No future: Top 5 Thatcher era films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 13, 2013)

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Digby did a great post earlier this week with an interesting cultural angle regarding the passing of former British PM Margaret Thatcher. She recalls how the Thatcher era (1979-1990) “was a fertile period in British music”, that blossomed in tandem with the “very active political opposition to Thatcherism”. The socio-political ennui that fueled those punk anthems Dibgy cites also informed the work of some young British filmmakers. So as a sort of companion piece to Digby’s post, I’ve selected five films that share the ethos:

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High Hopes – “Guess what its name is?” asks Shirley (Ruth Sheen), whilst pointing at a potted cactus plant. When their house guest shrugs, her husband Cyril (Philip Davis) chimes in, “Thatcher! Because it’s a pain in the ass; prongs you every time you walk past it.” Cyril (an old-school Marxist who works as a motorbike messenger) and the earth-motherly Shirley are at the center of Mike Leigh’s wonderful 1988 character study.

In his usual leisurely yet compelling fashion, Leigh pulls you right into the world of this sweet, unpretentious working-class couple and the people in their orbit. There’s Cyril’s elderly mum (Edna Dore), with whom he dutifully stays in touch (despite the fact that she voted Tory in the last election, to his chagrin). Cyril’s shrill, self-centered sister Valerie (Heather Tobias) is a piece of work; while she also stays in touch with Mum, she sees it as a bothersome chore. Her exasperated husband (Martin Burke) is starting to view his marriage as a bothersome chore. And then there is an obnoxious yuppie couple (Lesley Manville and David Bamber) that you will love to hate.

Many of Leigh’s recurring themes are present; particularly class warfare and family dynamics (the thread about Cyril’s aging mother reminds me of Ozu’s Tokyo Story). And like most of Leigh’s films, it’s insightful, funny, poignant and ultimately life-affirming.

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The Ploughman’s Lunch – In a 2009 article in The Guardian, a number of UK writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers and arts critics weighed in regarding Thatcherism’s effect on each of their respective fields. This was theater and film director Richard Eyre’s take:

Thatcher’s relentless emphasis on money and management and marketing illuminated the value of things that couldn’t be quantified, and her moronic mantra “there’s no such thing as society” gave the humanitarian and moral a conspicuous importance. So, although I didn’t think it at the time, it’s possible that Thatcher gave the arts a shot in the arm.

And indeed, Eyre’s 1983 film is probably the most politically subversive of my five selections. Bolstered by Ian McEwan’s incisive screenplay, the story is set on the eve of the Falklands War. Jonathan Pryce tackles the unenviable task of making us care about an inherently smarmy protagonist with considerable aplomb.

Pryce plays a cynical Oxford-educated Radio London news writer who falls madly in love with a TV journalist (Charlie Dore). She reciprocates in a platonic fashion. Frustrated, Pryce begs a pal (Tim Curry) who also happens to be Dore’s long-time co-worker for ideas. Curry suggests that Pryce, who has been commissioned to write a book on the Suez Crisis, could score points by ingratiating himself with Dore’s mother (Rosemary Harris), an historian who once wrote a commemorative article on that very subject. Pryce’s love life takes a few unexpected turns.

While it may sound more like a soap opera than a political statement, McEwan’s script cleverly draws parallels between the self-serving sexual machinations of the characters and what he may have felt Thatcher was (figuratively) “doing” to Britain at the time.

It’s interesting to note that the denouement, which features the three journalists covering the 1982 Conservative Party Conference, was surreptitiously filmed at the actual event (you’ll see snippets of Thatcher’s address) as the actors nonchalantly mingled with the crowd (begging comparison to Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool).

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Radio On – You know how you develop an inexplicable emotional attachment to certain films? This no-budget 1979 offering from writer-director Christopher Petit, shot in stark B&W is one such film for me. That said, I should warn you that it is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, as it contains one of those episodic narratives that may cause drowsiness for some after about 15 minutes. Yet, I am compelled to revisit this one annually. Go figure.

A dour London DJ (David Beames), whose estranged brother has committed suicide, heads to Bristol to get his sibling’s affairs in order and attempt to glean what drove him to such despair (while quite reminiscent of the setup for Get Carter, this is not a crime thriller…far from it). He has encounters with various characters, including a friendly German woman, an unbalanced British Army vet who served in Northern Ireland, and a rural gas-station attendant (a cameo by Sting) who kills time singing Eddie Cochran songs.

As the protagonist journeys across an England full of bleak yet perversely beautiful industrial landscapes in his boxy sedan, accompanied by a moody electronic score (mostly Kraftwerk and David Bowie) the film becomes hypnotic. A textbook example of how the cinema can capture and preserve the zeitgeist of an ephemeral moment (e.g. England on the cusp of the Thatcher era) like no other art form.

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Sammie and Rosie Get Laid – I think that the thing I adore most about this criminally underappreciated 1987 dramedy from British director Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Launderette, Prick up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity) is that it is everything wingnuts fear and despise the most: Pro-feminist, gay-positive, anti-fascist, pro-multiculturalism, anti-colonialist and Marxist-friendly. In other words, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

At first glance, Sammy (Ayub Khan-Din) and Rosie (Frances Barber) are just your average middle-class London couple. However, their lifestyle is unconventional. They have taken a libertine approach to their marriage; giving each other an unlimited pass to take lovers on the side (the in-joke here is that Sammy and Rosie seemingly “get laid” with everyone but each other). In the meantime, the couple’s neighborhood is turning into a war zone; ethnic and political unrest has led to nightly riots (this is unmistakably Thatcher’s England; Frears bookends his film with ironic excerpts from her speeches).

When Sammy’s estranged father (Shashi Kapoor), a former Indian government official haunted by ghosts from his political past, returns to London after a long absence, everything goes topsy-turvy for the couple. Wonderful performances abound (including the great Claire Bloom, and Fine Young Cannibals lead singer Roland Gift), buoyed by Frears’ fine direction and Hanif Kureishi’s literate script.

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This is England – This film from director Shane Meadows (Once Upon a Time in the Midlands) was released in 2007, but is set during the Thatcher era, circa 1983. A hard-hitting, naturalistic “social drama” reminiscent of the work of Ken Loach and British “angry young man” films of the early 60s, it centers on a glum, alienated 12 year-old named Shaun (first-time film actor Thomas Turgoose, in an extraordinary performance).

Shaun is a real handful to his loving but exasperated mother (Jo Hartley), a struggling working-class Falklands War widow. Happenstance leads Shaun into the midst of a skinhead gang, after the empathetic and good-natured gang leader (Joe Gilgun) takes him under his wing and offers him unconditional entrée. The idyll is shattered when the gang’s original leader ‘Combo’ (Stephen Graham) is released from prison. His jailhouse conversion to racist National Front ideals splits the gang into factions. Shaun decides to side with the thuggish and manipulative Combo, and it’s downhill from there.

As a cautionary tale, the film demonstrates how easily the disenfranchised can be recruited and indoctrinated into the politics of hate. As a history lesson, it’s a fascinating glimpse at a not-so-long ago era of complex sociopolitical upheaval in Great Britain. As a drama, it has believable and astounding performances, particularly from the aforementioned Turgoose and Graham, who positively owns the screen with his charismatic intensity. Not to be missed.

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