Netflix drama The Crown has always been the story of the woman on the throne. Season 4 introduces two very different women who had a huge impact: Princess Diana and former leader Margaret Thatcher. But how accurate is Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of the divisive Thatcher?
At the end of season 3, we saw left-wing Prime Minister Harold Wilson resign due to illness, in 1976. Skipping over James Callaghan, season 4 goes straight to Thatcher’s election in 1979. The series then runs though the 1980s and Thatcher’s term as Britain’s first woman prime minister up until her ousting more than a decade later. The show also follows the parallel story of Princess Diana (Emma Corrin) as she joins the royal family headed by Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman).
I was born in Thatcher’s Britain, so join me for a look into how The Crown portrays those turbulent times.
Be warned: Minor spoilers to follow…
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If you’ve never heard of Margaret Thatcher before, then you might be bemused by Anderson’s tight-lipped vocal stylings. But Thatcher really did talk like that, which was a gift to impressionists and satirists of the time. Earlier this month biographer Charles Moore called Anderson’s portrayal “the only convincing performance I have seen of Mrs. Thatcher as prime minister,” comparing the X-Files and Sex Education star favorably with Meryl Streep in 2011 biopic The Iron Lady.
The Crown depicts Thatcher as a hard-working underdog reminded constantly of her humble beginnings by the snobbish royals and the patrician double-dealers in her own government. In real life, Baroness Thatcher was born Margaret Hilda Roberts in 1925 in the northeast of England. Her father was a shopkeeper as well as a Methodist preacher who also served as local mayor.
However, Thatcher’s politics were marked by a haughty superiority of their own, and she was far from from an underdog. As mentioned in episode 1, she was rejected from a job by a company that genuinely did label her “headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated.” Thatcher studied at the prestigious Oxford University — glimpsed in a season 4 flashback featuring Claire Foy as the young queen — and was a lawyer who was involved in local politics from the age of 24. Having married Denis Thatcher and had twins, she was elected to Britain’s parliament in 1959. One of her earliest acts was voting to bring back the caning of schoolkids.
Thatcher the icon
That the people of Britain chose a woman to lead the country represents a breakthrough, but Thatcher herself is hardly a feminist icon. She succeeded in a man’s world, but only by going along with the existing rules of a sexist hierarchy and actively working against the interests of other women and other marginalized or oppressed people.
Dubbed the “Iron Lady” by a Soviet journalist, she was a divisive figure whose reign began with recession and war and ended in riots. The popular but false myth that she played a role in the invention of soft-scoop ice cream is perhaps ironic as she was later nicknamed “Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher” for getting rid of free milk for younger schoolchildren.
She opposed sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime, as depicted in episode 8, and only when she left office did the peace process in Northern Ireland truly begin. She defended the notoriously racist “rivers of blood” speech given in parliament by a fellow Conservative, described labor unions as “the enemy within” and slashed spending on welfare.
Episode 5 of the fourth season, which follows a troubled man who broke into Buckingham Palace in 1982, depicts the street-level consequences on everyday people of Thatcher’s rigid emphasis on strict economic policies and self-interest.
The Crown has always taken dramatic license in its depiction of royal history. The show puts words in the mouths of its characters in private and reshuffles public moments for dramatic effect. We’ll never quite know whether the queen felt threatened by Thatcher, but we do know when real events are tweaked to fit the drama.
For example, it’s unlikely the queen dragged Thatcher across the Scottish countryside in her best clothes as seen in episode 2. That’s a visual metaphor. And like previous film The Iron Lady, The Crown is making a dramatic point when it shows Thatcher as the lone woman in the corridors of power. There were actually dozens of female MPs in parliament throughout her term.
The series also shows Thatcher distracted by her missing son during the beginnings of the Falklands crisis, a brief military confrontation between the UK and Argentina over control of islands in the South Atlantic. In fact, Mark Thatcher got lost during the annual Paris-Dakar rally in January 1982, and the Argentinian scrap metal workers raised the flag over South Georgia in March 1982. Argentina’s forces landed on the Falkland Islands in April.
In depicting the relationship between its two leading characters, the show also arguably overemphasizes the queen’s influence on the running of the country. Thatcher almost certainly never appealed for political help from the royal figurehead.
That said, the private chats between the two characters dramatize the values of the real-life leaders and the themes of their respective reigns. The meeting in episode 8 is particularly concise in summing up Thatcher’s preference for setting aside emotion and compassion and treating people “with the perspective of a cold balance sheet.”
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