Will the real Margaret Thatcher please stand up.

(Top picture: Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher – The Crown Series 4, Copyright Netflix. Photo credit: Sophie Mutevelian)

I was born in 1975, the same year that Maggie Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party. I was 4 when she became Prime Minister and 16 when she left office, I vaguely remember her tears as the ‘Iron Lady’ facade crumbled away.

Admittedly that makes me feel a little old, but what really makes me feel old is that my 16 year old daughter is studying Margaret Thatcher at A-Level as part of ‘The Making of Modern Britain 1951-1971’ syllabus.

It has been an education for me to return to my younger days and look at the Thatcher years with adult eyes. We have been riveted by the brilliant documentary ‘Thatcher: A Very British Revolution’ from 2019 on iPlayer and I find myself recalling our first female Prime Minister as ‘Maggie Thatcher Milk Snatcher’.

Seeing Mrs T. through my daughter’s eyes has been fascinating, we have talked about female leadership and feminism. We have talked about the 1980s and 90s when showing emotion, compassion and kindness were seen as female attributes and viewed as a weakness. We have discussed how those very same qualities displayed by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in 2020 have brought her plaudits. We have followed debates in the US election on what it means to have the first woman Vice President-elect, as Kamala Harris makes history on the other side of the pond.

As lockdown sees us watching more and more television, season 4 of the Netflix blockbuster ‘The Crown’ has hit our screens. We have been faced with a very different portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in the form of Gillian Anderson.

There has been much debate around Anderson’s rendering of such a divisive figure. Some accusing her of parody whilst others praising her efforts to bring her power-suits to life. But have efforts to give Mrs T the Hollywood treatment, for those who don’t remember her reign, left us with a reputation that is too romanticised and sympathetic? Is Anderson’s popularity rubbing away at the real image of Thatcher?

John Major as maggot in Margaret Thatcher’s nostril with Thatcher stabbed in the back  
Martin Rowson, 1991. The Cartoon Museum

This is where the Cartoon Museum’s collections are invaluable and I have thoroughly enjoyed getting a chance to rifle through them. I have chosen a couple to illustrate this blog alongside an irresistible pair of Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock ‘Spitting Image’ slippers. There is humour here but amusement that packs a punch.

Margaret Thatcher presenting to Queen Elizabeth II
Martin Rowson, 1987. The Cartoon Museum

he caricatures of Margaret Thatcher take recognisable physical attributes of hair, dress and facial features and blow them up to an exaggerated level. I don’t know why but I never realised the Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher were born just a year apart. The essence of Thatcher often cruelly rendered but displayed with an innate storytelling ability that takes us straight back to the 80s and 90s and sets the scene for political troubles and strife.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Front Row programme Gillian Anderson talked about piecing together Thatcher’s voice. How she took the portrayal to parody and then reigned it in to find a character that sat somewhere between the real and the unreal.

Spitting Image slippers showing Margaret Thatcher and leader of the opposition Neil Kinnock in twin beds
Peter Fluck and Roger Law, 1983-1990. The Cartoon Museum

Perhaps we should also take that view of our first female Prime Minister. Using the Cartoon Museum’s collections to help us strike a balance between a Netflix docudrama and the cold light of day.

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