Margaret, BBC2; EastEnders, BBC1; Paris Hilton's British Best Friend, ITV2
Lindsay Duncan's portrayal of Thatcher during her last days as PM was so one-dimensional it was hard to care
Sunday 01 March 2009
Was it deliberate that Margaret, about the last days of the Thatcher government, struck a similar tone to the film about the last days of the Third Reich – Downfall? Both deeply claustrophobic, they showed the bare minimum of what was going on "out there" – be it Berlin burning, or Brixton, though Downfall gave slightly more sense of its protagonist's career ("Margaret" didn't mention the words "monetarism" or "IRA"). Bruno Ganz brought – and I mean this almost sincerely – more human sympathy to Hitler than Lindsay Duncan did to Thatcher. Her performance came straight out of the deep freeze, ungenerous and psychopathic.
The producers were listening to their political, not their dramatic instincts; it was difficult to care, over two hours, about this woman losing her job. Duncan, as limited here as a malevolent porcelain doll, played her angry scenes like a supermodel having a hissy fit, and as the narrative bobbed back to the past, she missed myriad opportunities to age up and down, to contrast the fresher younger Margaret with the sclerotic Maggie Caesar.
The flashbacks to her early years were wooden and over the top – Airey Neave whispering in her ear like a posh Gollum – and the piece worked best as a portrait of her twilight days, a Gotterdammerthatcherung. Writer Richard Cottan and director James Kent achieved a portentous atmosphere, even without surly lions pacing Whitehall. It was Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, but with pinstripes instead of togas. She was beginning to bestride the Cabinet like a Colossus; rebellion was brewing; Heseltine had a lean and hungry look ....
The main pleasure of the piece was watching the semi-caricatures of Thatcher's favourites, flamboyant, half-forgotten beasts from a now-flattened political jungle. I gasped when I saw Heseltine. That hair! No wonder Oliver Cotton gave such a bombastic performance – he had to up his volume to be heard over that sandy wig and eyebrow gear, props that are requisite for the part but hard-to-handle, nevertheless, like Santa's beard, or Satan's tail – delete according to political prejudice. John Sessions was in his element as Geoffrey Howe – after all, he spent years doing his voice on Spitting Image – playing him as if he was in a sort of trance, like Brutus in his "phantasma or a hideous dream", as he delivered the unkindest cut of all, his resignation speech.
The parade of have-a-go cameos continued: James Fox, pictured above, as Charles Powell; Robert Hardy as Willie Whitelaw; Paul Jesson as Ken Baker. Kevin R McNally was also vocally pitch perfect as Ken Clarke .... For fans of senior British actors of substance, Christmas was come early indeed.
The piece had a good ear for subtext, such as the true meaning of Ken Clarke's "no one wants you humiliated, Margaret", and the magpie script arranged scraps of truth so they glinted, a line of Nigel Lawson's memoir here, from Alan Clark's diaries there. I looked it up: Peter Morrison really was asleep at his desk when Clark came to the door. (They left out my favourite Clarkism: "Hullo, aren't you Edwina Currie?" – "Now then, Alan, there's no need to be objectionable.") The made-up scenes – icy domestic repartee chez Thatch – were weaker than the quotes, but that's every docudrama-writer's tragedy.
Finally, the piece didn't have the stamina to get to the friends, Romans, countrymen speech, leaving John Major (the wonderful Michael Maloney, ticking like a buried bomb) still at home with his infamously achey wisdom teeth. I enjoyed it, but I was left wondering how it is that people who work in entertainment have the confidence to trivialise so relentlessly people who work in government.
EastEnders sprang on us a black history episode, a one-off themed broadcast featuring an all-black cast, the younger ones togged up in street style and talking politics, the older ones drinking rum and reminiscing: "Back in Trinidad we don't call it pancake day, we call it carnival ... Mardi Gras." It was all a bit awkward and clichéd, but at least the envelope was pushed. One paper invited its readers to vote on whether the episode was "Tokenistic or Overdue?" (it can't win really, with that binary choice) while a huge to-do was made in another broadsheet about the fact that it wasn't flagged up with a pre-publicity campaign, when in truth it could have done with being even more casual, wearing its purpose more lightly.
Top trash TV at the moment is Paris Hilton's British Best Friend. Paris tells us she has found it hard finding people who want to be her friend "for the right reason", so she figures throwing a reality TV competition might help. Then she makes a little moue at the camera. That woman has a genius for camp. There are 12 British contestants, sweet as chicks but mentally – well, let's just say none of them will be on University Challenge any time soon. There is one man among them, who is given to wearing hairbands. Paris sets them all friendship tasks, such as buying her a present. She gives them £50, then receives the gifts graciously: "For me? That's so thoughtful!" Although it is not clear what the contractual definition of the post-show friendship will be (must Paris respond to a certain number of text messages per week?). Paris still has strict ideas about her selection process.
She has made it clear she will only choose a British best friend (BBF) who won't sell stories about her to the press. Touching, isn't it?
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