Described by Attitude Magazine as 'A rollicking good laugh, no matter what side of the political spectrum you sit on', Margaret Thatcher: Queen Of Soho takes place on the eve of the vote on controversial anti-gay clause, Section 28, and finds the prime minister lost in London's decadent Soho, where she accidentally becomes a cabaret superstar.
Midlands Zone recently caught up with the show's co-writers Matt Tedford and Jon Brittain to find out more...
How did the idea for the show originally come about?
Jon: Matt came to my Halloween party in 2012 dressed as Margaret Thatcher. That was a pretty big inspiration.
Matt: My grandad must be the only Geordie Tory in the country and describes her as 'the best thing since sliced bread'. I used to wind him up by doing the voice and misquoting her. It used to annoy him, so I knew I could do the voice well.
Jon: We were asked to write a short sketch as part of a night of plays about Thatcher, just after she died. We thought it would be really funny to do something upbeat and silly, as we thought some of the others may be a bit heavier. When we started making it, we thought a lot about stuff like Peter Richardson's Comic Strip (especially the episode Strike), comedy films like The Naked Gun and Monty Python's Life Of Brian, pantomimes, 1970s sitcoms, and musicals like The Rocky Horror Show. It's a mish-mash of all the different things we like.
It was originally a 10-minute short. What elements of it made you realise it was something that could be turned into a full-length show?
Jon: More than anything else it was the audience response. Quite early on I thought it might make a good, hour-long Edinburgh show, but I don't know if we would’ve extended it as soon as we did had there not been such a positive response. People really loved Matt playing that character.
Matt: Even from the 10 minutes people were quoting back lines, so we knew we had something special.
Jon: I think we were a bit worried at first that we couldn't do the show for too long after Thatcher's death, as it wouldn't be topical anymore and people would get tired of it - but they really haven't.
What were the reasons for deciding that your ‘plotline’ would be Mrs Thatcher experiencing a ‘Soho awakening’ regarding Section 28 - what opportunities did that narrative open up for you?
Jon: When we decided to do a show in which Thatcher was played by a gay man in drag, it made sense very early on to explore her relationship with the LGBT community. And both of us, Matt especially, had felt the effects of Section 28 when growing up.
Matt: I was in school during the time of Section 28. I remember teachers being asked questions in sex ed and not giving answers. To this day, I don't know whether that was because they couldn't or wouldn't. As a gay teenager, that has an effect on you. It was as if being gay was something one shouldn't speak about.
Jon: In terms of what it opened up for us narratively, it gave us a real through-line to the piece. It meant we didn't have to string together some unrelated jokes and sketches to make a show. They mostly all come out of the story - apart from a scene in which the ghost of Winston Churchill comes out of the closet; but that's just funny.
Why did you feel that humour was a useful and appropriate vehicle for contemplating and reflecting on something as serious as Section 28?
Jon: Most of what we both like is comedy, and it's also what we're good at, so it made a lot of sense to make it funny. Also, it's difficult to get away with socio-realism when your main character's a man in drag. But if you look back at the period the show's set in, there was a satire boom going on - stuff like The Comic Strip, Saturday Live, Spitting Image - so it’s fitting to adopt some of that style when telling this story.
Matt: Also, we're aiming the show at a broad audience, many of whom will not have even been alive in 1988. We realised that in order to properly tell a story of Section 28, we also had to teach the audience a lot about what it was, how it came to be and the world that it existed in. If they're laughing at something, they don't necessarily notice they're learning something at the same time.
The show blends its comedy with both theatre and cabaret to create an interesting mix. What were the attractions and benefits of bringing together these three styles to present your story?
Jon: It's just how it ended up really. When we started out, we set up the show like it was Maggie performing a cabaret set and then explaining how she’d got there. So we had a song at the beginning when she comes on, one at the climax of the story, and one at the end when she says goodbye. When we extended it, we thought it would be weird not to have songs throughout, so we constructed the plot around a few set pieces. That seemed to work quite well, so we stuck with it. That having been said, we did cut a few out. We could never get Panic by The Smiths to work.
Matt: I never wanted it to work. That was your choice.
Jon: That's true. I wanted Panic by The Smiths and Matt wanted I've Been To Paradise (But I've Never Been To Me). Neither made it in.
Matt: I think the best parts of the show are when all the elements combine. When It's Raining Men happens, it's really funny, a genuinely good musical set piece, and also the dramatic climax of the story. It all comes together.
The movie Pride told a little-known story that brought together, and educated viewers about, two major political movements of the 1980s. Obviously your show is, to a greater extent, a work of fiction. Does that fact compromise its ability to educate and inform about a period in recent history?
Matt: Actually there's not a huge amount of fiction in it. Obviously the ending isn't real but a lot of the facts along the way are accurate. We play fast and loose with the events, but then so did Pride. That didn't tell the whole story about the gay rights movement in the ’80s or the miners’ strike either, but it opened a door to a world people may not otherwise have thought about. Hopefully we do too, and when people leave the show, they'll be intrigued enough to go and read more, just as they would have at the end of Pride.
Was setting the show in a solid historical context important? Do you strive to generate a ‘feel’ of the 1980s?
Jon: The idea is that Margaret Thatcher has written the show, so we didn't want it to be completely factually accurate. We wanted it to feel like a cartoon version of the ’80s that's been created based on her prejudices and subjective viewpoint. It's explicitly a fantasy version of that decade. But at the same time, we did do our homework, and there are lots of pretty obscure references to campaign slogans, speeches and political trivia that we put in for anyone who lived through it. You can come along knowing nothing about Thatcher's time in office and enjoy it, or you can know all about it and find lots of little Easter Eggs during the show.
Matt: Laurence Olivier always started with the shoes whenever he was developing a character. How did you go about building and evolving your version of Mrs Thatcher, and how were you able to give it a quality that made it distinct from other performer’s impersonations of her?
Jon: Matt started with ebay.
Matt: Olivier never had to walk the cobbled streets of Edinburgh in heels! If he had, his Hamlet would have been very different. When you play such a well-known figure as Thatcher, and one who’s been portrayed by both men and women, you just try to be as accurate as possible. I spent a lot of time researching costume and mannerisms. And with someone like Thatcher, you have to be even more detailed or someone will tell you you're doing it wrong.
What are your proudest or fondest moments or elements of the show?
Jon: The thing I remember is the first night of our first year in Edinburgh, when people cheered as the lights went down at the start. We hadn't even done anything - they were just excited to see what the show was. That was the first inkling we had that it might turn into a hit and that we wouldn't lose an obscene amount of money. Then, later on that same year, we did extra shows at 1.30am, which were fantastic - really raucous. Jack Dee and Phill Jupitus came to see it one night, which was really exciting. We're both big fans of them.
Matt: The best moment for me is probably when we took the show to London and Peter Tatchell - who's both a hero to us and a character in the show - came along and signed our scripts.
Jon: Yeah, that was a really special moment.
Do you attempt to give the show a contemporary relevance, perhaps by teasing out comparisons with any situations in modern-day politics?
Matt: We put in anything we can, as long as we think it'll get a laugh!
Jon: There are lots of contemporary references - we want it to be as topical as it can be. We've just put in a joke about the Panama Papers. There may also end up being one about Ken Livingstone, if he's still in the news by the time we do the show in Birmingham. We have to be pretty ruthless with the jokes, though. Stuff sometimes gets a laugh when it's in the news but then has to be dropped. We used to have jokes about Madonna falling over at the Brits, Dolce and Gabana's comments about gay marriage, Edward Heath allegedly sleeping with young boys. We'll shoehorn in anything we can. The trouble is the general public has quite a short memory, so we end up dropping the jokes when they've forgotten about them again.
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