Margaret Thatcher – The Long Walk to Finchley, BBC 4
The Making of the Iron Lady, BBC 4
The Victorian Sex Explorer, Channel 4
Imagine, BBC 2
It took an iron will to become a female parliamentary candidate in the 1950s, and a masterful biopic to make viewers urge her on
Sunday 15 June 2008
A bout 45 minutes into Margaret Thatcher – The Long Walk to Finchley, you begin to think that the young protagonist will never be selected as a candidate. She has been trying for almost 10 years, written off at every turn and patronised from a great height: "How marvellous to see a lady contesting .... Brightens the place up!" Finally, when the Finchley incumbent Sir John Crowder (here a noxious caricature) is openly hostile, you think she's about to walk sadly away, but no: she draws herself up against this Goliath, like David with a shampoo and set and – Pow! – handbags him with a knock-out speech! Viewers in sitting rooms across the country punch the air! Then half of them remember their political affiliation and punch themselves in the face.
It's all very confusing, this new BBC tendency to give its old enemies sympathetic biopics. Here we had Maggie's early years, à la PG Wodehouse. She was shown as a smashing gel, thrillingly stern, (the incipient Aunt strong within her) and quivering with devotion to – cue that breathily familiar voice – "Politics!"
Andrea Riseborough's captivating central performance saved the whole project from the obvious pitfalls of parody and impersonation. Somehow she managed, again and again, to fit a wide spectrum of feeling, from indomitable to needy, into seconds of screen-time. Where so many have squatted in Thatcher's persona, she had the keys and title deeds. At times it was spooky, this inhabitation. And if her performance was mannered, and too carefully calibrated, well then, wasn't Maggie's?
This kind of drama is always going to be long on feelings, short on ideology, but writer Tony Saint managed to strike a fair balance. I'd have liked a little more detail (post-coitally, Denis was shown reaching for a cigarette, and Margaret for a bedside book – but what? Friedrich von Hayek? Milton Friedman? The Bumper Book of Soviet Jokes?). Still, there were enough soundbites from her speeches to remind you of what was to come (if that isn't a temporal impossibility), and the drama was alert to the shift in Tory power from the old patricians to the one-nation "wets". Lots of fun was had with Ted Heath – now that's a phrase seldom seen – Sam West interpreting the role in the hamster school of acting, ie, with something stuffed in his cheeks, possibly shredded documents of national security. Rory Kinnear seemed to have got the wrong Denis, playing Norden not Thatcher, but the relationship between them was nicely done, although this production couldn't resist turning the extraordinary (the fact that, in life, he supported her wholeheartedly) into the ordinary (here, he was huffing and henpecked).
The humour here often felt tacked-on, a get-out clause, lest this should be thought too sincere a piece of revisionism. Some of the one-liners were very laboured. Not Laboured, just exhausting. Little Mark snatched a copy of The Jungle Book from Little Carol, saying: "When will you ever go to the jungle?" Ka-boom, splat, groan, etcetera.
For Labourites of a certain age last Thursday was TV torture. After this warm biopic came Michael Cockerell's documentary The Making of the Iron Lady which picked up where the authentic footage began. It had no scoops, trumpeting Mark Thatcher's first TV interview about his mother, even though his only revelation was that she used to come straight home and start cooking dinner without taking her coat off. But it was a feast of old clips, showing the unexpected qualities that never make it into the fictionalised versions: her touches of self-parody ("I stand before you in my red star dress, my fair hair gently waved ..."), her expert control of her own sexuality, which she could switch off at will (a shot of her waltzing with Jim Prior looked like two officers practising in the guardroom). Then, through the night, BBC4 screened five hours of the election results from 1979: a wonderful, baffling TV time-warp.
Rupert Everett announced in The Victorian Sex Explorer that he had given up on love affairs with the living. Instead, he was fixated on Sir Richard Burton, the 19th-century diplomat, spy, polyglot and wearer of extraordinary moustaches (more luxuriant than Fu Manchu, less warm than Brian Blessed, and altogether harder to handle than a handlebar).
In homage, Everett set off in the orientalist's footsteps, visiting brothels, Shiva temples and mosques. He took with him his own fulsome beard and sense of elegant but unflinching inquiry, not quoting Burton enough – you wouldn't have known he was the author of 45-odd books – but updating his work instead. Everett conducted an affecting interview with Bombay prostitutes, one of whom unexpectedly brought her swaddled baby out from where she kept it in a bottom drawer; he spoke to Indian hijras about their castration ceremonies (no anaesthetic, but "lots of water to drink") and he asked an imam if homosexuality was acceptable. "Will you please repeat the question?" said the translator, though he heard very well the first time. "I feel like an outsider in a culture that wants no part of me," said Everett. "I'm feeling excited for being illicit." Wit with a dash of melancholia and a narcissistic twist, Everett is a crisp TV martini. "I suppose this is as close to my man as I'm going to get," he said, approaching Burton's tomb, an Arabian tent pitched, incongruously, in a Catholic cemetery in Barnes.
Brilliant to see the outstanding Imagine... documentary Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens, on our screens, even if it was a bit of a cheat, being a cinema work bought in by the Imagine strand and then topped and tailed by Alan Yentob, a sleight of hand that would get you, ooh, a top job with Sir Alan Sugar.
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