Comics, comedy and Communards: Margaret Thatcher and pop culture
From Adrian Mole to Ben Elton and Billy Bragg, everyone had an opinion on the Iron Lady
Spitting Image: the satirical puppet show thrived on Thatcher’s presence. Photograph: Bruno Vincent/Getty
‘Do you weep, Mrs Thatcher, do you weep? Do you wake, Mrs Thatcher, in your sleep? Do you weep like a sad willow on your Marks and Spencer’s pillow? Are your tears molten steel? Do you weep?”
So wrote Adrian Mole, Sue Townsend’s adolescent hero of Thatcher’s Britain, in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 and ¾ .
As a sensitive child of the 1980s in the southern part of the country next door to hers, my first encounters with Thatcher were largely through the arts. My knowledge of UK politics was enhanced by anti-Thatcher rants in the pages of the spikily well-written Smash Hits magazine, usually from The Housemartins, Pet Shop Boys or Communards, while punk music drew strength and focus from her existence.
The punk band Crass wrote How D oes I t F eel to B e the Mother of 1,000 Dead about her warmongering in the Falklands. Elvis Costello lamented the war and the death of an industry in Shipbuilding and danced on her grave in Tramp the Dirt Down . Morrissey, usually shy about expressing an opinion, wrote Margaret on the Guillotine .
Depicting the death of Thatcher in song was a cultural meme before people knew what a meme was. (Her death has been, more recently, celebrated in song in the Billy Elliot stage show.) At the time, pro-Labour, anti-Thatcher musicians banded together as Red Wedge. Billy Bragg, author of songs of working-class decline such as Between the Wars , recently said his biggest influence was Thatcher.
Her shadow was also felt in comic books . Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta and Halo Jones were exaggerated versions of Thatcher’s Britain. Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes wrote a revisionist sci-fi story called Dare , in which Dan Dare was a propaganda stooge for a Thatcheresque leader named Gloria Munday.
Hunt Emerson and Pat Mills, co-founder of 2000 AD , wrote the choose-your-own-adventure satire You A re Margaret Thatcher: A Dole Playing Game , in which readers were encouraged to pretend that they were the grotesquely drawn British leader oppressing the masses.
On television, the ascendant alternative-comedy scene also railed against her, usually on Channel 4, a station created by her government. British comedy, once characterised by mother-in-law jokes in working men’s clubs or Oxbridge graduates in drag, was now about earnest young people with communist T-shirts.
Alexei Sayle sang anti-Thatcher country’n’western songs with his Comrades of the Rodeo. Rick in T he Young Ones , played by Rik Mayall, promised to “bomb Britain” if she didn’t do what he wanted. The bespectacled pseudo-Trot Ben Elton was obsessed with “Thatch”, and The Comic Strip Presents . . . lampooned the Thatcherite agenda as a Hollywood blockbuster taking over a small town in The Strike . (Peter Richardson played Al Pacino playing Arthur Scargill. )
Her comic potential wasn’t just noticed by the new wave.
Michael Palin put on a helmet wig and a blue dress to play her on Saturday Night Live . (She returned the favour by quoting Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch in a speech.) And the satirical puppet show Spitting Image thrived on her power-suited, cigar-smoking presence. (My main concern when she was ousted was the effect it would have on the programme.)
Not all comic geniuses hated her. Sir Antony Jay, a writer of the public-service-bashing Yes Minister , liked her so much he let her perform a cringe-inducing Yes Minister sketch she wrote at the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association awards. (“Yes, prime minister,” said the more left-leaning actor Nigel Hawthorne through what must have been firmly gritted teeth.)
Meanwhile, Alan Bleasdale’s grim depiction of Thatcher’s Britain in Boys from the Black Stuff (actually originally written during James Callaghan’s Labour government) and the grim social visions of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh were offset by Michael Dobbs’s House of Cards , which fictionalised the Machiavellian chaos that would ensue in the Tory party after her departure. (Dobbs was once Tory party chief of staff.)
She was succeeded by leaders, one grey, the other as smooth and sexless as a Ken doll, who pursued Thatcherite economic policies but without the cartoonish supervillainy. In giving critics a target to aim at, Thatcher politicised a generation.
On the other hand, she may also have confused them into thinking neoliberalism was all about her personally and wasn’t an ideology in its own right, capable of continuing without her.
So in the 1990s artists decommissioned their politics. Pop stars swilled champagne in Downing Street (and Ginger Spice proclaimed her “the original Spice Girl”), alternative comedians sold out stadiums and planned cash-in musicals while the best UK comic-book writers were in the US, writing about superheroes.