13 June 2008 | farne
Thatcher: the early years
Originally shown as part of a season of programmes on Margaret Thatcher on BBC4, The Long Walk to Finchley presents a very different view of one of British politics most divisive figures. Here we see her not as the strident leader of the 1980s, but as an underdog, in her early years as a prospective Parliamentary candidate. Trying to gain election to Parliament in the 1950s, she is the victim of the establishment, the old boy network, and most especially of prejudice against her as a woman. The film gets across very well her tenacity in fighting for constituency after constituency before finally being selected for the safe seat of Finchley.
Tony Saint's script is actually surprisingly light hearted, full of in-jokes and random innuendo, some of which is quite funny. There are many sly references to future events in Thatcher's life - about to dance with Ted Heath, her predecessor as Conservative leader in the 1970s, she says "You Lead, I'll follow"; Mark Thatcher as a boy says to his mother "Can I go to Africa one day? I won't cause any trouble" (a reference to his becoming lost in the desert in the 1980s); Thatcher to a French waiter "I want a refund; I want my money back!" (EU rebate), etc.
The performances are generally good, especially Andrea Riseborough who successfully captures some of Thatcher's mannerisms and especially her speech, without ever sounded like a straightforward impersonation. More surprisingly, she also captures Thatcher's flirtiness as a young woman, and presents her quite sympathetically. Rory Kinnear's successfully suggest Denis Thatcher's long-suffering nature, while Samuel West is very good as Edward Heath, capturing his essential awkwardness and unsociability. Heath is seen uncomfortably standing by while Thatcher grabs the limelight during the election, or struggling to make small talk while she wins over a luncheon club meeting. The film is quite mischievous in suggesting Thatcher propositioned Heath for, we assume, some kind of political or actual marriage. But there's no evidence for this and it shouldn't be taken too seriously. Like Thatcher, Heath wasn't part of the establishment and he isn't portrayed entirely unsympathetically here, although the script does get some laughs at his expense. After Heath likens a political party to an orchestra and suggests that all elements should work together (implying that Thatcher is too dominant), one of the luncheon club ladies asks the eternal bachelor innocently, "Is that why you prefer playing with your organ alone, Mr Heath?"
The film caused a bit of controversy before it was even finished because Thatcher was apparently going to deploy the F word at one point, in frustration at not being selected for Parliament. In the end she says "Damn the establishment", rather than anything stronger, which is a wise choice. A woman of Thatcher's "respectable" middle class methodist background probably wouldn't have even heard such language in the '50s, but this is something that has cropped up in other recent BBC dramas, including BBC4's The Curse of Steptoe, where period characters don't always use period language.
The Long Walk to Finchley is actually quite entertaining, with the 1950s world of constituency meetings, chaps with pipes, open top sports cars and smoky back rooms, quite successfully evoked. The random jokes can be quite funny (even the title is a sly political reference). But it can be most easily recommended to those with a rough knowledge of, and interest in, British politics of the last 40 years or so.