WHAT LIES BE­NEATH THE IRON LADY?

Gillian An­der­son is to play Mar­garet Thatcher in the next se­ries of The Crown. She would do well to avoid the pit­falls

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - DONALD CLARKE -

No­body has moral qualms about Gillian An­der­son play­ing Mar­garet Thatcher. Fans of stuff are stupid, but they are rarely that stupid. At least two ar­ti­cles have, nonethe­less, en­gaged with an imag­ined back­lash at the news that the An­glo-Amer­i­can ac­tor is to take on the role of the Lin­colnshire Milk Thief in the fourth se­ries of The Crown. “You can still like Gillian An­der­son, even if she makes a great Thatcher,” the Guardian tells us. Ev­ery­one knows that.

Aside from any­thing else, the ru­mour mill tells us that Queen El­iz­a­beth and her eighth prime min­is­ter didn’t much get on. It seems likely that The Crown will take the side of Her Majesty – now played by Os­car nom­i­nee Olivia Col­man – over a woman who could have taught sand­pa­per a thing or two about abra­sion. Maybe it won’t. Maybe it will de­pict Lady Thatcher (as she then wasn’t) as a melodic com­bi­na­tion of Florence Nightin­gale and Beatrix Pot­ter. You can still like Gillian An­der­son. I still like Tim Roth and he once played a sym­pa­thetic ver­sion of Sepp Blat­ter. Peo­ple get this.

One does, nonethe­less, de­tect a hint of un­ease among our friends across the Ir­ish Sea. For a gen­er­a­tion that grew up with The X-Files, An­der­son, who played the scep­ti­cal Dana Scully in that se­ries, pro­vided the sub­stance for a first sex­ual crush. Only Coun­sel­lor Troi from Star Trek: The Next Gen­er­a­tion is re­garded with so much erotic long­ing in the geek com­mu­nity. “I think I felt more com­fort­able with that than with men in suits think­ing about me in that way,” she told me a few years ago. “There was some­thing kind of cool and safe about the kids. Not seven-year-olds, you un­der­stand. I mean per­fectly healthy, smart young teenagers.”

There were cer­tainly peo­ple who found Mrs Thatcher at­trac­tive. De­nis Thatcher for one (I as­sume). The thirsty Alan Clark, a ju­nior min­is­ter in her govern­ment, talks las­civ­i­ously about her “dainty” an­kles in his fa­mously in­dis­creet di­aries. But for most, that fear­some man­ner – some­thing be­tween a Valkyrie and a wind-rat­tled tree – ren­dered any con­sid­er­a­tion of sex­ual al­lure re­dun­dant. Even Clark stopped short of ad­mit­ting un­qual­i­fied de­sire. “I didn’t want to jump on her,” he said. “She is not there to be liked. She’s a force of na­ture.”

One can un­der­stand why Gen­er­a­tion X-Files feels un­com­fort­able about an early crush play­ing their par­ents’ much-ab­horred nanny. There is a dou­ble stan­dard at work. No­body would be mak­ing icky faces if some male equiv­a­lent – let’s say Brad Pitt – were play­ing Ron­ald Rea­gan, but a mass of male ob­servers still find it hard to con­sider fe­male politi­cians with­out fac­tor­ing in their sex­ual ap­peal (or sup­posed lack of it).

An­der­son should be fine. She’s a good ac­tor and the scripts for The Queen have been strong. But dan­gers do loom. Over the past 50 or 60 years, too many men have fallen into the least-de­mand­ing dis­ci­pline open to ac­tors of even mod­estly fleshy com­po­si­tion. I speak of Churchill Act­ing. You know how this goes. Some Robert Hardy, Brian Cox or – again, in The Crown – John Lith­gow makes splut­ter­ing noises while wash­ing buck­ets of veal down the throat with vats of brandy. Gary Old­man isn’t even fat, but he still felt able to do some Os­car-friendly gur­gling in the barely ad­e­quate Dark­est Hour.

There are many fewer de­pic­tions of Mar­garet Thatcher on screen than there are of Win­ston Churchill. And the writ­ers tend to come from dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions. The movie and TV Churchill, still ha­bit­u­ally por­trayed as flawed hero, is a gift to ful­mi­nat­ing cor­re­spon­dents who en­joy pre­tend­ing they’re the first per­son to no­tice he had an ugly, racist his­tory as a de­fender of em­pire.

De­pic­tions of Thatcher have been less af­fec­tion­ate. Many ob­jected to the soft-ped­alling in Phyl­l­ida Lloyd’s abysmal The Iron Lady,

but few could ar­gue that Meryl Streep made any at­tempt to ren­der the PM warm. An­drea Rise­bor­ough (best ac­tress of her gen­er­a­tion?) in­ves­ti­gated the sex­ism that hin­dered Thatcher in the su­pe­rior TV movie The Long Walk to Finch­ley, but even that less an­tag­o­nis­tic por­trayal had much fun with the char­ac­ter’s hos­til­ity to irony. Lind­say Dun­can was bor­der­line-de­ranged in the BBC’s Mar­garet. Pa­tri­cia Hodge was for­bid­ding in The Churchill Play.

Of that dis­tin­guished list, only Rise­bor­ough – play­ing Thatcher long be­fore she was fa­mous – has man­aged to make a per­son­al­ity of the char­ac­ter. Like filmed de­pic­tions of Churchill, the on-screen Thatch­ers are too caught up with the su­per­fi­cial man­ner­isms that im­pres­sion­ists and car­toon­ists ex­ploit. The odd, ris­ing ca­dence. The un­com­fort­able so­cial pres­ence. The hel­met of lac­quered hair. It has proved im­pos­si­ble to get past the dec­o­ra­tions of the pub­lic fig­ure. Who knows? If Olivia Col­man knew what Queen Anne sounded like, she might have had the same prob­lem with The Favourite.

An­der­son is as well equipped as any to over­come those chal­lenges. But Thatcher Act­ing re­ally is the new Churchill Act­ing. It’s a poi­soned chal­ice. Like be­ing leader of the Con­ser­va­tive Party.

‘‘ Like filmed de­pic­tions of Churchill, the on-screen Thatch­ers are too caught up with the su­per­fi­cial man­ner­isms that im­pres­sion­ists and car­toon­ists ex­ploit. The odd, ris­ing ca­dence. The un­com­fort­able so­cial pres­ence. The hel­met of lac­quered hair . . .

An­drea Rise­bor­ough as Mar­garet Thatcher in the TV movie The Long Walk to Finch­ley

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