Like the first heavy raindrop presaging a shower, the documentary Portillo on Thatcher: The Lady's Not For Spurning was a sign we're entering the Great Thatcher Revisionist Period. Broadcasting's attitude towards her has been changing fractionally, by degrees. The archive rooms are probably thronged with researchers fighting over rare footage for their respectful obituary tributes. It's the opposite of crowding vultures: the doves are gathering. If anyone is planning to go and film the Grantham birthplace, I can tell you that it's now a holistic beauty store called Living Health. Just so you know.
Anyway, last year it became acceptable to talk about Thatcher approvingly on BBC documentaries: Andrew Marr did it on his History of Modern Britain, while simultaneously supplying the obligatory derision as well – one part praise to two parts horror clearly seemed to him to be a safe ratio. Since then, the temperature has changed again, and people are even dropping the disclaimers. Portillo cleverly made use of this climate of revisionism to make a sensitive and engaging film about what Thatcher meant to him.
All portraits, as we know, are self-portraits, all biographies autobiographies – and it was disingenuous to bill this programme as a straight profile of Thatcher, when it was actually so personal in its insight: the lady as spied through Michael's Portillos (hasn't his surname always sounded to you like a fancy porthole? OK, just me then). Thatcher's glory days were already snipped and summarised 17 minutes into the programme, and the whole thing only really took off when, in the by-election held after Sir Anthony Berry's death in the Brighton bombing, Portillo came to power. The programme's speculations about Thatcher's long shadow over the party were interesting, but hardly new. What was really fascinating was Portillo's self-revelations. "My Story: Being the Nearly Man of the Conservative Party" would have been a more honest title for this piece, as well as having the added advantage of being free from terrible puns.
But back to Michael Portillo's young face, which had a truly unfortunate bacon-and-sausages smugness – freeze-frame the footage of him at that first election hustings, and you have an illustration for the "Sin of Pride" in a medieval psalter. It was almost as if his whole career was a conspiracy to wipe this expression off his face. Decades of mortification later, his face is wiser, kinder, but as smug as ever. At this point we realise – oh cruel irony – that he just has a smug face, the poor genetically doomed man, as you or I have green eyes. His commentary on this programme was stunningly honest, full of "my failure" and "my defeat" (still said with that satisfied, meaty glow) and he even put losing the leadership down to the fact that "too many MPs disliked me and/or my uncompromising agenda for modernisation". There was a lot of humility in that "and/or".
He spoke frankly about his more subtle political machinations – how he swore loyalty to John Major but, simultaneously, sneakily had workmen install phone lines to his offices to give a "signal" that he was keen to fight a leadership campaign. He told his story simply, and without self-indulgence: when describing how he was the favourite to win the leadership, but just missed out, the way he delivered the words "I lost by one vote" was so light and yet so freighted with regret, that you had to rewind to listen again, and not just for reasons of Schadenfreude.
Classical drama deals with how great figures lose power, but there is a special piquancy in the story of people who lose it before they have it – perhaps because they are more like the rest of us. What Portillo was too calculatingly modest to say was that if only he had been more careful to be born 10 years later or earlier, his career might have been very different. His documentary brought home how most politicians' destinies are defined by their times, while only one or two leaders in a century do the defining.
Wonderland's The 92-Year-Old Danger Junkie is the latest in an emerging documentary strand of reliably wonderful eccentricity. But it was a bad title (summoning images of witless bungee-jumping grandads) for a superb and haunting programme. The Great Omani was Ron Cunningham, a stunt performer on the model of Houdini, who saw old age as no impediment to magic. At an age when most are content with bingo, he was smashing bottles across his withered dewlaps and dragging his calloused feet over glass. Then the inevitable happened, and his famous arms-on-fire trick left him scorched and in pain.
Still, in his final illness, death had no dominion for The Great Omani, as he stage-managed his funeral for maximum dramatic effect. "You're up there with Houdini and all our doggies," his son told him as he lay in his coffin. But Omani had achieved his final great act of escapology.Reuse content