Pop culture

Margaret Thatcher played polarizing role in pop culture

April 8, 2013 at 10:31 AM ET

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who died Monday at age 87, inspired pop culture for decades. Her politics and her presence had a special influence on the British music scene, as she rose to power just as a new generation of musicians were making their mark on the art form. In the U.S., she may be best remembered for the 2011 film "The Iron Lady," which won Meryl Streep an Oscar and was not without controversy itself, inventing memories and thoughts for an elderly Thatcher.

Here's a quick look at some of the ways Thatcher was portrayed in the arts world.

Iron Lady, big screen

Thatcher may be most recently remembered from her 2011 portrayal in "The Iron Lady," which won Meryl Streep her third Oscar. But the movie received mixed reviews, and was criticized by some for not taking a stand on Thatcher's politics. "Was she a monster? A heroine? The movie has no opinion," late critic Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times. "She was a fact. You leave the movie having witnessed it. Whatever your feelings were about Thatcher were before you saw it, you now have some images to accompany it."

Streep issued a statement on Monday, which read in part, "To me she was a figure of awe for her personal strength and grit. To have come up, legitimately, through the ranks of the British political system, class bound and gender phobic as it was, in the time that she did and the way that she did, was a formidable achievement. ... I was honored to try to imagine her late life journey, after power; but I have only a glancing understanding of what her many struggles were, and how she managed to sail through to the other side. I wish to convey my respectful condolences to her family and many friends."

Thatcher's time in office provided the backdrop for the 2000 film "Billy Elliot," which took place amid a 1984-87 coal miner's strike that gave Thatcher a solid victory and more or less broke the trade unions. The musical version that hit Broadway featured an Elton John song, "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher," in which children sang, "We all celebrate today/'Cause it's one day closer to your death."

Protest songs

Musicians coalesced around songs that beat down Thatcher and her policies, and that anti-government feeling arguably helped fuel the growth of the country's punk and ska music scenes. Many songs actively looked forward to her death, and singers like Billy Bragg and Morrissey typified some of the angriest lashings out at their leader, with songs like "Margaret on the Guillotine" (Morrissey) and Elvis Costello's "Tramp the Dirt Down." Sinead O'Connor sang about the shooting of a black British man that allegedly was covered up by police in "Black Boys on Mopeds" while Genesis used a "Spitting Image" puppet of Thatcher in their "Land of Confusion" video (which also satirized other world leaders, including Ronald Reagan).

A large number of influential British bands got their start during Thatcher's time in office, including The Clash, Gang of Four and The Jam. Her time in office provided lyrical inspiration as well as the impetus for songwriting. Musician Billy Bragg told The Guardian, "Whenever I'm asked to name my greatest inspiration, I always answer, 'Margaret Thatcher.' ... Try as I might to resist her, she provided the backdrop for all the songs I wrote in that turbulent period."

Live from New York, it's Maggie Thatcher

At home in England, the prime minister was the inspiration for any number of TV series -- including the original version of "House of Cards" in 1990, which features a fictional successor to Thatcher. As recently as 2009, two productions, "Margaret" and "The Queen" offered up modern looks at Thatcher, but for sheer American satire it's hard to beat late-night television. "Monty Python" member Michael Palin hosted "Saturday Night Live" in 1979 just a week after Thatcher's election as prime minister, and appeared as Thatcher. Palin's Thatcher even got to utter the catchphrase of the day, "Jane, you ignorant slut," after a grilling by Jane Curtin on the show's "Weekend Update" segment. And in the early 1980s, "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson played a practical joke on Joan Rivers, hiring a Thatcher lookalike to talk to her about her jokes about the royal family.

Comic strips and books

Thatcher was ripe for cartooning and caricaturing. She popped up in hundreds of political comics over the years, and even got space in Bloom County. Any number of books about her rule -- including a few written by Thatcher herself -- gave her a significant non-fictional section on the shelf. But for those savvy readers who grew up during her time in office, few fictional takes encompass what it was like to live in the Thatcher years like Sue Townsend's "Adrian Mole" young adult book series. Mole even wrote a poem to his prime minister, called "Mrs. Thatcher": "Do you weep, Mrs. Thatcher, do you weep?" he asked.

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