the one thing that can't be researched. There is no footage of how Thatcher and the Queen behaved in their audiences. This isn't a documentary. This is an imagined scene and certain dramatic licence has been taken. It is interesting that you have these two women, one with constant, absolute power and the other, the reigning monarch, with supposedly no power at all. They were almost exactly the same age.

I'd love to have another crack at her because I would love an opportunity to show more sides to her. In this scene, I am being asked to be very full on.

Patricia Hodge

The Falklands Play (2002)

Until I starred as Margaret Thatcher in the BBC's The Falklands Play, there hadn't really been any straight dramas in which she was the central role. My first feeling was how incredibly difficult to play a woman who was no longer Prime Minister but was still one of the most famous women in the world. It's audacious to represent somebody when you can only be a pale imitation of the original. My first instinct was that I couldn't possibly take it on, but then I read the script; it was an incredibly good story and the producers didn't want an impersonation but a representation. That allowed me to look at it and say, “This is a woman leading a country in a time of crisis and having to make some difficult decisions”. That was really the way that I tackled it and therefore the only thing I wanted to know was how her mind worked.

I didn't look at any news footage but I talked to Denys Blakeway who had made a film about her and I read all the sections of The Downing Street Years that pertained to the Falkland's crisis. I didn't complicate further than that – it gradually grew from within. The wardrobe department put me in parallel costumes and I had the power hair. The first day of filming I stepped out of the trailer in character and the writer Ian Curteis stopped in his tracks. I said, “Yes, I didn't think she'd take me over like this.”

Steve Nallon

Spitting Image (1984-96); Thatcher impersonator since the 1970s

I saw Mike Yarwood on television attempting to do Thatcher and not being very successful. I was doing impressions at school and I thought I would give it a go. Everybody thought it was quite funny so they put it in the school cabaret. I was only 15.

Recently somebody played me my version of Thatcher from 1984. It was completely different from the one I remember – much higher and very posh, but that is probably what she sounded like in the early 1980s. Over the years, her voice was brought down and she changed her vowels. I've seen footage of her in the mid 1950s. Her voice is very cut-glass – not quite Celia Johnson but of that era. By the end of her life, she spoke completely differently.

When I used to dress up as Mrs Thatcher I made her more real. On Spitting Image, she had to match the puppet, so there was a caricature in it. I guess she would have regarded Spitting Image as cruel and unpleasant. She did have that slightly Mary Whitehouse side to her where she wanted the world to be nice... Many people would say, well, Mrs Thatcher was cruel to entire communities by leaving them to rot in mining areas and shipbuilding areas. It's what you define as cruel, I suppose.

I am guaranteed employment [voicing Thatcher] at least once a year. I did some promotion for The Iron Lady. What Meryl Streep brought was a real sense of power, which I never really had. She couldn't make her funny, though. My gift was that I made her funny.

Louise Gold

The Alan Clark Diaries (2004-6); various stage performances

I played Thatcher on screen and twice on stage: in The Metropolitan Mikado and Steven Berkoff's Sink the Belgrano!, as Maggot Scratcher. I had been working the Thatcher puppet in Spitting Image initially so I had already been watching the mannerisms, the gestures.I tried to get the walk.

She was wonderful to play – an absolute gift. Look at her and look at David Cameron. The impressions I've seen of Cameron haven't brought out any outstanding characteristics to focus on. That's true of him as a politician. She had huge defining characteristics – that was true of her government whether you liked it or not.