Jonathan Maitland is a writer and broadcaster.
Many readers of Conservative Home will have seen The Iron Lady, the Meryl Streep biopic about a certain Prime Minister whose name escapes me. I don’t know about you, but I found it entertaining, misleading and alarming in equal measure.
It was the portrayal of Geoffrey Howe that worried me most. He was depicted as nothing more than a treacherous, shifty-eyed buffoon who made his famous 1990 speech simply because he was jealous of Mrs Thatcher and wanted to bring her down. I understood why, however. With a central character as compelling as Thatcher, the supporting players are bound to be less than nuanced. What flower can blossom in the shade of that mighty political oak?
It gnawed away at me. The makers of various Thatcher plays and dramas (the enjoyable stage play Handbagged, the excellent BBC4 film Margaret, and so on) had, for justifiable dramatic reasons, glossed over what was palpably the best story. The one whose central character is not Margaret but Geoffrey: The Mouse That Roared. Perhaps I should write it?
There was much drama to mine. He went from being probably the key architect of Thatcherism to her assassin. Along with Keith Joseph, he was a prime mover behind the totemic Thatcherite policy of privatisation, and his 1981 budget was one of the most controversial and – depending on your viewpoint – successful or disastrous budgets of the modern era. Without him as her intellectual shield, a Cabinet Minister in those difficult early days of the 1980s told me, she might well have gone under.
But also – the icing on the dramatic cake – there was his wife Elspeth, the “formidable and witty feminist” who wasn’t at all keen on Thatcher, and vice versa. John Biffen called them “wasps in a jam jar.” As you may know she was credited (blamed?) by some with having actually written Geoffrey’s brilliant speech for him. If I don’t tell the story from this angle, I thought, someone else will. So I got started.
There were challenges. Chiefly, the character of the hero. How to build a compelling narrative around someone who was famous for being uncharismatic? Howe, a former Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister was of course likened to “a dead sheep” by his then opposite number, Dennis Healey, in 1978 (hence the play’s title.) But the more I delved beneath the wool, the more reassured I became.
Yes, Howe The Politician might have seemed stolid compared to the likes of Heseltine, Kinnock and Tebbit. But Howe The Man was more complex and interesting. I knew there something fascinating was brewing when a Parliamentary aide told me he’d discovered Howe alone at his desk, sobbing, just after Thatcher had sacked him as Foreign Secretary.
He’s likeable, too. After meeting him for research and having read his autobiography, “Conflict of Loyalty”, for the umpteenth time I realised why. He’s that benign uncle you see every Christmas in a naff Bridget Jones-style festive sweater. At first, he seems pompous but eventually you discover shrewdness, wit and self-awareness. He’s a cross between two of our greatest Britons: Captain Mainwaring and William Gladstone.
Call me sentimental or naïve, but he was a man who did what was right for his country even though he knew colleagues, friends and voters would hate him for it. How many modern politicians have that kind of guts and integrity? At first I worried that I was alone in thinking this, but then a pleasing number of people (including my wife, a leading theatre producer and several men and women d’un certain age) also confessed to a rarely expressed but deeply felt admiration for Howe.
This play is a modest attempt to massage history’s view of Howe then. Hopefully he will be remembered not just as The Man Who Killed Thatcher but as a significant statesman. So my play is not another Thatcher drama. Which is just as well. Productions about her are, as one leading theatre critic puts it, “well ploughed territory”.
Rather, it’s a portrait of two types of marriage: Geoffrey and Elspeth’s on-going one of 62 years, and Geoffrey and Margaret’s political union of 18. It’s about a man caught between two strong women. And the agonising conflicts of loyalty that occur when your personal life and political beliefs pull you one way, but your Prime Minister pulls you in another. This dramatic field may indeed have been ploughed a bit. But there is one corner the tractors seem to have missed. I hope you enjoy it.
There is a special offer for ConservativeHome members and readers: 25% off the price of any ticket for any show from April 2 – April 11 ( barring Saturday evenings and press night on April 2.)
To claim the discount simply book tickets via the Park Theatre here and enter the promotional code CONSERVATIVE25 when prompted. (This will happen just before the credit card stage of the process.
There are special Q and A sessions immediately following the 1500 matinees on Thursday April 2 and 9 . The April 2 session features Sir Stephen Wall ( Geoffrey Howe’s Private Secretary, 1988-89) Jonathan Maitland (Writer, ‘Dead Sheep’) and Denise Silvey (Producer, ‘Dead Sheep’ and production supervisor of ‘The Mousetrap’, the longest running play in the world.) It will be hosted by BBC presenter Julian Worricker.
The April 9 session will feature former BBC Political Correspondent Nick Jones instead of Sir Stephen Wall.