There is only one British prime minister whose portrayals on screen have variously been described as “flirtatious and coquettish”, “almost a glamour puss”, “a she-wolf” and as a “figure of awe for her personal strength and grit”.
Margaret Thatcher is returning to British television screens, and this time she will be played by the X-Files actress Gillian Anderson, who is swapping her FBI badge for a handbag in the fourth series of the blockbuster Netflix series The Crown.
Anderson, 50, is following in the footsteps of Meryl Streep, Greta Scacchi, Andrea Riseborough and a Spitting Image puppet voiced by a man as the latest incarnation of the Iron Lady, whose tearful departure from Downing Street in 1990 will provide a suitably emotional climax to the fourth series of the hugely popular royal pompfest.
Filming will begin in the summer and will cover Thatcher’s 11-year premiership and her occasionally tumultuous relationship with the Queen. Episodes will feature their supposed disagreements over sanctions on apartheid South Africa, the monarch’s concern at the divisions provoked by the 1984-5 miners’ strike and the 1982 Falklands War.
Anderson is about to star in the London West End production of All About Eve, which is due to run from February to May. She will then start trying on bouffant wigs and polish up her Grantham accent for what several actresses before her have described as a dream role. Anderson has reportedly been dating Peter Morgan, writer of The Crown, since 2016. The couple first met a decade earlier when they both worked on the 2006 film The Last King of Scotland.
Streep’s towering performance in the 2011 film The Iron Lady earned her a third Oscar and both Golden Globe and Bafta awards. Streep has admitted she was “not thrilled” with Thatcher’s politics but praised her as “a pioneer, willingly or unwillingly, for the role of women in politics”. She added: “To have given women and girls around the world reason to supplant fantasies of being princesses with a different dream — the real-life option of leading their nation — this was groundbreaking and admirable.”
Abi Morgan, the scriptwriter for The Iron Lady (and no relation to Peter) said: “Perhaps what attracts the great actresses to the role is the complexity of playing a woman who was both revered and reviled.”
While Streep’s performance remains the yardstick for Thatcher portrayals, several other actresses have made a splash with radically contrasting depictions of Thatcher as either a saucy minx or a Hollywood pin-up. Riseborough’s portrayal in the BBC’s 2008 drama, The Long Walk to Finchley, was described by one critic as “ludicrously flattering” but highly watchable. In 2009 a BBC2 account of Thatcher’s last days in Downing Street featured Lindsay Duncan, described by The Guardian’s critic as “too brightly blonde, too enviably willowy”.
Earlier, Patricia Hodge played Thatcher in the 2002 BBC film The Falklands Play. One critic said Hodge “conveyed emotion and contempt with the slightest flicker of her eyes and doled out death stares, the likes of which could freeze fire at 500 yards”.
The Crown has become one of the most expensive television series made with an estimated £10m spent on each episode. Series three and four of The Crown will feature an entirely new cast, with Olivia Colman replacing Claire Foy as Elizabeth.
Helen Bonham Carter will play Princess Margaret, Tobias Menzies takes over as Prince Philip, and Josh O’Connor will portray Prince Charles.
Filming on series three, which will cover 1964 to the late 1970s, is expected to conclude this month and will be released on Netflix in November. Events covered will include the investiture of Prince Charles, the Aberfan tragedy, the breakdown of Princess Margaret’s marriage, and the Prince of Wales’s early relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles. The fourth series will introduce the young Diana Spencer — later Diana, Princess of Wales — and will air in 2020.
Steve Nallon, who gave Thatcher’s puppet its voice in the satirical Spitting Image series, and has coached others on how to replicate her distinctive tone, thinks Anderson is a perfect fit. “She’s the right age for it and she’s got the right features,” Nallon said. “People have a memory now as Mrs Thatcher being an old lady, but in 1975 she pretty much looked like Gillian Anderson.”
Anderson’s casting was also welcomed by Abi Morgan. “All I can say is Gillian will be fabulous,” she told The Sunday Times.