December 4, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Thatcher inspired satire in the 1980s

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Margaret Thatcher was a rich source of satire in the 1980s from cartoonists to TV programme makers as Tony McMahon recalls
Thatcher satire

For somebody who seemed to have a petit-bourgeois philistine contempt for the arts – Thatcher certainly inspired many artists. Mainly out of hatred. But nevertheless, from cartoonists to novelists and dramatists, she provided ample material.

Her voice was an early source of mirth. The comedian Maureen Lipman picked up on what we all recognise now – and that was the transformation of Thatcher’s voice through the 1970s. As education minister in the 1970-74 Ted Heath government, Thatcher had what Lipman termed a higher pitch ‘Ealing comedy’ kind of intonation. Feverish and jarring. Then the spin doctors got to her and it dropped an octave as she made her bid to be Prime Minister. But then that proved difficult to sustain as it took a toll on her vocal cords. Lipman explains here.

Spitting Image is always remembered as the satirical show that captured Thatcher’s insane streak the best. The voice of Thatcher was stand-up comedian Steve Nallon who did several other voices on Spitting Image. Here he is appearing on TV-am dressed as Thatcher and meeting actor Nigel Hawthorne who at that time was playing a senior civil servant called Sir Humphrey in the hit political sitcom, Yes Minister.

Cartoonists had a field day with Thatcher. Steve Bell on The Guardian being probably one of the top satirists of the Iron Lady. The Economist’s in-house cartoonist, Kai, explained in one interview how certain aspects of her face – especially Thatcher’s pointed nose – became accentuated over time. I recall one cartoonist turning her into a shark by elongating her nose and adding razor-sharp teeth. However, as Kai points out, her nose wasn’t actually that big. What made it big in the eyes of cartoonists was that sense of constant forward momentum. So, that meant the nose jutting out in front. For his part, Kai decided to shorten her nose…

DISCOVER: Memories of Liverpool in 1981

Some satirists suggested that the relationship between Thatcher and her ministerial underlings had the air of a Dominatrix. This became a stronger trope during the 1980s as the Prime Minister assumed an ever more imperial bearing. The journalist Hugo Young, a dissident Tory, even referring to her as Gloriana Imperatrix. And Thatcher referring to herself in the third person didn’t help matters. Harry Enfield was a product of the 1980s ‘alternative comedy’ scene and this was a sketch years after Thatcher that plays on the dominatrix theme.

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