Iron Lady faced test of mettle in West End farce

March 16, 2012 - 8:15 PM
Britain Thatcher's Softer Side

FILE - British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher listens to the opening debates during the Conservative Party's conference at Blackpool in this file photo dated October 1983. Papers from 1981, released Saturday March 17, 2012, by the Margaret Thatcher archive at Cambridge University in England, reveal a thoughtful softer side to the British leader who earned her nickname "The Iron Lady", and also show something of the personal relationship between Margaret and her husband Denis. (AP Photo/David Caulkin, File)

CAMBRIDGE, England (AP) — She went to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands and faced down the powerful National Union of Mineworkers. But one of the hardest things Margaret Thatcher ever did, according to newly released personal papers, was attend a West End farce with herself as the central character.

The excruciating evening spent watching "Anyone for Denis" is one of several behind-the-scenes episodes described in the files that reveal a softer side of the British leader nicknamed "The Iron Lady."

Papers from 1981, released Saturday by the Margaret Thatcher archive at Cambridge University, include arrangements for the then-prime minister and her husband Denis to attend a charity performance of the play, which subjected them to mockery.

Thatcher even agreed to hold a reception for the cast and several dozen others at her official residence at 10 Downing St. — though she did not go along with all the organizers' suggestions. On a list of questions — Would she be paying for her tickets? Would she agree to wear the same outfit as the play's star, Angela Thorne? — Thatcher scrawled: "No no no no no."

The files do not record Thatcher's verdict on the play, but historian Chris Collins of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation said the prime minister "hated every minute of it."

"She was genuinely nice to the cast, probably enjoyed the party," he said. "(But) sitting there, watching someone portray her on the stage, Denis a complete buffoon — no, thank you very much."

After the ordeal, the play's star wrote expressing sympathy for the prime minister's plight.

"It must have been two hours of agony for you with the press watching your every move," Thorne wrote.

Thatcher's reply was gracious: "I think we both got through rather well!"

The play, later filmed for television, clearly made a strong impression, on Thatcher, who is now 86.

The newly released documents include voluminous files about plans for the 1981 Downing St. Christmas card, which show that Thatcher tried to reject the suggested photo of her and Denis sitting in front of a fireplace.

"Alas this won't do at all," she wrote. "DT and I were both dressed in black. And after 'Anyone for Denis' this will be seen as a caricature!"

It was a perceptive comment — though the picture was eventually used on the card.

Among the recipients — who ranged from friends, employees and political colleagues to heads of state including Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein — was leftist London government leader Ken Livingstone.

Livingstone, one of Thatcher's fiercest political foes, showed the card to a newspaper.

"I thought it was a joke at first," he told the Daily Express. "In the picture they look so much like John Wells and Angela Thorne in 'Anyone for Denis?'"

Known for her steely political resolve — once famously proclaiming "the lady's not for turning" — Thatcher emerges in the papers as diligent and often generous.

As prime minister between 1979 and 1990, she received 2,000 to 3,000 letters a week, and according to Collins answered many of them personally.

The files include the prime minister's reply to a young girl who had written, upset, because her parents were divorcing.

Thatcher — faced with riots, a struggling economy and scheming rivals within her Conservative Party — took the time to reply at length, expressing sympathy and regret that she could not solve the problem.

"My own children had a happy time," wrote Thatcher, the mother of twins, "and I should like you to have the same."

In a handwritten postscript, she suggested the girl show the letter to her parents — and even offered to intervene herself.

"Perhaps you would let me know if you ever come to London and I could arrange for someone to take you to the Parliament and I could speak to you myself," Thatcher wrote.

The girl's name is not included in the released files, and it is not known whether the meeting ever took place.

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Online:

Thatcher Papers at the Churchill Archive, Cambridge: http://www.chu.cam.ac.uk/archives/collections/thatcher/thatcher_home.php

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Jill Lawless can be reached at: http://twitter.com/JillLawless