“Skip The Iron Lady and rent Derek Jarman‘s The Last of England instead,” tweets Sam Adams. Other suggestions breaking on Twitter: Mike Leigh‘s High Hopes and Stephen Frears’s My Beautiful Launderette. Of course, not everyone’s immediate response to breaking news is to hunker down in front of the home screen. But the impulse to revisit the Thatcher era, be it via a movie or a book or a tune (and Slicing Up Eyeballs has collected more than a few of those today) is only natural. After all, Margaret Thatcher, who has died, aged 87, was, yes, “a political phenomenon,” as Anne Perkins writes in the Guardian, but she was much more. Not only did she directly affect the lives of millions of Britons, she also played a crucial role in shaping our currently predominant mode of what Mark Fisher calls Capitalist Realism, the prevailing belief that there is still no alternative to neo-liberalism. As Perkins writes, after the Thatcher years, “the ideals of collective effort, full employment and a managed economy—all tarnished by the recurring crises of the 1970’s—were discredited in the popular imagination. They were replaced with the politics of me and mine, deregulation of the markets and privatization of the state’s assets that echoed growing individual prosperity. (psm-marketing.com) Thatcher did not cause these changes, but she legitimized and embedded them.”
To revisit the Thatcher era is to poke around the roots of our current state of affairs: Inequality for All, as Robert Reich sums it up in the documentary that premiered at Sundance this January. So what would you recommend to anyone looking for a taste of the times? Tom Shone‘s got a list: “Best films to come out of Thatcherism.” Laundrette‘s in there, as well as two more by Mike Leigh, Meantime and Naked. So, too, is Ken Loach’s Riff-Raff.
Loach is one of the cultural figures the Guardian approached in 2009 with the question, “by provoking such strong opposition, did she give the arts ‘a shot in the arm’?” As you can imagine, he takes no prisoners: “The Thatcherite program was a three-pronged attack on working people and their representatives.” Billy Bragg credits Thatcher with “shock[ing] me out of my complacency.” And Jon Savage is on the same page: “Opposition gives energy and focus.”
In 2011, A.O. Scott looked back to the ’80’s in the New York Times: “She seemed to be the negative inspiration for everything that inspired me: the romantic anger of the Clash, the analytical fury of Gang of Four, the apocalyptic wit of Martin Amis, the decadent, multiculturalist ardor of My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid…. The Thatcher years were a time of remarkable cultural ferment, in which the energies of an extraordinarily diverse roster of musicians, novelists, playwrights, critics and filmmakers—to say nothing of television comedians and puppeteers—were unleashed in opposition, glum and passionate, explicit and overt, to the prime minister herself.”
Back to the Guardian and film critic Peter Bradshaw: “From 1979 to 1990, nothing, with the possible exception of football, was of less interest to Margaret Thatcher than cinema…. Yet her greatest hero and ally was the old Hollywood trouper Ronald Reagan, who had an intuitive understanding of how the emotions of the crowd could be manipulated through the movie screen. A further irony is that Thatcherism bred an interesting movie culture and interesting movies: a dynamic period in which great names in British film, both commercial and arthouse, were flourishing.” He mentions that Peter Greenaway “in particular flourished under Thatcher in a way that seems extraordinary now. His The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover (1989) was arguably a scathing satirical assault on the greed of the age…. Pressed to name the British movie most admired from the Thatcher reign, most people would, I guess, plump for Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I (1986), produced and nurtured by George Harrison: a glorious comedy about life in Britain in the dying days of Wilson’s Britain of the 60s. It can’t be pigeonholed politically and Thatcherite factors aren’t obviously detectable. Or are they? When Richard E. Grant sees his best friend cut his hair in the final reel, preparing to leave their shared hippy squalor for the strict world of work, is he being horrified by a premonition of the post-1979 country in which Britons will all jolly well have to pull their socks up?”
Let’s go out with Derek Jarman’s video for The Smiths’ “Panic,” shall we?
Updates, 4/9: First, many thanks for those suggestions in the comments below. Calum Marsh (Film.com) and Andrew Pulver (Guardian) select a few more films that define the era, while Flavorwire looks back on Thatcher’s impact on British pop culture as a whole.
Meantime, Ken Loach has a modest proposal: “How should we honor her? Let’s privatize her funeral. Put it out to competitive tender and accept the cheapest bid. It’s what she would have wanted.”
Update, 4/11: To the list of films mentioned so far, Graham Fuller, writing for Artinfo, “would further add Clarke and writer David Leland’s television masterpiece Made in Britain (1982), about a violent but intelligent skinhead (Tim Roth) who rejects the prospect of mind-numbing dead-end jobs (and everything else), and Clarke’s short Elephant (1989), arguably the most frightening film about sectarian and state assassinations in Northern Ireland. In Clarke’s The Firm (1990), Gary Oldman’s portrayal of a yuppie who’s also a vicious soccer hooligan suggested that there was a Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect to prosperity in Thatcher’s monetarist society.”
Update, 4/13: “It was her policies that incited rage in my friends and me, as young women growing up in the ’80s in the shadow of her power,” recalls Sally Potter—yes, that Sally Potter—in an essay for n+1:
Humiliating the miners, selling off the housing stock, making people get excited about owning shares in basic amenities such as gas and electricity by privatizing them, stirring up sentimental patriotism, starting the trend of vilification of the poor, damning the unemployed as “lazy”—one catastrophic change rolled out after another. In the name of “saving” Britain from decline it seemed to us that she was destroying it.
But I remember one day standing staring at a poster in a shop window. The poster was designed by a left-wing group and showed Margaret Thatcher hanging from a noose with the heading “Kill the Bitch.” This wasn’t unusual, and has been echoed in the days after her death by reports of people chanting “Ding dong, the witch is dead,” gleefully quoting the song from The Wizard of Oz. This has the appearance of innocent irony. But the eagerness to apply rhetoric and imagery akin to lynching and witch-burning—demonizing her as a woman and evoking ancient hatred of female power in any form, whether spiritual, medical, or political—was and is impossible to get enthusiastic about. Why this conflation of the person and her policies? Why was her conservatism perceived as evil rather than destructive, demonic rather than politically catastrophic?
Update, 4/16: Ian McKellan argues that not enough mention has been made of Section 28: “Lest we forget, this nasty, brutish and short measure of the third Thatcher administration, was designed to slander homosexuality, by prohibiting state schools from discussing positively gay people and our ‘pretended family relations.’” He also considers Thatcher’s talent for acting (or rather, lack thereof) and recalls her role in his eventual knighthood.
Update, 4/21: David Cairns in the Notebook on Peter Richardson’s Eat the Rich (1987): “A loud, ugly satire, it turns the Thatcher era’s own vulgarity and violence against itself. Like [Lindsay Anderson’s] Britannia Hospital , it’s more angry than it is funny, but a cool analysis of the state of the nation reveals that spittle-flecked fury was the only appropriate response.”
Update, 4/29: Viewing (59’07”). “I’ve had quite a few requests to put up a film I made a while ago about Mrs Thatcher—called The Attic,” writes Adam Curtis. “It’s about how she constructed a fake ghostly version of Britain’s past, and then used it to maintain her power. But also how she became possessed and haunted by this vision.”