Margaret Thatcher: Let's hear it for the Iron Lady, comedy's greatest straight man

Thatcher was every stand-up's dream, as a new show that revisits her contribution to comedy reveals

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The Independent Culture

Maggie, Maggie, Maggie! Please come back!" In the 1980s she was the target for every stand-up's scorn. But now Margaret Thatcher will be celebrated at a special night of comedy hosted by Arthur Smith.

There's only thing worse than "Thatch", for the generation of "alternative" comedians who made their name excoriating the Iron Lady. And that's not having Maggie Thatcher to kick around any more in an era of bland coalition politics.

Nostalgists for that hectoring voice and Medusa glare will pack the Hackney Empire tonight for Maggie, Maggie, Maggie: ***! ***! ***!, an addition to the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, which will star Smith and his fellow 1980s cabaret circuit veterans Tony Slattery and Jenny Lecoat.

Terry Alderton and Hardeep Singh Kohli will give their perspective on the Thatcher years while the lady herself will make a special guest appearance in the form of Steve Nallon, the impressionist who voiced the former Prime Minister on Spitting Image.

"It has never been the same since her," admitted Smith. "Left and right have become merged. Blair was Thatcher's son. They're all Oxbridge boys who look the same." Smith hopes to educate a younger audience about political comedy's great nemesis. "Kids today think the cry went 'Maggie, Maggie, Maggie!, Oy, Oy, Oy!' not 'Out, Out, Out!'. In Guildford though they go 'Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!'"

Although Mrs Thatcher herself notoriously lacked a sense of humour, she was an inadvertent boon to comedians such as Smith. "Along with Thatcher came this new comedy. We were the young Turks against these old comics who were off playing golf with no interest in the world.

"The irony is that Norman Tebbit told us to get on your bike. Well no one did that more than stand-up comedians travelling from gig to gig."

Spitting Image parodied Thatcher as a tyrannical Nazi. But Steve Nallon said: "Satirists made sod all difference. I did the same Thatcher jokes at CND benefits and IBM corporate gigs and they got the same laughs, for different reasons."

As the Baroness has retired from public life, so has demand for her in a comic form.

"I very rarely do Maggie now," Nallon said. "I'm going to get the frock out I last wore 25 years ago. Then I'll leave her behind. We're going to invite people to chuck custard pies at her at the end of the show."

The key to Nallon's uncanny Thatcher impression was mastering how "she was brilliant at turning hesitancy in her speaking voice into conviction".

The Oscar-winning film The Iron Lady humanised Thatcher. However, Nallon says: "Meryl Streep did a fabulous job of making Thatcher real but she couldn't do a two-hour show at the Hackney Empire."

He spent years trying to master a David Cameron impression, which will be unveiled in a new app-based animated caricature series,

Nallon says: "What we've got now is a photo fit PM. He's hard to do because he's a Goldilocks figure, neither too hot or too cold.

"We're not as angry at the recession now. We seem resigned to it."

Smith is aware of the irony that alternative comedy's leading lights soon joined the establishment. "Ben Elton chumming up with one of the most prominent Tories (Andrew Lloyd-Webber) never really endeared himself to the cabaret circuit," he said.

Smith accepts that Thatcher was "one of the most significant prime ministers of the 20th century" and adds: "It's a tough dude who can stay angry for 30 years." But some habits never die. "Given it's at the Hackney Empire, the show is unlikely to be a paean of praise to Mrs Thatcher. She was the first one to deregulate the City, to give Rupert Murdoch a blow job and take power from the unions…."

Briefly, it's just like old times.

'Maggie, Maggie Maggie: ***! *** ! ***!' Hackney Empire, tonight, 7.30pm

How we laughed: The best gags

Spitting Image

[Thatcher is treating her Cabinet to a restaurant meal]

Waitress: "Would you like to order, sir?"

Thatcher: "Yes. I'll have the steak."

Waitress: "How would you like it?"

Thatcher: "Oh, raw, please."

Waitress: "And what about the vegetables?"

Thatcher: "Oh, they'll have the same as me!"


Thatcher: "We have to get rid of Enoch [Powell]. There is no room for racists in the Conservative Party – we're choc-a-bloc as it is!"

Jo Brand

"It was great when she became Lady Thatcher, because then she sounded like a device for removing pubic hair – you couldn't take her seriously after that."

Frankie Boyle

"Give her a state funeral because a lot of people will want to pay their respects and lot more people will want proof that she's really dead. It will be the first time the 21-gun salute shoots the coffin."