Tune in, switch off - This was history as soap

13th March 2009 at 00:00

I once almost asked Michael Portillo why he never became leader of the Tory party. I'd rehearsed my question carefully and thought I'd send down a bouncer and hit him for a six. Did he think the problem was to do with him or his party?

But my wife jumped in with her question first, just wanting some juicy gossip about his warm and cuddly relationship with Labour MP Diane Abbott on the sofa in BBC's late-night political review programme, This Week.

I may have missed out, but my wife now has a dinner party story to tell of Michael and Diane's unlikely partnership in the school play, Macbeth.

However, it was Portillo's absence in Margaret that was more conspicuous. Despite being mentioned by Lady Thatcher in her autobiography, The Downing Street Years, as being one of her strongest supporters during her resignation crisis, Portillo was, surprisingly, written out of the script in this drama about her fall from power. Perhaps that's what the party tried to do to him as well.

This was history as soap: so many famous actors pretending to be so many memorable politicians. Or perhaps it was the other way around. I think Geoffrey Howe was really impersonating John Sessions, and surely Heseltine played himself - or was it Rory Bremner again? I kept expecting John Bird and John Fortune to pop up; in fact, I think I did spot them in the background when Hurd and Major were plotting in the dark corners of the tea rooms. But then Margaret would only ever visit those male enclaves when there was garlic on the menu. I feel the same way about the staffroom.

Margaret contained more cricketing cliches than runs by the England batsmen in a test-match special. "No ducking the bouncers. The bowling's going to get hit all round the ground. That's my style," the great lady tells her team. Ah, but that was before her trusted Geoffrey came in to bowl and complained, in that electrifying speech of his in the Commons, that she'd "broken the bats".

The other star of this piece, apart from Denis (Ian McDiarmid) of course, was Strictly Come Dancing's John Sergeant. In his autobiography, Give Me Ten Seconds, he describes the farcical moment in history when the prime minister emerges from a meeting in Paris to deliver a news conference but finds she has no microphone.

"She's behind you," shouts the newsreader to man-with-the-mike Sergeant. But before our John can say "let's tango", she's snatched it from him and is making her speech about fighting on to win. The chaos of this scene came over in the remake but nothing beats the original, so why try?

There were lots of flashing cameras, slamming of car doors and walks at marathon speed down dingy corridors when her followers tried hard to keep up. You knew they were her team because they all wore over-large owl specs, dark suits and had paunches the size of Ken Clarke.

It was a good job we were told that the dialogue was all made up or I might have believed it was true. "I will change the soul of this country. Either you are with me or you are against me. We shall prevail," she said.

I think they nicked that from the Churchill documentary on the History channel. Or was it Portillo's infamous SAS speech? I can already hear the chuckles from Diane Abbott on that late-night couch

Ray Tarleton is principal at South Dartmoor Community College in Ashburton, Devon.

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