What The Crown gets right – and wrong – about the Margaret Thatcher I knew

As the former PM's private secretary, Caroline Slocock looks at the accuracy of Gillian Anderson’s performance in the Netflix hit

Gillian Anderson’s performance as Margaret Thatcher is electric and multidimensional
Gillian Anderson’s performance as Margaret Thatcher is electric and multidimensional

Like everyone else, I was waiting for this latest series of The Crown with anticipation. I had started watching the drama when it first came out, but I hadn’t been entirely convinced by its merit. 

However, series four was always going to hold a certain fascination for me personally. Covering the period from 1979 to 1990, it spans the time Margaret Thatcher entered No 10 to the tearful day she left. 

As someone who worked closely with Mrs Thatcher in the last 18 months of her premiership, I was intrigued at how she would be portrayed. I was the first female private secretary at No 10 – one of five in her private office inner circle – and she let me slip through, despite her alleged ban on giving that role to a woman.  

I was at her side as she travelled around Britain, I saw her dress down her ministers in private and I was the only other woman in the Cabinet room when she broke down in tears, as she resigned. I wrote an account two years ago of our relationship and the person I saw up close, in People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me, because I wanted to put the record straight on her as a woman.  

Even back then I found her very different from the Spitting Image puppet of Mrs Thatcher in a man’s suit. These negative images of older, powerful women go back a long way, and the roots lie in misogyny. We see it played out time and time again: older powerful women are portrayed as dangerous, aggressive and even manly. Meryl Streep’s depiction in The Iron Lady was much more en pointe – showing a softer and more human side, which I was familiar with.  

I was therefore naturally intrigued to see what image of Margaret Thatcher would emerge in the latest Crown, which is a gripping story, beautifully filmed and dramatically told. Gillian Anderson’s performance is electric and multidimensional. Many have criticised it for being too much of a caricature, but I think it is more complicated than that.

First, she absolutely captures her tunnel-like focus: a woman who always completed her boxes, working late into the night, and who had such a grip on events. I once saw her fall asleep over a glass of whisky and wake a minute or two later and finish her sentence. When she left No 10 and was asked what she would do next, she said “Work. That’s all we have ever known.”

Secondly, I recognise in Anderson’s performance that sharpness and steeliness that would cut right to the heart of the matter and deliver cruel blows in a low and deadly voice. Like Margaret Thatcher, Gillian Anderson has no need to shout to get her point across. 

Anderson’s voice is the voice of Mrs Thatcher’s big public appearances – a slow drawl – but her voice was often livelier and certainly quicker in private. Many have criticised Anderson’s delivery as being too “put on”, but in reality there really was an artificiality to her voice which Anderson conveys.  

Margaret Thatcher had had her voice trained twice, once at school where she had elocution lessons to lose a slight accept and lisp. Later, as Leader of the Opposition, she was told to lower her voice by male political advisers to give herself more gravitas. They wanted her to sound more like a man to help her win the election, but she ended up sounding actressy and artificial. It grates now, but I remember it grating then, too. However, the true power of Margaret Thatcher came not from her voice but her personality – her grit, determination and clarity of mission. 

Anderson successfully shows glimpses of the vulnerability beneath the armour of her trademark hair, tailored clothes, pearls and make-up. “We are confident,” she says to herself doubtfully in front of the mirror, as she emerges to become Britain’s first female Prime Minister.  

The Prime Minister I knew always felt she had to prove herself; working harder and being tougher than any man. But she was brittle underneath. We’ll never know if Mrs Thatcher really did fall on her bed sobbing after Geoffrey Howe “assassinated” her in the House of Commons, but I do know that, on return from her audience with the Queen on the day she announced her resignation, she collapsed in tears inside the door of No 10 and had to be escorted up to the flat.

Gillian Anderson's performance has drawn both praise and criticism Credit: AP/ Netflix

Anderson also walks and sits in the way that Mrs Thatcher did, but she moves too slowly, and lacks the bustle, energy, excitement and sense of wonder that I often saw in her when we were out and about.  

She also makes the mistake of making her too old. The real Mrs Thatcher on her first visit to Balmoral is, like Anderson, in her 50s, but Anderson seems more like the Mrs Thatcher of a decade later. Worse still, in her last days as Prime Minister, Anderson makes her look 75 or even older. This is certainly not the youthful, colourful looking 65-year-old I knew.  

The Crown, of course, is full of dramatic licence. It was before my time, but I very much doubt, for example, that she did not have the right clothes for Balmoral, as we always took pains to find out what clothes were needed for every trip, and I included the details in every brief.  

She hated it when I told her she must wear “sensible shoes”, but wore them none the less. But it’s true that trips to the bothy at Balmoral were never her idea of fun. I believe the Queen struggled with her strong personality, and Mrs Thatcher in turn did not really know how to behave towards the Queen. 

Yet, it’s one thing to make up scenes, but quite another to make up history. I can’t help but think of what Barack Obama this week dubbed “truth decay” when I look at The Crown’s cavalier relationship with the truth.  

I was flabbergasted watching the episode when Thatcher goes to the Queen and asks her to prorogue Parliament in order to save her premiership. Not only would she, who deeply respected the constitution, never have asked for such a thing, but the Conservative Party leadership contest would have concluded whether Parliament was sitting or not. This makes Boris Johnson’s successful request to the Queen to prorogue Parliament to quell dissent during Brexit – which the Supreme Court ruled unlawful – look tame.  

Caroline Slocock (wearing red) spent 18 months as one of Margaret Thatcher's private secretaries

That said, the show does also capture some essential truths about Mrs Thatcher. The importance of her humble origins are brought home forcefully, and, this as much as her gender, cast her in the role of a natural outsider. The Mrs Thatcher I witnessed, was a living walking challenge to the status quo. I agree that being different was part of her energy and key to her success. However, I don’t believe she ever said the Royal family were “boorish, snobbish and rude, just like those patronising bullies in my Cabinet” – she was in too much awe of the institution.  

But it’s true that her mission, as she saw it, was to modernise Britain. That meant taking on the establishment, the country and the opposition within her own Cabinet. The Queen, by contrast, seeks to preserve an institution which embodies the status quo.  

They’re at loggerheads in the series, but as the Queen says in a private audience after Mrs Thatcher’s resignation: “People focus on our differences... but we share a sense of duty, a work ethic and devotion to our country.” These qualities are still apparent in many powerful women today. Just look at Theresa May. They know they can’t wing it, unlike men, especially those from more privileged backgrounds.

And they’re both tight-lipped, buttoned up, old school, not playing to the crowd. As women, they couldn’t afford to show emotion, lest they be accused of being unfit for high office. “I’ll go quickly,” she said to us the day she left No 10. She didn’t want to lose her composure, even if the cracks did show at the end. 

For all its faults, this portrayal of Margaret Thatcher drills down to the essence of her character. If you can get past the “truth decay”, which seeps into the scenes conjured up in creator Peter Morgan’s mind, there are certainly some truths which cannot be ignored. 

Mrs Thatcher’s class and her gender were both fundamental to what made her special. Even those who are not political supporters, like me, will no doubt admit to a sneaking admiration for her courage, conviction and determination. We see the Queen doing just that in this series, and if viewers feel the same, then The Crown has done its job well. 

People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me by Caroline Slocock. Buy now for £9.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514

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