By Maryann O’Connor
Remember back in 1996 when picturegoers happened across the fictional town of Grimley in Yorkshire (a thinly disguised Grimethorpe)? A group of soon to be ex-miners struggled to deal with the likely closure of their pit. We followed them from the coal mine, to the showers (ooer), on to the pub and to their community hall where they managed to hang on to their spirit and blow their trumpets (sorry, Euphoniums) in their colliery brass band. We also saw them trek to London and the Royal Albert Hall where they achieved the sad triumph of winning the National Championships when they had lost almost everything else , such is the bittersweet and poignantly funny story we know as Brassed Off. We at New Empress can’t help but wonder just what these fictional miners would make of the production and release of The Iron Lady.
It is no secret that Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party were responsible for the dismantling of the mining industry (amongst others). This may not seem like a subject that would send people running to the cinema but Brassed Off, written and directed by Mark Herman, was notable in dealing with the devastating impact of that period in a way that was heartbreakingly honest whilst boasting an underlying current of black humour. It also had great brass band action, courtesy of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. Although Lady Thatcher had long since been ousted by her Conservative frontbench by the time this film was set (1994), she does get a dishonourable mention during a very entertaining rant from a suicidal clown known as Mr Chuckles.
The narrative cleverly balances two subplots; that of band leader and retired miner Danny Ormondroyd (the late, great Pete Postlethwaite) and his son Phil (Stephen Tompkinson) which jostles for screen time with the love story played out between childhood sweethearts Andy Barrow (Ewan McGregor) and Gloria Mullins (Tara Fitzgerald). Gloria has returned to Yorkshire to try and save the Grimley pit from closure, believing that her work as a surveyor will produce the report destined to save the day. She knows the pit is profitable, if only the miners will vote to send the pit to review and not opt for the £28,000 being offered to them if they vote to close the pit and put themselves out of work, some of them for good.
When the pit’s closure becomes a reality and Danny is hospitalised the audience is forced to confront the issues then faced by many ex-mining and industrial towns: The clearing of someone’s house by bailiffs because they can’t afford to pay the loan sharks, miners’ wives not being able to pay for essential food items and the small selection of jobs available in the local jobcentre becoming scarcer by the day. The actions of The Iron Lady’s political party meant that many areas of the United Kingdom were devastated by spiralling unemployment and its friends of broken communities and depression. So, how favourably do you think these ex-mining communities and other considerably sized sections of the population are going to look on a film which seemingly celebrates the life of Margaret Thatcher? Are they meant to feel sympathy for a woman who once had a will of iron but is now suffering the march of old age?
The biggest question has to be: who was this film made for? Political commentators have noted that the film does not really linger on the social impact of her policies and actions and treads a very safe line in the middle of the road. Admittedly, it would be quite difficult to appease everyone, some baying for her blood; others might believe that she was not given enough credit for her strong leadership. Those who know the Iron Lady have commented that there are some inaccuracies in Meryl Streep’s portrayal of the ex-Prime Minister and that her friends/family are angry at the timing of the film. It is true that the timing is strange; we expected a film to be made about her at some point but Lady Thatcher is still alive, albeit suffering a steady decline in her health. Phil, as Mr Chuckles in Brassed Off, rants that God has taken three lads in a nearby pit accident as well as John Lennon but Margaret Thatcher still lives. Would he now add the great actor Pete Postlethwaite to that list of people who died an untimely death?
We are now in a time when many of the people who became unemployed under Thatcher’s era of Conservative rule have become unemployed once more at the hands of the Conservatives. The Iron Lady is a British film, so the makers could not claim to be ignorant of this situation. The most obvious explanation for the odd timing is that the film is merely a vehicle for Meryl Streep to display her talents, needing someone authoritative to portray in order to get an Oscar nod (her second and last Oscar was won in 1982). This is in itself a depressing reminder of how few strong roles there are for women in the film industry.
Danny Ormondroyd, if the coal dust hadn’t killed him by now, would most probably not be very interested in this picture and the insult it represents. He might be a fan of Meryl Streep, his grandchildren probably forced him to watch Mamma Mia. He could well be a pensioner whose biggest concerns are keeping warm and worrying about the mental state of his son Phil. Similarly to his speech at the Royal Albert Hall he could also be outraged that, once again, people are being treated as if they don’t matter. They are just numbers. Numbers in the dole queue or numbers on a box office chart, it’s all the same thing isn’t it?