I don’t often hide my head in my hands when I see Gillian Anderson on screen. She’s a fine actress, after all. Often brilliant. A player who truly understands how to get inside the skin of her characters.
Here was the Iron Lady reduced to a clodhopping caricature of the prime minister I knew, a politician so poorly briefed that she turns up in Balmoral with the wrong clothes, the wrong shoes and the wrong attitude. A groveller whose curtsey to the Queen sinks lower than the Mindanao Trench, a gauche woman with an absurdly mannered voice who makes Hyacinth Bucket seem a model of sophistication.
To be fair, Ms Anderson never met Mrs Thatcher and could have had little idea of what she was like in private. No actress can be blamed for following a script – and Peter Morgan’s script pays only lip service to historical accuracy. To be even fairer, many other people have grossly underestimated Mrs Thatcher – including, I regret to say, yours truly.
Watch: Who is Margaret Thatcher?
Yes, I was a young and very green political journalist when I first met the Mrs Thatcher in Whitehall in the early 1970s. She was education secretary at the time, the token woman in Ted Heath’s Tory government and I lunched with her in company with three other equally young lobby correspondents.
Talking amongst ourselves afterwards we shook our collective heads over what we regarded as her naïveté. Why, she had principles! She believed in balancing the books! She didn’t follow the conventional political wisdom! Worse still, she responded to our questions with proper answers, with no flannelling! So of course we agreed that she probably wouldn’t progress much further in her political career. Oh dear.
Incidentally, despite that lamentable lack of judgment, all four of us eventually became Fleet Street political editors – though by that time we’d learned from hard experience that there was far, far more to the lady than we ever imagined. This was a rough, tough leader, full of the passion of her convictions.
I discovered that for myself early in her premiership, when everything seemed to be going wrong and I secured an interview with her in her Downing Street study. She sat behind her desk reciting a list of things she claimed were going right and I reacted – obviously unwisely – by contradicting her. "Come off it, prime minister", I ventured, "why can’t you admit it’s a disaster?’
I might just as well have administered an electric shock. She jerked upright in her seat. “Michael, you’re such a cynic,” she said. With that, she jumped to her feet, seized some papers from her desk and stomped towards me, eyes blazing. For a wild moment, I thought she was about to hit me.
But no, instead she plonked herself on her knees, thrust the papers under my nose and stabbed her fingers at the contents. “Read that!” she ordered. “And that! What do you say now?”
Well, as I’d taken off my glasses I couldn’t quite make out what she wanted me to read, but this wasn’t the time to say so. “I see what you mean, prime minister,” I said, accepting defeat like so many others who challenged her.
The interesting thing is, afterwards the interview continued without a hitch. At the end, as she rushed off to another appointment, she told her press secretary Bernard Ingham to get out the whisky. Clearly, this was a lady who understood how to handle the press.
Watch: Is The Crown a true story?
And yet there was more to her than cold calculation. At a Chequers lunch for foreign dignitaries, one of the staff – seconded from the RAF – accidentally poured gravy over one of the guests. Mrs Thatcher leapt to her feet and rushed around the table to comfort the distraught young waitress. “Don’t worry, dear. It could happen to anyone”. And the unfortunate guest? He was left to mop himself dry.
You don’t have to be a fan of the former prime minister to admire the qualities that go far beyond the Netflix caricature. But as time goes by and fewer and fewer of her acquaintances remain, I suspect that it’s the caricature that may endure.
Michael Toner is a former political editor