Double British Delight: Iron Lady & Downton Abbey

A freezing cold day; a perfect time for a movie matinee.  

Iron Lady, stars Meryl Streep as Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and captures Thatcher’s upbringing as a grocer’s daughter, how she earned a place at Oxford, and entered politics in 1959,  at a time in Gt. Britain when 25 women held national office, out of 650 Members of Parliament.

She served in Parliament, became the Conservative Party’s Education and Science Secretary appointed by Prime Edward Heath in 1970, then leader of the party in 1975 and elected the country’s first woman Prime Minister in 1979.

By the time she left in 1990, disposed as Prime Minister, there were 60 women MP’s; today there are 145.

In the US, during the same times, 9 women served in Congress in 1959 out of 535 senators and representatives. In 1979, the ranks climbed to 17,  to 31 by 1990 and to 93 today.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with her politics – the movie depicts some negative aspects of her reign – you have to admire her pluck.

As a woman in a male chauvinist society, she endured, stood firm in her beliefs, changed attitudes, and opened doors for other women to follow her.

I lived in London in the early 1980’s and remember some of the horrifying news reports: IRA bombings, violent miners strikes, and much anti-Thatcher sentiment among our Labour Party-minded friends.

Seeing the film, I was reminded of another aspect of living in Britain during that time.   Accompanying my journalist husband, I moved to the UK as an expatriate.  A former newspaper reporter, I looked for work. I had several interviews with both British and American media companies. Questions asked included: “How old are you? Aren’t you going to have a baby soon?”   Topics that would never be asked today.

Meryl Streep’s performance already earned her a Golden Globe and no doubt will be an Oscar contender. She’s a pretty Maggie Thatcher, complete with many variations of tailored blue suits, strands of pearls and large brooches.  Streep deftly becomes Thatcher; the viewer gets inside this powerful woman’s head and sees her humanity.  Shown suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Thatcher struggles with memories. Her husband, Denis Thatcher, is depicted through flashbacks and hallucinations, visiting his wife periodically, sitting in bed with the newspaper, doing the crossword puzzle, and making jokes. Iron Lady is as much a portrait of a long marriage and the impact of dementia as a political biography.

Later in the evening, after dinner, I returned to the United Kingdom for more English fanfare.

Downton Abbey, a British period drama aired by PBS, has garnered awards and addicted audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Set in a Yorkshire mansion, the series depicts the drama between and amid the wealthy social elite class and the servants.  The first season spanned the years before World War I and the second, now airing in the US, continues through 1919.  

What’s amusing is the conception of problems faced by both staff and gentry alike. Whether worrying about who’s serving the soup, what to wear to tea, who’s coming to dinner, and who’s marrying whom, the characters aren’t that compelling.  Likewise, the plot is reminiscent of prior English estate extravaganzas. Yet it lures me in, mostly for two reasons: Maggie Smith playing the dowager grandmother; and the costumes, elaborate affairs of fabulous fabrics, feathers, jewelry and hats.

What’s entertaining to some degree is how helpless these women were. Servants did their hair, helped them dress, cooked all the meals, and like other stories representing masters and staff, became confidantes.  These epics contribute to nostalgia about class; where birth determines destiny.  Thanks to women like Margaret Thatcher, these attitudes have been dispelled.


About cyclingrandma

I was a journalist (Danbury News-Times, Ct), before becoming a teacher, and continue to write for professional journals. I have written several study guides for Penguin Books and write for Education Update, a newspaper based in New York City. ( I’ve interviewed many authors, college presidents, and scientists. I wrote “The Kentucky Derby’s Forgotten Jockeys” for Smithsonian Magazine's website, (April, 2009). Two essays have been published in book anthologies; one for Wisdom of Our Mothers, (Familia Books) and the other in “College Search and Parent Rescue: Essay for Parents by Parents of College-Going Students.” (St. Martin’s Press). I was a middle school Language Arts teacher for more than 10 years and have just completed a five year grant position under No Child Left Behind in Newark, NJ public schools. I have three children, two daughters-in law, and six grandchildren. I'm an avid cyclist, knitter, cook, and reader. I love theater, museums, and yoga.
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3 Responses to Double British Delight: Iron Lady & Downton Abbey

  1. I have not seen the Iron Lady but it is on my list of must see movies. Streep made a very important statement during one of her many interviews. To paraphrase, she urged women to go to see these types of movies to insure they will be made. She herself has had such an impact on film. I want her to win
    Downton Abbey is a favorite for me. It touches on a couple of important social aspects- women and the impact of war. The lives of the women show strength but vulnerability. To be the first born in a family but not able to inherit the estate because you are a woman. Then have to watch it possibly be stolen away in the future by your male cousin and his future wife. The ugliness and brutality of war and the plight of the servant class. I have enjoyed it. Maggie Smith is worth the watch and surprising so is Elizabeth McGovern. The clothes are beautiful. Thanks


  2. Leah says:

    That movie sounds so good. I need to see it. Of course, how can Meryl ever go wrong! Thanks for the great recommendation.


  3. Pingback: Talking to Strangers: Fur Coats, Downton Abbey, & Cremation Lockets | cyclingrandma

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