6:30am PT by Jean Bentley
Behind 'The Crown' Showdown Between Margaret Thatcher and The Queen
The first time Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) and Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) sit down together on The Crown after the latter is elected Prime Minister, it's clear the Queen has one view of how a country led by two powerful women would look. Thatcher, however, has another. Women in her administration? Oh god no.
"It was terribly exciting at the beginning, powerful woman versus powerful woman and so much in common, but ... they started to — well, in our story, which I think is true — absolutely hate each other," Colman said in a Q&A following the virtual premiere of the Netflix hit's fourth season.
That adversarial relationship turns into a full-blown feud by the end of the season, which takes place around the end of Thatcher's premiership. Creator Peter Morgan said in that same discussion that he purposefully highlighted the moments in which the two women clashed the most throughout the season: "It's precisely the moments where her opinions most intersect or pivot against values of the Queen that ultimately become the richest episodes of The Crown."
The eighth episode of season 4 shows what was probably the most contentious moment of their relationship as the women clash over apartheid in South Africa, culminating in a leak from the palace about how much the Queen did not agree with Thatcher's tactics as a politician. It also revealed more about Thatcher's upbringing, some back story about how the daughter of a grocer from Lincolnshire could grow up to become the Iron Lady.
Anderson told The Hollywood Reporter that her extensive research into Thatcher revealed how the influence of the politician's father, who'd been a local alderman, set the course of Thatcher's life.
"I think she went on to much posher schools than perhaps her origins. Even then she started to adjust her way of speaking so that she fit in more or that she shifted perception of what her class had been," she said. "It feels to me that her trajectory started a very, very long way back. And so for her to be so outspoken and come up against someone like the Queen and be able to stand for her own beliefs against what she was being advised to do is not necessarily surprising at all. By the time that would have happened, from what I understand, she'd slightly stopped listening to people, listening to her advisors, and so it's easy for me to see how she ended up where she ended up and that particular not just political trajectory, but psychological trajectory."
Continued Anderson, "She really believed that she knew best, and that led also to her downfall, I think. She absolutely believed that she was the one who was going to turn the country around and that she knew how to do it [despite] whatever anybody else said. We certainly see a bit of that and we see it play out a bit in the show. But also what we see in the show, which I don't think we get to see very much in footage that you see of her, is just her emotional life, is her personal life, is her relationship with Dennis and her as mother, her cooking for the cabinet in the flat above Number 10 and all that kind of stuff, which is a very clever way into the stories and into her and her character."
In The Crown, insight into Thatcher's character comes immediately when, in episode 2, she and her husband travel to Balmoral for an incredibly awkward weekend where they do not fit in at all with the Royal Family. Thatcher doesn't wear the right clothes at the right time, she doesn't know their parlor games, and she doesn't know the proper etiquette for such a situation. She does not pass the Balmoral Test.
On the other hand, Diana (Emma Corrin), though just a naive 19-year-old, fits in fine. That's partially what endears the future Princess to the family, and perhaps why Thatcher was never be able to do the same. Diana understands; Thatcher does not.
As Tobias Menzies, who plays Prince Philip, explained in a late summer press conference, "Thatcher is out of her depth and doesn't understand the hidden, unspoken rules, and sets up the rest of the series about her kind of animosity to the privilege of this class. I think there is something less than kind about how they let her fail. It's a very ingrained English thing that we use class to put people in their places without having to say stuff. You go, 'you don't belong here.' ... It's maybe the royal family at their least beguiling."
What is apparent, however, is just how unflappable Thatcher is, and just how she earned her nickname. Anderson told THR that one of the most interesting things she learned about her character is that Thatcher was a devoted monarchist.
"She revered the royal family. So within that is perhaps a bit of awkwardness, almost, a nervousness that makes sense as to why it would come out at the beginning or why it would then translate into things like where she sits on her chair or how deep her curtsy is and all that," said Anderson. "Which is on the one hand a bit endearing, but on the other hand wonderfully complex in terms of where she ends up on the side of their relationship. One can be a monarchist to the end, but then still battle with the the other bear in the cave to the end of your Premiership. Wonderfully complex relationship and story."
Said Morgan in the premiere Q&A, "She was trapped in between thinking it was a terrible waste of time, that whole relationship with the Queen, because ultimately it [didn't work, and at the same time being deeply respectful and, well, overly respectful. I mean, unbelievably deferential. So it's a really interesting muscle to be somewhere in between contempt and deference all the time. And I wanted to show her completely wrong-footed."
Despite all the insights into Thatcher's upbringing and character, it's still in indisputable fact that she was (and remains) a divisive figure throughout history. That's why, no matter how Anderson felt personally about the politician, she tried to keep her own opinions out of it.
"At the end of the day, when taking on an historical character, period, but definitely one that, as you say, is so divisive, it's almost better to leave preconceptions, opinions — your own opinions or other people's opinions — at the door in order to be able to embrace all aspects of them as a character, as a politician, as a mother," she told THR. "This definitely was one of those times where it felt like in order to be able to do service to the show, and the particular slice of Margaret Thatcher that they were showing through the scripts, that I needed to lock up any thoughts that I might have in a box and put them aside for a while."