Ferrous Mettles


(Idle weekend blogged thoughts on request after a chance viewing of The Iron Lady in Lakeland. Enjoy the film)....MH
SHAKESPEARE never normally comes to mind in a Chinese restaurant, but eyeing the fortune cookies placed before us in Bowness’s original Chinese, after viewing Meryl Streep’s tour-de-force performance in The Iron Lady, my father and I found ourselves pondering the nature of fortune. A bottle of Rioja, possibly ill-selected, might have been the trigger.

Just as the iconic figure of the late lamented Princess Diana  - once such a bastion of Britishness across the globe -  is beginning to slip into the first wisps of the mists of memory, we wondered how Mrs Thatcher – she who caused such a polemic reaction as PM for just over 11 years – can have largely slipped from the public consciousness. 

Not so much perhaps the Iron Lady these days, more the chance-glimpsed Grey Lady of the haunted west wing of the mansion of fame and infamy in the 21st century.

While The Iron Lady is a highly watchable if short film, die-hard fans of Mrs T may be surprised at director Phyllida Lloyd’s option to concentrate largely on the older Mrs T of today.

Wistful, distracted, somewhat frail and largely alone in the heart of Belgravia, and forever trying to shake the benign poltergeist of husband Denis, the film perhaps deserves its guarded reception.

While much of Mrs T’s glory days are covered  – the resolute attack on the Belgrano, the Falklands conflict; the stand-off with the miners; the Toxteth riots, the Brighton Bomb and other memory snatches from the pensieve of the 80s, the film’s greater focus on the once-great-lady in decline will disappoint some.

While many would no doubt love to see more of Ms Streep’s Oscar-worthy depiction as Mrs T while the Conservative icon was at the height of her prowess  (the film could easily be 20 minutes longer and pack in more of Thatcher’s 80s escapades),  the decision to switch the attention to Mrs T’s latter years perhaps astutely channels the viewer into thinking about the nature of fortune, decline and the loss of power.

And the trick of putting clear blue water between the past and present may well be the film’s cleverest legacy. Ergo the Shakespearean parallel.

Old Bill was no stranger to depicting monarchs and other great icons in decline.

Ms Streep is at her best and most strident in her glorious depiction of the premiere female Premier when at the ballot box after the, albeit Pyrrhic, victory of the Falklands.

When facing dissent from the then leader of the opposition Michael Foot and announcing the Argentine surrender, in Churchillian and Henry V-like fashion, she chides: ‘It is a day to take pride in being British…’.

Foot and the Opposition benches largely agreed in real life apparently.

But just as Mrs T is erroneously depicted as being in the car park at the time of the brutal bomb-blast murder of Airey Neave, what is a little artistic licence when cinematic entertainment is to be had?

Equally while attended the Paris conference just before her ousting by her fellow cabinet, Ms Streep’s Maggie looks imperious, Elizabethan, with a hint of Mary Queen of Scots about her.

Striding down the corridors of power, followed by the men in grey suits who will ultimately bring her down, the sense of drama is palpable.

Just as Hamlet knows of Claudius’s intended destruction of him in an intended sword fight, Streep’s Thatcher knows she is at both her apogee but also at her most vulnerable.

Shakespeare comes to mind again.

Scholars will recall Hamlet predicting his own downfall, when he muses to a tearful Horatio, in a famously confusing but prophetic soliloquy:

“There is special providence in/the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to

come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.

Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows what is't/to leave betimes, let be.”

In Julius Caesar Mark Antony opines:

“O mighty Caesar! dost thou lie so low? Are all thy conquests, glories, triumphs, spoils, Shrunk to this little measure?”

Hamlet echoes these thoughts in the famous graveyard scene in the eponymous play.

After considering Yorick’s skull, he ponders on the transience of all of us, and how, however poor or mighty we are in life, all turns to dust in the end:

“Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam—and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer barrel?

“Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,

Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.

Oh, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,

Should patch a wall t' expel the winter’s flaw!”

Fame and fortune make either Alexander and Caesars or fools and knaves of us all; perhaps Phyllida Lloyd’s cleverest message in her biopic of Britain’s most controversial PM, is that time and fortune always have the last laugh.  A little like a collapsing super massive stellar object, only the gravity/gravitas remains.

Many hated Mrs Thatcher while others adored her; a little like Marmite or crispy seaweed.

Either way, the Iron Lady could not be said to have lacked mettle.

Faced with tough economic decisions, a foreign war and a changing Europe to oversee, one wonders how others would have coped – or even what has changed.

Perhaps her greatest achievement was the triumph of her sex in a male dominated snake pit of politics. Or perhaps, like Cleopatra, she was just an asp among the adders.

Today, Michael Foot is gone, Michael Heseltine and Maggie’s Tory cronies are no longer centre stage, and a Conservative administration on a Lib Dem leash must decide Britain’s future.

In a time when Britain is once again facing riots, massive unemployment and ominous rumblings from the South Atlantic, perhaps the message of The Iron Lady, is all the more poignant and resonant.

Pondering such, and enjoying the fortune of the moment, as father and son in quasi-oriental surroundings, far from the Machiavellian streets of Whitehall,  as the waiters called time, we broke our fortune cookies and laughed, and considered how, as in politics, both Hamlet’s sparrows and the soon-to-be-cold scented towelettes of life come to us all.

And that maybe only the Shakespeares,  film makers and other inscrutable stand-back sages can see the truth of it all, Rioja and chopsticks in hand or not.

In an increasingly uncertain world, with Maggie diminished, and with a coalition overseeing our destiny, who, we wondered, would dare break Britain’s own fortune cookie today and laugh as easily? 

The lady might not have been for turning, but perhaps today’s politicians should also watch their backs. Ref Cameron and Clegg, what next perhaps…two No.10s to go?

As for the film’s legacy, as one of Maggie’s contemporary outspoken bespectacled comedy satirists might have said: “Little bit controversial……”