Thatcherite soundbites to savour: Last night the 'Downing Street Years' TV series ended. Peter Hennessy assesses its worth

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'OF COURSE we all thought she was cuckoo. But she was the only one who ever made us feel as if we wanted to go out and climb Everest.' So said a far-from- Thatcherite former civil servant who had worked closely with her, over lunch the day after the first of those television programmes.

The night before I had taken the precaution of scribbling notes as the caveat-free sentences hurled themselves from the screen. 'It was treachery with a smile on its face,' she hissed, recalling the night of 21 November 1990, when, one after another, her cabinet ministers came in to tell her that they would support her but she could not, should not, go on. (The first time in physiological history that capons have required balls, was what I thought at the time, so supinely had they sat there, week in, week out, while she set aside the niceties of collective cabinet government as if they were a piece of surplus agricultural land.)

No doubt Margaret Thatcher had been rehearsing that 'treachery' accusation - and several other one-liners - almost from the instant of her fall, as part of a necessary, but plainly still far from complete, process of catharsis. But it glowed like charcoal from the set. 'Great, gripping performer,' I wrote on my pad. 'A great British tragedienne.'

And on the one-liners rolled. She did not need the services of her past advisers, the gentle Sir Ronald Millar, the acerbic John O'Sullivan or the scholarly Robin Harris for this performance. I'm sure I was not alone in crying inwardly: 'Oh, for a muse of silence.' But I didn't really want her to stop. 'There is no consensus. I call them quislings and traitors.' Each time a venerable gent was served up to the viewer with their dismissive paragraph or two, she gobbled them up.

Only the droll Sir Anthony Parsons, the sharpest of the tweed-clad minds, matched her - by the simple expedient of laughing at her ludicrous depiction of the upper-middle- class mentality that can see everybody's points of view without being capable of forming one of their own.

If only there had been more Parsonses willing to bring laughter to court while she reigned, it might have had the effect of seawater on a triffid. But I doubt it. 'Life for me was always a daily battle,' she declared in programme three.

She was - and is - very self-revealing. A mind, an ego and a temperament permanently on the qui vive was bound to be a stranger to irony. She lacked the English genius for understatement totally.

Yet that was the virtue of the television series Thatcher: the Downing Street Years. It was her in spades; Thatcherism neat. Historians did learn valuable snippets about the grandstand events of those premierships as she swung right and left looking for dragons to slay: inflation, the NUM, the Argentinian junta, the problem- bringing rather than problem- solving Civil Service, her feeble colleagues, even, occasionally, the Labour Party in the guise of those conveniently crude 'isms' prefixed by 'social' or 'corporate'.

What became plain to me, was how much I would give, as a history teacher, to have the equivalent of these programmes to impress upon my students the guileful genius of a Lloyd George, the deceptive homeliness of a Baldwin, the stubbornness of a Chamberlain, the sheer range of a Churchill, the biting brevity of an Attlee.

Hard though it is to realise, there will come a time, once Baroness Thatcher is privatising the heavens and upbraiding the archangels for their establishment-mindedness, when students will need to be taught her force; to learn how grown ministers could vomit before setting off for cabinet meetings; to recapture those extraordinary years when the subtleties and nuances of British political exchange were cast away; when government-by-conversation succumbed to government- through-declaration. All it will take is a video and four hours of their time.

No, that is unfair, both to her and the students of the 2010s. Those tapes will repay replaying and decoding. They are packed with the actualite of an intensely personalised era in British political history. Come to think of it, I won't let any of my students down to the Public Record Office in January 2010 to start work on her No 10 files declassified under the 30-year rule until they have sat through every moment at least twice. Without that behind them, they simply will not be able to appreciate the bite those scraps of paper carried, as the red boxes trawled their way around Whitehall to their nervous recipients.

There are sceptics who decry the historical value of Lady Thatcher as she appears here, larger than life on the small screen. They have a point. She is not one for the small print: not one for finely tuned footnotes.

Of course, she didn't satisfy on the Westland affair. But the television caught the flavour of her defiant version - all hot and steaming and unrepentant. Michael Heseltine was a bad team-player; a helicopter company's fate was a marginal issue; if matters such as that had to come to full Cabinet, they would be sitting all week.

It was by no means a full picture, but it was what she believed then and still does. It makes for excellent historical roughage on which the more sophisticated will be able to masticate for decades to come.

Posterity has a range of needs. Popular memory usually shrinks to a vivid facial memory plus a string of one- liners. The PhD student has far more demanding requirements. But whoever seeks to recall that mesmeric political phenomenon will do well to start with these videos. They are the nearest thing to flesh and blood that will remain.

The author is Professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

His latest book, 'Never Again: Britain 1945-51', which was awarded the 1993 NCR prize, is now published in paperback by Vintage, pounds 9.99.

(Photograph omitted)

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