Netflix royal drama The Crown has always been the story of the woman on the throne. In Season 4, the queen is joined by two additional women who had a huge impact on the nation and the world: Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher. UK Culture Minister Oliver Dowden, concerned that some of the show’s scenes could damage the royal family, called on Netflix this weekend to warn viewers that each episode doesn’t depict “fact.” It is, however, based on real historical events. So just how accurate is Gillian Anderson‘s portrayal of the divisive Thatcher?
At the end of season 3, we saw left-wing Prime Minister Harold Wilson resign due to illness, in 1976. Skipping over James Callaghan, season 4 goes straight to Thatcher’s election in 1979. The series then runs though the 1980s and Thatcher’s term as Britain’s first woman prime minister up until she resigned more than a decade later. The show also follows the parallel story of Emma Corrin) as she joins the royal family headed by Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman).(
I was born in Thatcher’s Britain, so join me for a look into how The Crown portrays those turbulent times.
Be warned: Minor spoilers to follow…
If you’ve never heard of Margaret Thatcher before, then you might be bemused by Anderson’s tight-lipped vocal stylings. But Thatcher really did talk like that, which was a gift to impressionists and satirists of the time. Earlier this month biographer Charles Moore called Anderson’s portrayal “the only convincing performance I have seen of Mrs Thatcher as prime minister,” comparing the X-Files and Sex Education star favorably with Meryl Streep in 2011 biopic The Iron Lady.
The Crown depicts Thatcher as a hard-working outsider reminded constantly of her humble beginnings by the snobbish royals and the patrician double-dealers in her own government. In real life, Baroness Thatcher was born Margaret Hilda Roberts in 1925 in the midlands of England, and as the show continually reminds us, her father was a shopkeeper. She really was rejected from a job by a company that genuinely labeled her “headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated.”
However, Thatcher’s politics were marked by a haughty superiority of their own, and she was far from an underdog. Her shopkeeper father was the local mayor. She studied at the prestigious Oxford University — glimpsed in a season 4 flashback featuring Claire Foy as the young queen — and became a lawyer who was involved in local politics from the age of 24. Having married Denis Thatcher and had twins, she was elected to Parliament in 1959, and one of her earliest acts was voting to bring back the caning of schoolkids. The popular but false myth that she played a role in the invention of soft-scoop ice cream while a young chemist is perhaps ironic as she was later nicknamed “Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher” for getting rid of free milk for younger schoolchildren.
Thatcher the icon
That the people of Britain chose a woman to lead the country represents a breakthrough, but Thatcher herself is hardly a feminist icon. She succeeded in a man’s world, but only by going along with the existing rules of a sexist hierarchy and actively working against the interests of other women and other marginalized or oppressed people.
Dubbed the “Iron Lady” by a Soviet journalist, she was a divisive figure whose reign began with recession and war and ended in riots. The headline for her obituaries call her “the most divisive political leader of modern times” (The Independent), and “influential but divisive” (The Guardian). Even the conservative Telegraph conceded “the effects of the Thatcher phenomenon upon British society … were both more ambiguous and more debatable. … rightly or wrongly, the 1980s came to be seen as a time of social fragmentation whose consequences are still with us.”
She opposed sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime, as depicted in episode 8, and only when she left office did the peace process in Northern Ireland truly begin. She defended the notoriously racist “rivers of blood” speech given in parliament by a fellow Conservative, described labor unions as “the enemy within” and slashed spending on welfare.
Episode 5 of the fourth season, which follows a troubled man who broke into Buckingham Palace in 1982, depicts the street-level consequences on everyday people of Thatcher’s rigid attitude, strict economic policies and emphasis on self-interest over the needs of a wider society.
The Crown has always taken dramatic license in its depiction of royal history. The show puts words in the mouths of its characters in private meetings, and reshuffles public moments for dramatic effect. We’ll never know whether the queen really felt threatened by Thatcher, but we do know when real events are tweaked to fit the drama.
For example, it’s unlikely the queen dragged Thatcher across the Scottish countryside in her best clothes as seen in episode 2. That’s a visual metaphor for Thatcher being “an outsider”. And like previous film The Iron Lady, The Crown is making a dramatic point when it shows Thatcher as the lone woman in the corridors of power. There were actually dozens of female MPs in Parliament throughout her term.
The series also shows Thatcher distracted by her missing son during the beginnings of the Falklands crisis, a brief military confrontation between the UK and Argentina over control of islands in the South Atlantic. In fact, Mark Thatcher got lost during the annual Paris-Dakar rally in January 1982, and the Argentinian scrap metal workers raised the flag over South Georgia a couple of months later, in March 1982. Argentina’s forces landed on the Falkland Islands in April.
In depicting the relationship between its two leading characters, the show also arguably overemphasizes the queen’s influence on the running of the country. Thatcher almost certainly never appealed for political help from the royal figurehead.
That said, the private chats between the two characters dramatize the values of the real-life leaders and the themes of their respective reigns. The meeting in episode 8 is particularly concise in summing up Thatcher’s preference for setting aside emotion and compassion and treating people “with the perspective of a cold balance sheet.”