Margaret Thatcher: the first TV Prime Minister

The former PM's legacy is in every well-honed sound bite, in every smiling press conference, in every politician, says Alison Graham

Margaret Thatcher was the first TV Prime Minster. The first Premier to recognise the power of television and to harness it. Of course the beast turned on her, making her a besuited, terrifying figure of fun in Spitting Image, and her mere presence kick-started the alternative comedy boom and the vituperative late-night TV rants of Ben Elton. But she bestrode television unlike any other politician during her career.

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She knew that image was, if not everything, then it was something, particularly for a woman. After those grey men of the seventies – Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Jim Callaghan – Thatcher arrived at 10 Downing Street with her smart suits, her pearls and her handbag. She had taken the advice of those she respected and softened her tough image, working on her too-shrill voice and toning down that helmet of hair.

On her first day as PM Margaret Thatcher was at the epicentre of the TV lights, memorably reciting the St Francis prayer to the cameras, and she left in their full glare, eleven years later, the tears shining in her eyes, her lips unmistakably quivering, as she drove away from 10 Downing Street after being deposed in 1990.

But she wasn’t indomitable, not completely. She had a tendency to steamroller her television inquisitors, but she was spectacularly wrong-footed on, of all things, the soft-centred nightly magazine programme Nationwide in 1983. A quietly angry lady from Cirencester in Gloucestershire, Diana Gould, remorselessly refused to let her off the hook about the bombing of the Argentinian ship, The Belgrano, during the Falklands War. “The Belgrano was outside the exclusion zone and sailing away from the Falklands. Why did you give the orders to sink it?” Mrs Thatcher’s words died slowly on her lips in the face of the onslaught.

It was Margaret Thatcher who in 1988 banned television and radio news from broadcasting the voices of IRA members and their supporters, wishing, as she put it, to deprive them of the ‘oxygen of publicity.’ And it was television that was always in the centre of every big moment in her life, including, in the form of a surprised John Sergeant in 1990 after first round of the Tory leadership election. Just as he delivered a piece to camera there was a kerfuffle in the background and Peter Sissons back in the studio almost shouted: “The Prime Minster is behind you John!” Sergeant jokingly later put Margaret Thatcher into his Room 101 on the eponymous comedy show.

Her television legacy is everywhere. In every well-honed sound bite, in every piece of presentation, in every smiling press conference, in every politician. That’s quite a feat. 

Alison Graham is Radio Times TV editor

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