Opinion

Published

The revolution inspired by UK’s first female prime minister

6 Mins

When Phyllida Lloyd was first sent the script for The Iron Lady, she was hurtled back to 1979 and the moment Margaret Thatcher was elected. “I remember thinking that it was a moment for us all.”

That, the director said, was the last positive feeling she had about her, until the film project – which was more about “power and powerlessness and the cost of a big life”, rather than politics – revealed deeper insights into Thatcher’s life. 

Lloyd discovered the world of Downing Street at the time was “unfathomably primitive”. During her research, the single most important aspect she was urged to get across, by a former colleague of Thatcher, was the loneliness felt by a women from a lower-middle class background (“a double alien”) in the Tory high command. “How it must have felt to sit around the table with guys who were groomed from childhood to feel entitled to be prime minister. She never even thought she would be leader of the party. I think the job is lonely enough,” she said. 

Thatcher “the lamb”

Others who knew her reminisced about her late night meetings with high-level colleagues when she cooked lasagne (that remained half frozen at the bottom) and “far too many frozen peas”, and then instructed Dennis to clear and wash up, while she kept people working until the early hours. However, the table turned when Dennis would suddenly emerge and say “Woman, Up!” or “Thatcher, bed!”, “and she’d just get up and go like a lamb to her room. It was an extraordinary relationship,” said Lloyd.

Fast-forward to portraying Thatcher in old age, and Lloyd revealed that the most memorable day of filming was for the scene of the former prime minister going out to get a pint of milk. This was shot like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, and leading lady Meryl Streep was armed with a map and an earpiece and just told to walk. “Two and a half hours later, she was exultant – it was her first moment of anonymity she’d experienced for 20 years, but also, as hard as she tried, she couldn’t get a single person to make eye contact. It proved the invisibility of old age. We don’t want to get involved – an old person is a reminder of who we’re going to become. It was a shocking revelation that reinforced what we wanted to do – making old age and fragility the centre of our mission.” 

Working with Meryl

This was one of the reasons why Streep had been keen to take on the role in the first place – she had been looking for a project that “dealt with the end of things”. And for Lloyd, Streep had been the obvious woman to cast. “Whatever you thought of Margaret Thatcher she was some kind of superstar – and you needed a superstar to play her. You needed someone of Meryl’s charisma, intellectual breadth and warmth,” she said.

Interestingly, Lloyd explained that in learning to portray Thatcher, Streep got more from listening to her than watching her: “It was something to do with this incredible will to dominate either the room or the person. By her command of breath she managed to prevent interruption, and working on the breath was the essence of Meryl’s performance.” 

Lloyd and Streep formed a powerful partnership during filming – the second one they’d worked on together since Mammia Mia. “Working with her the first time was like being on centre court with one of the William’s sisters with a ping pong bat – but you eventually get into gear and realise actors like working with directors, knowing the boundaries and understanding what you’re trying to achieve.” 

This was important as “on set there’s no time to scratch your head, to really second guess anything – you have to make a decision, even if it’s the wrong one,” she added. 

Inspired by straight talking

Even here, Lloyd was inspired by her subject. “This was a political world pre-spin, in which this particular politician didn’t check what “the government’s position was” on a particular topic, but who went in and right or wrong, said what she thought, and who was prepared to go down with the ship,” explained Lloyd. 

While making the film and in the run-up to its release, Lloyd took strength from Thatcher’s “unpreparedness to buckle in the face of absolutely blistering and ferocious daily criticism” and followed her advice not to read papers. “Her expression of “steadying the buffs” was useful in keeping calm,” she concluded.

The First Women Awards recognise pioneering women whose achievements open opportunities for others. Nominations are open for the First Women Awards, which were created by Real Business and the CBI to recognise pioneering women whose achievements open opportunities for others.

Share this story

Business competitions are the fast track to success
How to launch a company in a recession
Send this to a friend