Thatcher: The Final Days Review
On Tony Blair’s departure from Downing Street last month much was made by the various political commentators of how dramatic it all was, even though, comparatively speaking, it was nothing of the sort. While there was a certain frisson at the sense of the curtain falling at the end of an era, the day itself was actually, PMQs aside, rather bathetic, in that all went to plan and nothing unexpected happened to upset the carefully arranged timetable. True it was slightly more interesting than the usual departure of a Prime Minister (following a defeat in a General Election, the deposed leader is usually bundled out of Downing Street with unseemly haste, overshadowed by the excitement of an incoming administration) but the real drama of Blair's resignation had occurred nearly a year previously during the so-called September putsch, although even that, frankly, was a bit of a messed job. The last time a PM’s exit has come anywhere close to real excitement was nearly twenty years ago, when a tear-stained Margaret Thatcher announced “We are now leaving Downing Street for the last time” and drove off into the pages of history, the moment perfectly captured by that iconic picture of her looking out of the car window. It was a suitably dramatic climax to her month-long battle to cling to power, a battle which had seen a seismic confrontation between the Europhiles and phobes of a Tory party which was still feeling its aftershocks fifteen years later. It'll live on in the collective memory long after the manner of Blair's departure is forgotten for, unlike the background briefing and plotting that went into ensuring his removal, Thatcher's fall from grace was pleasingly played out in full view of the general public, who like the audience at the Roman amphitheatres could fully join in, albeit in a vicarious way, in the excitement which was unfolding. (That’s the real way to pull off a putsch chaps, none of your namby-pamby backroom mutterings - the people demand to see the blood being spilled!)
Unsurprisingly, it didn't take long for TV to get in on the act and less than a year after Mr Major had crossed the Downing Street threshold, Granada TV presented their dramatised version of the events in the three weeks leading up to his predecessor's ousting. Starring Sylvia Syms as the Iron Lady, it has a couple of good points about it, but sadly has dated very badly in the sixteen years since its first broadcast. We’ve been spoilt over the past couple of years by the likes of The Deal and The Queen (although not, I would hasten to add, either A Very Social Secretary or Confessions of a Diary Secretary) but it’s difficult to imagine that even back in 1991 this would have appeared a very satisfactory piece of television. A caption at the beginning informs us that it has followed as closely as possible the transcripts in the public domain and the memories of those involved behind the scenes, but the earnestness with which it goes about this reconstruction mission drains all the life from the thing so that what we end up with has more in common with a bland police re-enactment rather than a compelling narrative in its own right. A series of static, slowly paced scenes take place in what look like dusty, low-lit rooms, with look-alike actors, some reasonably distinguished, spouting terse, expositional dialogue, conveying little of the emotion of either, on the one hand, the increasing despair of the Thatcher camp, or the gleeful skulduggery of her opponents. Crucially, there is no passion: this is a clinical piece which fails utterly to convey what must have been a very febrile atmosphere in Westminster, and as such manages to exorcise nearly all the drama from the situation, quite a feat in the circumstances.
Although a problem across the entire hour, this is most noticeable during the key scenes, especially Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech. This was the moment Caesar was knifed, the point when both Thatcher and the country realised she was stuffed, an exquisite twisting of the dagger that counts as one of the most dramatic moments in parliamentary history. Even watching the real version today one can sense the tension in the chamber, and see in the face of the Prime Minister the gradual realisation of what was happening to her, that she was slowly but surely being assassinated by a very brilliant and very ruthless speech. Sadly, there’s none of that in the film, which neuters the moment utterly, through a mixture of languid direction, Syms’ odd portrayal of the premier (of which more in a moment) and a total lack of suspense. Equally, the film’s ending point is odd: instead of the final farewell at Downing Street, we fade out on her resignation to the cabinet. Blame for this can only be laid at the door of director Tim Sullivan, who while no doubt conforming to the expectation that this would be a sober account of the affair should still be reprimanded for blowing those moments when a bit of excitement should have been injected into proceedings. Even the lesser moments, such as John Sergeant’s infamous encounter with her on the steps of the British Embassy in Paris, are botched - Sergeant has made a handy post-retirement living dining out on that story: I wonder what he thought of this version? And we don't even get "I'm enjoying this."
It doesn’t help that the actors seem to be restrained by the restricting mood of the production they found themselves in. With the exception of Syms herself, they give lifeless performances which amount to little more than turning up and reading the lines - only Harold Innocent and Christopher Benjamin as the PM’s main aides and John Wood as Heseltine have any spark to them at all. Still, at least there is some fun to be had in playing “Spot the Minister” - in general the likenesses of the various Tories are reasonably good (I was pleased to spot the John Gummer before he had even uttered a word), although Wood’s Heseltine grows less and less convincing the more time one spends with him. As if to compensate for the vegetables surrounding her, Syms is, on the other hand, utterly over the top, with a borderline dreadful performance as Thatcher, a gurning caricature that wouldn’t seem out of place in a live action Spitting Image. Not once does she come close to embodying the woman she is playing, and one can only assume that the fact the film was made so close to the events themselves meant she hadn’t had time to separate Thatcher the human being from Thatcher the legend. Despite her reputation as the Iron Lady, the events of her last few weeks in office really did have a profound effect on Thatcher, as could be seen by her exit, but none of that is shown on screen. Perhaps the best excuse one can give is the fact that so many people on screen were still in positions of power when this was made, which thus made them inaccessible and to a certain degree unknowable. But it doesn’t help the cause of the film.
Ultimately, this is a film that wasn’t brilliant then and hasn’t aged well. I find it very difficult to find anything to recommend in it, other than the actors look like whom they’re playing (for the most part) and the set of the House of Commons is reasonably decent. It’s also nice to see some of the old ITN footage (doesn’t John Suchet look young?) But otherwise this is not much cop. The decision to film it as clinically as possible backfires and misses the point, and make one of the most thrilling moments in modern British politics about as exciting as one of Iain Duncan Smith’s turns at the despatch box. Even if the work of Peter Morgan (the writer behind the recent Blair biopics) is more speculative than factual, one senses that at least he captures the flavour of the period and characters he is writing about. Here, the screenplay might count accuracy as its main achievement but does it capture even a hint of the people involved? As the lady herself said as the crisis was reaching boiling point: No, no, no!
The very definition of a bare bones release, the film is presented on a single-sided single layered DVD. On putting the disc in one is immediately transported to the Main Menu, which has two options: Play and Scene Selection (ten chapters). Something I’ve only seen once before on a DVD release is that the advert break is actually included: so at about the half way point we get “Thatcher: The Final Days Part One” then a pause, then “Thatcher: The Final Days Part Two.” Very silly. (The other release which I’ve seen it on, Phoenix Nights at least had some jolly music to carry it along). The unreconstructed Video is fairly ghastly, all faded colour, nasty digital artefacting and a heavy layer of grain, leaving one with the same impression I remember having years ago on first playing the original Quake on the PC - it’s all brown. The Audio is similarly unappealing but at least has no major flaws and does its job reasonably well.
There are no extras, and furthermore, no subtitles.
Okay, it’s slightly more interesting than IDS at the despatch box. But only just. In fact, it's enough to get one plotting...