REVIEW / Thatcher brews up a storm after the lull

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The Independent Culture
ABOUT three quarters of the way through Thatcher: the Downing Street Years (BBC1) you suddenly realised that you hadn't seen any opposition politicians at all. Here was a political documentary alive with bitterness and recrimination, vivid with mutual distrust and unresolved anger, and yet every contributor (but for an amiable appearance by Lord Runcie) was a member of the same party.

It wasn't the first of the little shocks delivered by the film (it was oddly startling, for instance, to remember that she had once been in opposition), but it finally brought home the fact that this series looks set to revive an old cliche about documentary television history in the making. The battle for posterity has been joined and an important early skirmish will be fought over the next four weeks.

One judgement has already been taken as read. If you were a Martian watching the first of Denys Blakeways' Blakeways's programmes you would be aware that beneath the differences lay an uncontested premise that Mrs Thatcher can't be consigned to a historical lay-by. There is no way round her the debate is whether she constituted a bloody great obstacle on the historical highway or a commanding height from which we are now free-wheeling downwards. No prizes for guessing what the lady herself thinks.

There's certainly something monolithic, even awesome, about her own sense of her place in history; she is an Ayer's Rock of conviction, capable of sentences which have you mentally edging for the straight-strait-jacket. 'If you look at the great philosophies and if you look at the great religions,' she said at one point, discussing the troubling affection for compromise that she found in her colleagues, 'do you think you would ever have had those great guidelines had people gone out and said, 'Brothers, I believe in consensus'?' This messianic self-confidence, was reinforced later when she recollected difficult times during the riots of 1981: 'I said . . . 'Give me six strong men and true and we'll get through'.' We shouldn't interpret the fact that she limits herself to half the conventional number of disciples as modesty, I think - more a conviction that Jesus's ministry was hopelessly overmanned.

This first programme offered something for devotees and non-believers alike. Her early confrontation with the Tory grandees and civil servant mandarins ('It was reported to me that one civil servant had said, 'Our task now is the orderly management of decline',' she recalled, quivering with indignation at the memory) was a remarkable instance of political courage in the face of overwhelming odds. This was given a human perspective by an anecdote from Lord Carrington, which suggested that though she was without doubt, she could feel fear.

As their aircraft came into land at Salisbury (the Rhodesian settlement was being discussed) he noticed that she had taken out a pair of sunglasses, despite the fact that it was night. He asked her what she was doing and she replied that she was convinced that she was going to have acid thrown in her face by the hostile crowd. She left the aircraft without them.

On the other hand, there was little to soothe the hostile. The only evidence that she had a sense of humour was hardly endearing (her assistant Crawfie remembered her laughing uproariously when someone mistakenly put salt on their peaches) and there was no escaping her candid xenophobia (she turned to the Sun for political philosophy) or her sustained contempt for her colleagues ('Had we been bailiffs coming to take away the furniture from Chequers, we would have been more cordially received,' said Lord Gilmour, about his return from an EEC summit with an unsatisfactory deal).

Whatever your views, it was fascinating television. In deciding against the conventional format for political biography (an adversarial interview interspersed with archive footage) the producers have delivered something far more compelling an arena in which an unresolved struggle can be fought out.