Essays: Getting Mrs T into focus |
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Getting Mrs T into focus

‘IT’S a team game we’re playing, if it’s a game. It’s not a game. But we’re a team.’ This remark, delivered by Colin Shepherd, MP, on Midweek (BBC1) the week before last, struck me at the time as an apposite motto for the current period of Tory confusion. Its neatly circular argument generates a runic impenetrability: the maximum semantic chaos with the minimum effort.

I’ve got witnesses to prove that my money was on the broad all along. In one addled mind at least, Mrs Thatcher was always a serious candidate. Obviously World in Action (Granada) thought so too, since they profiled her last Monday night, a whole day before she established wide credibility by running away with the first ballot. Since Mrs Thatcher probably ranks somewhere near the Chilean junta in WIA’s scale of affection, it seemed possible that they were examining her as a toxic phenomenon, like nuclear proliferation or the non-biodegradability of Greek colonels. An air of objectivity, however, was strenuously maintained. Perhaps it was assumed that mere exposure would suffice, and that the sprightly lady would stand self-condemned. It wasn’t going to be as easy as that, as events later proved.

But even at that stage, the jaundiced professional eye could detect ample evidence that Mrs Thatcher was working on her screen image with a view to improvement. All political figures try this, but usually they take the advice of their media experts — men disqualified simply by the fact of being available, since nobody of ability would take such a lickspittle appointment.

It was an expert who told Harold Wilson that he should smile during his speeches, and another expert who told Heath to take has coat off and relax. The respective results were of a corpse standing up and of a corpse sitting down. In America at this very moment it is an expert who is busily convincing President Ford that his speeches will gain resonance if he illustrates them with diagrams drawn in the air. Mrs Thatcher, as far as I can tell, has declined such help, and set about smoothing up her impact all by herself.

Visually she has few problems. The viewer, according to his prejudices, might or might not go for her pearls and twin-sets, and the hair-styles are sheer technology. But the camera loves the face and the face is learning to love the camera back. She is rapidly becoming an adept at helping a film crew to stage a fake candid. While her exalted daughter unleashes a hooray bellow in the background and her husband, Mr Mystery, vaults out of the window or barricades himself in the bathroom, the star turn is to be seen reading the newspapers with perfect casualness, right in focus.

The hang-up has always been the voice. Not the timbre so much as, well, the tone — the condescending explanatory whine which treats the squirming interlocutor as an eight-year-old child with personality deficiencies. It has been fascinating, recently, to watch her striving to eliminate this. BBC2 News Extra on Tuesday night rolled a clip from May 1973 demonstrating the Thatcher sneer at full pitch. (She was saying that she wouldn’t dream of seeking the leadership.) She sounded like a cat sliding down a blackboard.

In real life, Mrs Thatcher either believes that everybody can help themselves without anybody getting hurt, which means she is unhinged; or else believes that everybody who can help themselves ought to do so no matter who gets hurt, which means she is a villain: a sinister prospect either way. On the tube, though, she comes over as a deep thinker: errors of judgment like the food-hoarding goof will probably disappear with experience, and are by no means as damaging as the blunders the men perpetrate in quest of screen warmth. (‘You know me, Robin, I’m a pretty human sort of chap,’ I caught William Whitelaw saying a couple of months ago.) She’s cold, hard, quick and superior, and smart enough to know that those qualities could work for her instead of against. ‘Like any winner’s dressing room after the big fight, the champagne flowed,’ said News at Ten, its grammar limp with admiration.

The Love School (BBC2) is a series in the ‘Notorious Woman’ bag of art-struck soap operas, the subject this time being the Pre-Raphaelites. Fun though it is to watch the actors stomping around in period schmutter, these shows are an unbeatable way of getting hold of aesthetic experience from the wrong end. In the long run, it’s the uninteresting part of an artist’s life which is of consequence — a point inadvertently emphasised by ‘Notorious Woman,’ which struggled in vain to make Chopin’s personality as dramatically complex as George Sand’s. The Pre-Raphaelites yield meaty drama: plots, counter-plots, runaway love-affairs and — always the thematic backbone of the art bio-pic — rampant careerism. But the fact that their art was once in fashion, and then later went out of fashion, and is now back in fashion, and might soon become even more fashionable still, has got nothing to do with the permanent aesthetic fact that Pre-Raphaelite art was bad even at its best. To admit that, though, would be to give the game away.

In Taste for Adventure (BBC1) a man of incredible strength, bravery and stupidity called Sylvain Saudan skied down the Eiger. ‘My head hurt,’ he declared Pythonically. In Inside Story (BBC2) a cow called Celia was impregnated by a jaded Lothario of a bull called Cliftonmill Olympus II. Cliff produced 5,000 million sperm at a stroke, but never got the girl. The stuff was deep-frozen and transported to the site in a white VW by Mr Ray Cod, who donned elbow-length gloves and socked it to Celia with minimal foreplay. Meanwhile Cliff was presumably reading Penthouse and preparing himself for further triumphs. Brief encounter.

The Observer, 9th February 1975

[ This piece also appears in Visions Before Midnight ]