"From ‘Brassed Off’ To Adrian Mole, Considering Margaret Thatcher Through Popular Culture"
Reading comedian and actor Russell Brand’s meditations on the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on my return to the States this week was a delightful experience in and of itself—reading Brand on almost any subject is a pleasure. But it also reminded me just how much terrific popular culture Thatcher inspired, and the extent to which pop culture did real battle with her ideas.
One particular place that portraits of Thatcher in pop culture congregated was in stories about teenagers and young adults, where she represented, as Brand suggested, a parental figure to be rebelled against, as well as a proponent of specific policies that characters found objectionable. In the anarchic sitcom The Young Ones, which began running in 1982, Rick, a bad poet who believes he writes for the people, threatens to bomb the UK if Thatcher “doesn’t do something to help the kids, by this afternoon,” and sees her as an enemy generally, despite the overall incoherence of his politics. In Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole novels, the titular main character lives with Margaret Thatcher as both a scourge and as a rallying point, writing her into plays and poems with lines like “When you’re dressing in your blue, do you see the waiting queue? / Do you weep, Mrs. Thatcher, do you weep?” Her elocution lessons are, for Adrian, a sign of phoniness, her hair an object of nostalgia after John Major’s ascendance. It’s an awfully personal engagement with a political figure, a reaction that’s in part the result of a small nation being close to its leaders, and in part a response to policies that did affect teenagers and university students directly.
It wasn’t just novelists who took inspiration, and who were catalyzed by Thatcher’s policies. In a great, long piece by Aaron Lake Smith, he discusses in particular both the way that the Miners’ Strike influenced the punk band Chambawamba, and how British youth radicalism from the Thatcher era seeped into its partying culture, making underground techno parties an opportunity to invite clashes with the police:
The British Miners’ Strike, called in response to Thatcher union busting, was a decisive event in Chumbawamba’s political evolution. The group supported political bombings against South Africa’s corrupt racist leaders. This forced them to reexamine their pacifist stance. Diet and lifestyle became less important than solidarity with organized labor. The band recorded a three-track Miner’s benefit single, distributed pamphlets and food to worker’s families, and even started a theatre troupe to perform for the miner’s children…This was the first crack in what would soon become a fissure between Chumbawamba and the punk scene they were part of. No longer spouting the expected pacifist line, they were decried as “sell-outs.” Chumbawamba worked to incorporate themselves into their community in Leeds rather than to be punks standing apart from it. They chose to venture into uncomfortable situations with people who were different from them. As Chumbwamba became closer and closer with the miners, they distanced themselves from “the punks,” whom they increasingly viewed as petty, hardline, ineffective, and humorless.
Then, there’s the terrific romantic comedy Brassed Off, about the members of a brass band associated with a coal mine, based on the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, after the mine where they worked was closed as a result of policies initiated by Thatcher’s administration, as the Grimethorpe Colliery was in 1993. The main characters are former coal miner Andy (Ewan McGregor in an early star turn) and Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald), who has returned to town to research whether the mine could be made more profitable, and begins playing in the band—and reconnecting with Andy. The two of them wrestle with real issues as they commence a romantic relationship as adults, even though they’re attracted to each other. They have different political views, and different perspectives on how important the mine is to the social fabric of the town, given that Gloria is open to the prospect of shuttering it. Their coming around to the same conclusions politically is crucial to their coming around to the same conclusions about the viability of their relationship.
But the movie is also deeply engaged with one of Margaret Thatcher’s most-quoted arguments, the idea that “There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.” The members of the miners’ band do the best they can to help each other through illness and severe depression, and they manage to keep the band going, giving back to a society that has made them redundant. But even though they have tremendous will to help each other, they have few of the resources that Thatcher suggests will fill the gap on issues like housing and employment. It’s hard for men and women to weave a tapestry that’s an alternative to a government-provided social safety net if they don’t have enough thread to clothe themselves.