How British Movies and TV Reacted to Thatcherism

How British Movies and TV Reacted to Thatcherism
A riot of his own: Tim Roth in Alan Clarke and David Leland's "Made In Britain" (1982)
(Courtesy ITV plc)

The British director Ken Loach has issued a statement that doesn’t mince words about the effect of the class war waged on the British working people by the former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who died yesterday, nearly 23 years after she left office.

“Margaret Thatcher was the most divisive and destructive Prime Minister of modern times,” Loach wrote in the statement, which was obtained by The Guardian. “Mass unemployment, factory closures, communities destroyed – this is her legacy. She was a fighter and her enemy was the British working class. Her victories were aided by the politically corrupt leaders of the Labour Party and of many trades unions. It is because of policies begun by her that we are in this mess today.


“Remember she called Mandela a terrorist and took tea with the torturer and murderer Pinochet,” Loach added. “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’d have wanted.”

Loach’s heist comedy “The Angels’ Share,” which opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, partially addresses the plight of the second generation of inner-city Scots to suffer systemic unemployment since the Thatcher years. His latest film, “The Spirit of ’45,” currently on release in the UK, shows how the achievements of the Labour government elected after World War II (the welfare state, nationalization, widespread employment) were dismantled by Thatcher’s Conservative government.

Sixteen years into his directorial career when Thatcher was elected in 1979, Loach and his collaborators, including the producer Tony Garnett, had already made such socially urgent works as the filmed television dramas “Cathy Come Home” (1966), “The Big Flame” (1969), “Days of Hope” (1975), “The Price of Coal” (1977), and the movies “Kes” (1969) and “Family Life” (1971).

The 1980s – Thatcher’s decade – were a comparatively lean time for Loach. Although he made the political television documentaries “A Question of Leadership” (1980) and “Questions of Leadership” (1983), both temporarily banned, and the television drama “The Gamekeeper” (1980), about the rights of ownership, he completed only three features during the decade.

Of these, “Looks and Smiles” (1981) is very much a film of the Thatcher era in its depiction of three young people faced with unemployment – a quiet analogue to Mike Leigh’s similarly themed but more overtly angry “Meantime” (1983). “Hidden Agenda” (1990), which rejuvenated Loach’s career, is a trenchant political thriller that addresses the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s “shoot-to-kill” policy in Northern Ireland. (The British soldier turned whistleblower in the film also discloses how the Conservatives and MI5 conspired to destabilize Harold Wilson’s 1970s Labour government.) Leigh, too, weighed in on Northern Ireland in “Four Days in July” (1985), a family drama based in Belfast that’s one of his least rhetorical films.

Writing in The Guardian today, Andrew Pulver suggests the following films “distilled the essence of Thatcher’s Britain, for better or worse”: Stephen Frears’s “My Beautiful Laundrette” (1985), James Ivory’s “A Room With a View” (1985), Alan Clarke’s “Rita, Sue and Bob Too!” (1987), Hugh Hudson’s Oscar-winning “Chariots of Fire” (1981), John Mackenzie’s “The Long Good Friday” (1980), and Leigh’s “High Hopes” (1987).  I would add to that list Hudson’s “Revolution” (1985), Julien Temple’s “Absolute Beginners” (1986), and Roland Joffé’s “The Mission” (1986), the three hubristically over-capitalized failures that wrecked the mid-’80s British film revival at a time when Frears, Leigh, Clarke, and Chris Bernard (“Letter to Brezhnev,” 1986) were showing what could be achieved with small budgets.

I would further add Clarke and writer David Leland’s television masterpiece “Made in Britain” (1982), about a violent but intelligent skinhead (Tim Roth, pictured above) 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. 

Then there is Richard Eyre’s “The Ploughman’s Lunch” (1981), written by Ian McEwan, a gloomy snapshot of the moral bankruptcy of British media professionals and the rest of the “chattering classes.” It depicts the opportunism of an ambitious, formerly liberal middle-class BBC journalist (Jonathan Pryce) who compromises his few principles, including arrogantly rewriting the history of the Suez Crisis, to win the affections of an upper-class woman.

The backdrop of his comeuppance is the 1982 Conservative Party Conference, when the Falklands victory enabled the imperialist-jingoist Thatcher to lord it over the liberals. One of the most memorable scenes takes place near an airbase (Greenham Common in all but name), where Pryce’s character is helped with his flat tire by some of the women protesting the siting of NATO cruise missiles there. He says he will help them in turn, but in doing nothing he betrays them.

Thatcher’s death makes all these films worth looking at again – certainly more so than Phyllida Lloyd’s “The Iron Lady” (2011), which I reviewed hereMeryl Streep’s impersonation of Thatcher was clever, of course, and Peter Morgan’s script addressed some of Thatcher’s more draconian actions, but the movie veered too often into hagiography. Watching Roth’s and Oldman’s skinheads in “Meantime” and Roth’s in “Made in Britain” is more instructive.