DJ Taylor: The cinematic truth about Lord Heseltine

One former Thatcher minister does not like his portrayal in 'The Iron Lady', but the 1980s was an outlandish, stylised age


Lord Heseltine could be found in the post-Christmas newspapers complaining about the portrayal of himself, by Richard E Grant, in The Iron Lady, the forthcoming biopic about Baroness Thatcher's time in Downing Street. According to Lord H, whose spies have clearly been hard at work: "I gather he [Grant] has dyed his hair, so even that isn't genuine ... No one who made the film has talked to me, and I therefore work on the assumption that it won't be accurate."

You can see Lord Heseltine's point, and indeed that of Lord Tebbit, who, well-nigh simultaneously, declared that "Margaret Thatcher was never in my experience the half-hysterical, over-emotional, over-acting woman portrayed by Meryl Streep". There you sit in your baronial hall, fondly recollecting the sturdy little coracle you piloted over the tides of history, and now some upstart film-maker not only has the cheek to proffer her own version of the voyage, but disdains to ask your opinion. It is all rather reminiscent of the elderly men one used to spot at the launch parties of books about Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood, nervously combing through the indices to see what the biographer had made of them.

And yet in registering his understandable protest, Lord Heseltine seems to have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of dramatic art. The Tory governments of the 1980s were crammed with politicians zealously projecting stylised versions of their personalities to an unsuspecting public, a process that in some of its more outlandish moments (one remembers Lord Heseltine seizing the mace on the floor of the House of Commons) borrowed elements of myth, pageantry and downright dissimulation. Consequently, a scene in which Richard E Grant swings from the chandeliers of the Carlton Club with a cutlass between his teeth might not be the literal truth. On the other hand, it is not so very far from the imaginative truth, and it is difficult not to conclude that as Lord Heseltine – one of British politics' great over-actors – has sown, so shall he reap.

The splash made by Louise Robinson, incoming President of the Girls' Schools Association, in her first interview must have exceeded all that lady's expectations. In a wide-ranging colloquy, which also touched on the irrelevance of the A-/S-level exam, Ms Robinson's most eye-catching prediction took in the likely death of classroom textbooks. "Taking on board the fact that textbooks will be on your mobile – anywhere, anytime, any place – it's a huge possibility," she crowed, adding that pupils could learn more from the enticements of smartphones and tablets. "When you see a young child on their tablet, or internet, the magic they are seeing in that information, the way they absorb it and reflect it back at you is just wonderful."

The really depressing thing about this wide-eyed prostration in the face of technology's oncoming march is not just that it sees the educational process merely in terms of novelty and expedience – the aim being to conciliate the child rather than to assess the value of the learning experience – but the absolutely predictable unpredictability of its attitude to educational stereotypes. It was Nigel Molesworth, back in the 1950s, who lamented that the staff of St Custard's had gone all modish and, instead of setting such essay topics as "What I did on my holidays" went for "My favourite machine gun" and "What to do with masters". One would have far more confidence in Ms Robinson if, instead of fanning her brow before the white heat of the technological revolution, she could just tell her charges to get on with their work and not talk to boys.

On a Radio 4 programme about the idea of a "national treasure", a Cambridge academic, Professor Peter Mandler, explained why many middle-class people were not disposed to rate the attractions of today's breed of TV reality stars very highly. The reason, he gamely insisted, was that such viewers found the denizens of Big Brother "common", while Joanna Lumley, Dame Judi Dench and the rest had more class. Most listeners, you suspect, will have raised an eyebrow at this distinction, the adjective "common" no longer being a term of disparagement. But it was a word that reverberated around my childhood – the bourgeois equivalent of an upper-class grande dame telegraphically informing her offspring that someone was "NQOCD" ("not quite our class, darling".)

Inevitably, its use was paradoxical because, in proclaiming that some person or some activity was "common", what you really meant was that they deviated from the middle-class norm of good manners and accents that prevailed around you. Four decades later, the paradox extends well beyond its original tethering in class interaction, or lack thereof. Nothing, for example, is funnier that the sight of a leftish-leaning literary critic of the Terry Eagleton school fulminating over the class distinctions of the classic English novel, while ignoring the fact that, without class distinctions, the English novel would more or less cease to exist.

If the post-festive newspapers seemed to be full of Tory grandees sniffing about The Iron Lady, they positively bulged with articles about skiing: where to go, how to get there, what to wear on-piste and off it. All this confirmed one of my most deeply-held beliefs, which is that the worst advertisements for any pastime, sport or professional activity are the people who make a fuss about their enthusiasm for it.

Just as any interest that one might have had in the world of professional politics was instantly extinguished by fellow undergraduates with their sights set on the Tory front bench, so any enthusiasm for rugby – theoretically an intriguing game – was snuffed out by a pre-teen afternoon at Twickenham spent watching choleric middle-aged men in tweed jackets bellowing "Hard in there" and "Get him low". Exactly the same sensation was inspired, 40 years ago, by an orchestral performance at which an elderly lady in evening dress who may even have been wearing a pair of lorgnettes bent over me to enquire: "And is this your first concert, dear?" To which I politely replied "Yes", while registering the fact that it would probably be my last as well.

Perhaps it is merely that, as one gets older, virtually all communal activity seems suspect to the sensitive soul. As the Carrow Road crowds clambered to their feet on Tuesday night to assure the Spurs fan being evicted from the ground that he was a wanker while loudly informing Gareth Bale that he resembled a chimpanzee, even my Norwich City season ticket seemed to lose its lustre.

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