The Crown season four ushers in the Thatcher years, introducing British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (played by Gillian Anderson in The Crown cast).
In the Netflix royal biopic, the “Iron Lady” is seen going head to head with the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, in addition to embarking on a brutal Cabinet reshuffle. Her opinions never waver – including her thoughts on which of her twins, Mark and Carol Thatcher, is her favourite child.
However, when that same favourite, Mark Thatcher (Freddie Fox), goes missing during the 1982 Paris-Dakar motor rally, his disappearance proves a chink in his mother’s steel armour.
But what is the real-life story behind Mark Thatcher’s disappearance, and how was he rescued?
Who is Mark Thatcher?
Born 1953, Mark Thatcher is the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Sir Denis Thatcher. He has a twin sister, Carol Thatcher.
Mark was reportedly Margaret Thatcher’s favourite child, as seen in The Crown. In a 1986 profile of Mark Thatcher, The Times wrote: “The Thatchers have been a close family and Mrs Thatcher has an especially soft spot for her son.”
At the time we meet him in The Crown in 1982, Mark’s career had attracted criticism from the British press.
In February 1980 it was reported that Mark would model clothes for a Japanese firm in exchange for a motor racing sponsorship. The news caused outrage among Labour MPs based in Britain’s textile areas; Mark initially threatened to leave Britain, before later announcing that he had dropped his plan to race in Japan.
He also denied that he ever received as much as £40,000 for a set of Japanese television commercials promoting Cutty Sark whisky.
At the time of his disappearance during the Paris-Dakar rally, he was considered to be “one of Britain’s most eligible bachelors, with constant popular press speculation about his girlfriends” (The Times, 14th January 1982).
When did Mark Thatcher go missing?
On 12th January 1982, Mark Thatcher was reported missing in the Sahara while taking part in the Paris-Dakar rally, an international motor race. He, his French co-driver, and their mechanic were last seen on the 10th, near the Mali-Algerian border, but were not reported missing until two days later.
Mark had told a BBC reporter prior to competing: “I’ve now raced in Le Mans and other things – this rally is no problem.”
On the evening of the 12th, the Queen sent a private message of concern to Mark’s mother, Margaret Thatcher. A widespread rescue effort began, and his father Denis Thatcher flew out to Algeria to join the search.
The following day, 13th January, Margaret Thatcher was said to have broken down in tears inside the foyer of a London hotel while on her way to a public engagement. “Thatcher weeps for son,” ran the headline in The Times.
Larrain Goldstein, the owner of a handbag boutique in the Imperial Hotel in Russell Square, told reporters: “She stumbled a bit and was crying. Then she composed herself and said she would be alright. I did feel very sorry for her.”
Thatcher later cancelled her meeting with the Hungarian Foreign Minister, before returning to her private rooms at Downing Street.
We don’t know (and probably will never know) whether the Prime Minister also cried in her Audience with the Queen after her son went missing – a key moment in the episode of The Crown. But we’ve explored their relationship further in our in-depth feature on the Queen and Thatcher.
When was Mark Thatcher rescued?
Mark Thatcher was found alive and well at Taoumdert on Thursday 14th January 1982, 50km (31 miles) off course. He and his teammates had been running out of food, but still had drinking water.
Rescuers from four different countries had been involved in the search. Mark’s white Peugeot 504 was eventually spotted by one of the ten aircraft which were used in the search: a C13Q Hercules search plane, which belonged to the Algerian air force.
Mark was reportedly relaxed and unaffected, stating all he needed was “a beer and a sandwich, a bath and a shave”. Denis Thatcher, who’d flown out to the search headquarters at Tananrasset, Algeria, told reporters he was “very, very happy”.
Joining his father, Mark told reporters he’d been more worried about his family back at home: “If you’re in London and somebody else is in the middle of the Sahara, one tends to conjure up slightly more imaginative pictures of what is going on than what actually happened.”
On hearing the news, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said: “It’s all all right now and life to me looks totally different personally from what it did two days ago. It puts your other personal worries into perspective.”
Carol Thatcher, Mark’s twin sister, wrote in the Daily Express that her mother had been “very strained,” before concluding: “I must say I hope this is the last of Mark’s motor racing. Having seen the strain Mum has suffered this week, she can do without this additional hassle.”
A celebration dinner was held at the hotel in Tamanrasset, and the unpaid bill was later sent to the British embassy. The hefty bill, which reportedly totted up to almost 4,000 dinar on drinks alone, warranted a diplomatic missive to the British Foreign Office. Margaret Thatcher picked up the bill, and also reportedly contributed £2,000 towards the cost of the search.
Father and son were flown back to Britain in the presidential Algerian plane. “The press revelled in his [Mark Thatcher’s] Saharan disappearance,” The Times wrote in 1986. “Jokes about Mark Thatcher’s lack of ability to find his way became a stock item in comedian’s repartee.”