Filmmaker Phyllida Lloyd took a risk in turning American actress Meryl Streep into the Iron Lady. She tells Alison Jones how she recreated a woman who divided a nation for the screen.
Director Phyllida Lloyd can recall the day she sensed history literally being made.
She was in the house she shared with “a load of blokes”, fellow students, while she was attending the University of Birmingham in the late ‘70s.
“I remember listening to the ten o’clock news and hearing something about ‘the first woman leader in the west leaves Conservative Party Central Office’ and thinking ‘Yes, yes. This is a moment for us.
"We have had the vote since 28/30 (from 1918 woman over the age of 30 could vote and in 1928 they were given the right to vote on the same terms as men), now we have got through that door’.
“I remember marking it, aside from what I thought about her politics, as a key landmark in British history.”
There was not, however, a great sense of sisterly solidarity.
Phyllida was about to embark on a career working in television and stage drama but Margaret Thatcher was to prove no great friend to the arts.
Writer Hanif Kureishi commented “Thatcher is basically vulgar. She actively hated culture, as she recognised it was a form of dissent.”
“Obviously I hadn’t voted for her,” says Phyllida.” And the fact I was working in subsidised theatre in the ‘80s says it all as to how I felt about the Tory government at that time.”
Whatever personal animosity Phyllida might have had towards Mrs Thatcher or the Tories, she has painted a surprisingly human portrait of her in The Iron Lady – the woman who infamously snatched the milk from the mouths of primary school children as Education Secretary, now reduced to a befuddled pensioner who cannot pop out to buy a pint unaccompanied.
The script was written by Abi Morgan, who also penned The Hour for BBC2, inspired by an article Carol Thatcher had written about a lunch with her mother that, along with her book, revealed her increasing mental frailty.
Consequently The Iron Lady is as much a fiction about Thatcher’s imagined life now, lonely, confused, haunted by her late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent), as it is about the highs and lows of her Parliamentary career.
It is an unusual approach to the story of a woman who so polarises public opinion – who is admired without reservation by some while others are counting the days until she dies and already planning the celebratory knees-up.
Reaction to the very idea of the film was so extreme that Phyllida admits she stopped looking at it online as people hurled abuse at each other from across the political divide, forcing moderators to step in.
“The debate about her was so cliché ridden.
“To the hard right she was Saint Margaret, on her way to beatification. She had saved Britain from its post-war decline single-handed. She had brought down the Berlin wall.
“Yet to the other side she was a monster, a drag queen, the Spitting Image puppet/man in drag, witch, She-Devil.
“I had friends who stopped me in the street who said ‘You have put me in a very difficult position because I have been saving up for the party when she dies’.
“It was quite medieval actually, the whole thing. So we were glad that we were doing a film about something other than that.
“This isn’t ‘she came from nowhere’ and we have only really taken two or three incidents from her career, her public life.
“It’s a film about power and loss of power, and a kind of contemplation of old age, what it feel like to deal with being alone – universal themes.
“It is a bigger film than 'was she right or was she wrong?'”
Phyllida found it was not necessary for her to like her subject in order to feel compassion.