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Monday 20 October 2014

Inspired (by accident) by Maggie

What on earth would Margaret Thatcher think – if she were still above the earth and in a position to think – of Sky Arts 1's Playhouse Presents, which begins a new run tonight?

I suspect she might approve of it, although not for any aesthetic reason. Thatcher was notoriously indifferent, bordering on hostile, to the arts, especially as embodied by television. She hated the BBC with a vengeance more intense than anything her modern day political children have managed.

She actively facilitated the creation of Channel 4 in 1982, for instance, yet could do nothing but sit back and watch, or more likely not watch, as it delivered excoriating attacks on her regime.

This was the era of Channel 4-funded films such as The Ploughman's Lunch, which was set against the background of the Falklands conflict, and My Beautiful Laundrette.

 

CRAZED

Channel 4's drama series highlights of the Thatcher decade included Alan Plater's A Very British Coup, based on Chris Mullin's novel, and Alan Bleasdale's GBH. On the comedy front, The Comic Strip team stuck a steel-capped boot into Maggie with The Strike, a fantasia about the miners' strike featuring Peter Richardson playing Al Pacino playing Arthur Scargill.

ITV, which used to be about more than idiotic Saturday night talent shows, didn't escape her fury either. Thatcher was incensed by the Thames Television documentary Death on the Rock, which revealed how the SAS shot dead three unarmed IRA members without warning in Gibraltar in 1988.

And of course there was the puppet satire Spitting Image, whose depiction of Thatcher as a crazed, cigar-puffing tyrant who wore a man's pinstripe suit and bullied her craven cabinet ministers into submission did more to fix a negative image of her in the minds of a generation than anything else.

Despite Thatcher's embarrassing attempt to shoehorn a reference to the dead parrot sketch from Monty Python's Flying Circus, which she'd never once seen, into a speech, even those who were closest to her admit she had no sense of humour.

Her favourite television programme was the popular but politically neutral sitcom Yes, Minister.

She was so fond of it, in fact, that she insisted on appearing alongside the stars, including the left-leaning Nigel Hawthorn, who played Sir Humphrey, in an excruciatingly awful sketch she'd written with the help of her press secretary, Bernard Ingham.

The resulting embarrassment didn't please one of the sitcom's real writers, Jonathan Lynn.

But even the Iron Lady, for all her inability to get a joke, would surely appreciate the inherent irony of Playhouse Presents.

Here we are in 2013, with the BBC strapped for cash and bruised by a succession of unsavoury scandals, and which channel is being credited with carrying the torch for the single television drama, a genre the BBC once did incomparably well?

 

BIDDER

None other than one owned by Thatcher's old friend and staunch supporter Rupert Murdoch, who, like her, would have dearly loved to see the BBC chopped into small pieces and sold off to the highest bidder.

Unfortunately, the notion that Playhouse Presents is somehow the saviour of the single drama is as fanciful as Thatcher's estimation of her abilities as a comedy scriptwriter.

I've watched previews of this latest season on DVD. They're fun, very well-made and boast the kind of top-quality talent only a fat and flexible chequebook could afford. Tonight's opener, Hey Diddley Dee, a frothy, amusing little number written and directed by the actor Marc Warren, focuses on rehearsals for a terrible stage musical about Andy Warhol and boasts a star-studded cast including Kylie Minogue, Peter Serafinowicz (brilliant as the egotistical fading star) and Homeland's David Harewood.

The best of them, though, is next week's: Snodgrass, which imagines what might have become of John Lennon – played, for the third time in his career, by Ian Hart – if he'd walked out on The Beatles in 1962 and never become an iconic global superstar.

Sadly, nothing else in Playhouse Presents is anywhere near as good. Maybe we owe Thatcher some grudging gratitude after all.

She might have been the most divisive politician in history, but at least she prompted some great TV drama, if only by accident.

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