Last Night's TV: Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley, BBC4

She knew how to get the party started

Sooner or later, every politician gets rehabilitated – or at any rate, the edge wears down on whatever ill will was held. Genghis Khan, maker of widows, despoiler of nations, can now be the subject of an admiring film that paints him as a sensitive and dedicated family man. One day, people will talk about Hitler with amused tolerance, and Stalin's main claim to fame will be as an icon for moustache wearers. Not that any of these cases is strictly relevant to Margaret Thatcher, who was, after all, democratically elected and is still admired by millions. But at the liberal-left end of things, she was loathed with extraordinary unanimity and ferocity, and it's interesting, that now, 18 years after she left office, she is becoming a darling of the media. The most recent issue of Vogue tried, in the face of common sense, to promote her as a "style icon" (mind you, the issue before had a piece about how Gordon Brown has been transformed from "dour, brooding Chancellor to genial PM", so this is clearly not an organ whose views on politics you're forced to take seriously). And now along strolls Margaret Thatcher: the Long Walk to Finchley, an account of her early career in politics by Tony Saint that manages to be both pro-Thatcher and anti-Tory, a trick previously regarded as too risky to be attempted by anyone outside a New Labour Cabinet.

Saint's strategy here was to treat Thatcher's actual political views as insignificant; what mattered was that she was not posh and, most importantly, a woman. This was brave Margaret's battle against the buffers, struggling from constituency to constituency in search of one that didn't want a war hero as its prospective parliamentary candidate, didn't assume that women are hysterical creatures whose place is, as one hostile old biddy put it, in the home, not the House. At several points in the drama, she was seen giving speeches to selection meetings, which contained windy versions of her views on trade unions and the Red menace. But it was clear that the constituency politicos weren't interested in these things – they responded with questions about local pothole black spots – and the film didn't really give us any chance to be, either. What we were supposed to be noticing was her conviction and sincerity, and the tutting and eyebrow-raising of old-fashioned buffers and matrons who couldn't look beyond her sex.

A case can be made for Thatcher as representing socially progressive forces. Michael Portillo made it after the film, in Dinner with Portillo, complaining that the Conservatives haven't been given the credit they deserve for electing a woman leader (perhaps that's why they've retreated now into their Old Etonian comfort zone). I'm not convinced. The essence of Thatcherism was a belief that success comes from individual effort, and surely she saw her own career as proof of that, rather than a blow for women in general. The Long Walk to Finchley papered over the cracks in its argument with a comic tone, implying that we weren't to take any of this seriously. Some of the jokes were neat. At a party function, the young Margaret, still only an aspiring MP, found herself dancing with Ted Heath, now safely elected – "You lead, I'll follow," she told him, for the only time in her life. At other times, anticipations of future events were contrived: young Mark Thatcher snatched his twin sister's copy of The Jungle Book – "When are you ever going to go to the jungle?" (If you don't get that, it's because you didn't follow Carol's success in I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!, and you can award yourself a gold star.) After that, when a family day out at the seaside ended with Denis announcing that Mark had got himself lost among the dunes, my main emotion was weary relief that we'd got that one over with.

Even at its most jolly and watchable, it was hard to see what it had to do with the real Margaret Thatcher. The casting of the lovely, kittenish Andrea Riseborough was problematic; although she rose at times to a pretty convincing impression of Thatcher's hectoring tone and glassy gaze, she couldn't rid herself of a touch of irony – I never had any sense of the solid core of Methodist certainty. Elsewhere, the casting was erratic. While Samuel West managed a faintly uncanny reminiscence of Heath, both pompous and uncertain, Rory Kinnear's Denis was inexplicably lower class, with faintly strangulated vowels that sounded more like John Major than a successful post-war businessman who had come through prep and public school. This was one example among many of the drama's poor sense of its period, along with some cloth-eared dialogue: Denis asked Margaret, "How does that grab you?"; Margaret told constituency workers that there were "no no-go areas".

At odd times, I managed to suspend my disbelief long enough to start enjoying the story, but was always jerked back to consciousness by some clunking implausibility. As a serious enquiry into the most influential woman in the past century of British history, this was a non-starter. But as an ice-breaker, the start of a conversation about Thatcherism that doesn't degenerate into yah-boo-sucks, it was unmissable.

r.hanks@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there