Thatcher: The Frost Interview

TV Review
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"Do you sometimes feel a bit like Norma Desmond - 'I still am big', it's the politics that have got small?", David Frost asked Mrs Thatcher in the opening question of Thatcher: The Path to Power - and Beyond (BBC1). Spotting at once that it wouldn't be wise to identify herself with a psychotic old has-been, Baroness Thatcher demurred. "Not in the least", she said quickly, "I wasn't a Hollywood star, I was a mere politician." No, she hadn't left poor Johnny Major floating face down in the pool, and no, she wasn't waiting for the studio to call. Besides, she had never worked to a script: "The words, the policies, the lines, the speech were mine," she said, fixing Frost with that unnerving seraphic glare. This seemed a bit tough on Sir Ronald Millar, who penned many of Thatcher's most famous punchlines, but fame has its privileges, I suppose.

Frost had chosen the wrong star, to my mind. The clue came in an early scatter of photographs, showing the young Thatcher making the now celebrated transition from housewife to superstar. There was something familiar in this slight figure, a touch suburban and dowdy in monochrome, some echo in the story of her rise to power, from that humble corner shop in Moonee Ponds... sorry, Grantham. Once admitted, the comparison with Dame Edna proved strangely difficult to shake from the mind.

Both women have undergone a glamorising evolution over the years, the hair and voice slowly building in power and polish. Both believe themselves to be infallible and both offer the same sweet, intimate condescension to their audiences, though Lady Thatcher is a little more formal in her address - she will, like Dame Edna, quote improving poetry at you but doesn't round it off with "I think that's so true, don't you possums?". Both women are apparently unaware of double-entendres - Lady Thatcher, it seemed, really had said "Everyone needs a Willie", a perfect Dame Edna line. Both women talk about their vaguely comical husbands with great tenderness. "I couldn't have done anything in politics had there been any friction [with Dennis]," said Mrs Thatcher, "and he has built his own reputation and niche in the hearts and minds of British people."

David Frost gulped at this description of her consort, briefly abandoning the tone of courtly respect which characterised the rest of the interview. "Oh he certainly..." he began in incredulous tones. I don't think he knew how he was going to finish this sentence but he was saved by the fact that Lady Thatcher never waits for people to finish sentences anyway.

It was as close as you came to confrontation, apart from a nervous poke at the Mark question ("People say about Mark that he, he uses... uses your name?") and the tortuous extraction of an endorsement for John Major ("the best of the three who were available at the time," she said, as if they had had a disappointing response to an advert in Exchange and Mart). That said, it's difficult to think where an interviewer could find any purchase for a crowbar - she presents a surface of seamless rectitude, unblemished by self-doubt. She clearly believes that her dispossession was a kind of coup, a theft of the nation's destiny; she never lost a general election, after all. Indeed, on her own account, she didn't lose the leadership election either: "I had to leave, even though I got more votes than my successor, but I left. Never try to go back in life," she said, when asked if she ever dreamed of restoration. "If there is a terrible crisis of such enormous magnitude that we'd have to think about it, the answer would show itself." The "we" was royal, I think, and the vision that of Albion awoken, the clouds parting to reveal the name Margaret written in letters of fire against a Western sky. Spooky.