John Walsh on Margaret Thatcher: The lady with the handbag became as recognisable as Churchill and his cigar

From ‘Spitting Image’ to the West End stage and Hollywood, Mrs Thatcher’s unique image was the gift that kept on giving for comedians and screenwriters

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The handbag was a gift to satirists and cartoonists. 

No previous British prime minister, however flamboyant, not even Disraeli, had affected a handbag.

Carried by Margaret Thatcher, it presented a dual image: of good-housekeeping and of battleaxe aggression. Also, it was from Asprey’s: none of that Froggy Chanel nonsense. But then Mrs T was a walking anthology of style statements and vivid personal attributes – the royal-blue skirt suit, the ironclad coiffure, the determined walk, the pussy-bow blouses, the patent court shoes, the sharp nose and blazing blue eyes – and she became a series of vivid, cartoonish images: the nation’s Top Bitch, the WI Battleaxe, the Hans Andersen-esque Snow Queen, the folkloric Milk Snatcher, the Cabinet Dominatrix, the Falklands Generalissima...

It’s hard to think of any British PM of the 20th century, barring Winston Churchill, who has inspired so much iconography, so many impersonations, so many walk-on parts – and so much nonsense.

People paid her compliments that made no sense. When Francois Mitterrand said she had “the eyes of Caligula and lips of Marilyn Monroe,” he was idiotic about the former (Roman busts of Caligula had no eyes) and inaccurate about the latter (her mouth was nothing like Monroe’s.) “She was the original Spice Girl,” proclaimed the Spice Girls, heedless of Mrs T’s indifference to feminism and female solidarity.  “Margaret Thatcher did a lot for art,” said Gilbert and George, a judgement that ignored her cuts in the Arts Council budget and her conviction that the arts should rely for their survival on the private sector. Tacita Dean, one of the Young British Artists of the 1990s, put it succinctly: “She was a reactionary who cared little for equality of any sort, and who had a contemptuous indifference to the arts.”

The combination of world leader and handbag-swinging housewife, of alternative queen and housekeeping fusspot, however, seemed an irresistible draw to artists and writers, who worked her into their books, films and TV shows.

Just two years into her premiership, she turned up (impersonated by Janet Brown) in the closing scenes of the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only; she could be seen in the kitchen at Downing Street, wearing washing-up gloves. As her reign continued, more dramatists joined in: she was played by Hilary Turner in an adaptation of Jeffrey Archer’s First Among Equals; and by Maureen Lipman in About Face. In the year she left power, 1990, she appeared in the dire Michael Winner movie Bullseye!, played by Kathleen Smith. Her eventual downfall was dramatised in Thatcher: The Final Days, starring Sylvia Syms.

Since her political demise, she’s been played on television by Patricia Hodge (in Ian Curteis’s The Falklands Play), Louise Gold (The Alan Clark Diaries), Anna Massey (Pinochet in Suburbia), Kika Markham (The Line of Beauty), Caroline Blakiston (Coup!), Andrea Riseborough (who played young Margaret in The Long Walk to Finchley), and Lindsay Duncan in Margaret. On film she was brought to life by Lesley Manville in Stephen Frears’s The Queen – and of course by Meryl Streep, who won a Best Actress Oscar for playing her, both in her pomp and in enfeebled old age, in The Iron Lady. 

Novelists seized upon her as a ready-made character to walk into plots set in the 1980s. Frederick Forsyth, her favourite fiction writer, put her in no fewer than six of his books (beginning with The Devil’s Alternative, in 1979) under the guise of British PM Joan Carpenter. In his 2004 Booker Prize-winning novel, The Line of Beauty, set in the mid-1980s, Alan Hollinghurst has his young protagonist Nick Guest stay at the London home of Gerald Fedden, a wealthy Tory MP. Mrs Thatcher appears at a party in the Fedden’s  home, moving at what Nick calls “a dignified scuttle.” She and he dance together, to “Get Offa My Cloud” by the Rolling Stones. It seems right that she had a walk-on part, since a major theme of the book is the effect of her brand of materialism on the nation’s health.   

Satirists latched onto her scary qualities, but also onto her marriage. The silly-ass elements of Denis Thatcher – along with his tireless support and his unique ability to order her to bed – were guyed in Private Eye’s “Dear Bill” letters (which imagined how Denis would chronicle his life in correspondence with his friend William Deedes) and in Anyone for Denis? which had a successful run on the West End stage and provided a dream role for Angela Thorne.          

Years after her downfall, dramatists seized the chance of writing lines for and about her, in a way they never did for Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Major, Blair or Brown. Handbagged, at London’s Tricycle Theatre, portrayed the relationship between Mrs Thatcher and HM the Queen. Market Boy, at the National Theatre in 2006, was set in 1980s East London and included a familiar figure, called only “Posh Lady.” 

The same year saw the brief life of Thatcher: The Musical from the Foursight Theatre Company. Significantly, it starred nine different versions of the titular figure: from Twinset Maggie to Britannia Maggie to a final Broken Maggie, who taunted the audience, in the last song, with the words: “I’m the iron in your bloodstream, I’m in your DNA…”    

Mrs Thatcher had a starring role in Spitting Image, the satirical puppet show that took to the airwaves in 1984. Every week she appeared, mad-eyed, beak-nosed – and, crucially, dressed as a man. Voiced by Steve Nallon, she was invariably pictured wearing a dark suit and tie. She smoked big cigars and peed standing up in the Gents. The latex image of a ruthless, indefatigable, transgendered monomaniac, reducing colleagues and enemies alike to petrified lickspittles, did much to fix the Thatcher persona in the public mind.    

Not everyone saw her as demonic. Walk into Rules, London’s oldest restaurant, in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, and you’ll be confronted by an allegorical oil painting by John Springs, of a triumphant Thatcher, bouffant-haired and clad in a suit of armour like Joan of Arc, with flags of St George and a view of the Falkland islands in the background. This is the image by which she’d most have liked to be known: the tough heroine who is still feminine. Camille Paglia, the American critic and feminist, pictured her as in a line of descent from femmes fatales such as the Borgias or the wives and mothers of Roman emperors, who fused power and sex.      

Her reign coincided with the vogue for female “power dressing,” a style she embraced with enthusiasm. Her hair was rigid, her shoulders padded, her neck circled with pearls, her brooch like a flag of conflict.

“Hers was a look that wrestled with the paradox of projecting power and retaining femininity,” wrote Lana Henderson in Vogue. “Standing shoulder to shoulder with men, her broad suits came off boxy and deliberately effaced the female silhouette. It was like masculine armour sprinkled with jewels to remind you she was a lady.”

She never appeared on the magazine’s cover – but in April 1989, readers were startled to see what looked like her distinctive features gazing at them with an expression of pain, above a cover splash: “This woman was once a punk.” It was Vivienne Westwood, done up in the Thatcher armour of double-breasted Aquascutum suit, pearls, brooch, gloves, and hair just so – a remarkable tribute from one alpha female to another. It shows that, however extreme or divisive her politics, it’s her ferrous self-belief, her single-minded fearlessness in power, that comes across in the depictions of art and the cultural memory.

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