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The shadows of shadows

Lindsay Duncan is the latest actor to portray Margaret Thatcher in drama, but the lady herself remai

Of all the unlikely things that happened to Margaret Thatcher in her long political life, perhaps none was stranger than the manner of her leaving. The first Conservative prime minister since Neville Chamberlain to leave power other than at the behest of either the electorate or the medical men, she was still healthy in tooth and mind in 1990, and enjoyed a huge majority in the Commons. She had her enemies - a few more than she realised, it seems - but there were many men who continued to adore her (Alan Clark, Norman Tebbit) and at least one who would cry devotedly in her presence (John Gummer, who is said to have wept hot tears on the night before she stood down). And yet, once the notion of departure was whispered into the ether, it was as if she were Samson, and her cabinet, Philistines all, had collectively set about her sugar-spun helmet of blond hair in the dark of night.

She is like some beetle, hard and shiny,

but with nothing soft inside: this is why,

artistically speaking, she works best as a cameo

The power drained from her swiftly, a determined but unseen hand on the dimmer switch. Geoffrey Howe resigned on 1 November. He made his famous resignation speech 12 days later. By 22 November, his work was done. The lady had not turned, but she had emphatically gone, to an executive home in Dulwich - so very convenient for Peter Jones, don't you know.

You can see why those three weeks would appeal to a television dramatist, especially in the light of Peter Morgan's successes on similarly compressed terrain (The Deal, The Queenand, coming soon, The Damned United, which will cover the 44 days of Brian Clough's tenure at Leeds football club). Turn each one into an act and, presto, you've got a Shakespearean tragedy on your hands, haven't you? Well, no, not exactly. In Margaret (BBC2), Richard Cottan's efforts to render various obscure and waddling Tories as Iagos and Horatios, Banquos and Edmunds, never quite came off for the simple reason that they were only waddling and obscure Tories.

Who now, other than political junkies, remembers the names Tristan Garel-Jones and Cranley Onslow? Although the producers had enlisted a peerless cast to play these suits - every British actor of a certain age and waistline was here, from Roger Allam (John Wakeham) to Robert Hardy (Willie Whitelaw) - this didn't always mean that they leapt to life (honourable exceptions: John Sessions as Geoffrey Howe, Kevin McNally as Kenneth Clarke). Halfway through, I found myself googling Peter Morrison, manager of Thatcher's doomed campaign to hang on to the leadership. Who was this fatso? Ah. The member for Chester. According to Simon Heffer, of the Telegraph, he used to go cruising near Paddington Station. I see. No wonder he was apt to fall fast asleep at his desk.

The real problem with this film, however, as with any artistic portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, was the woman herself. She haunts us, and yet she eludes us. Lindsay Duncan, armed with handbags, pussycat bows and an industrial-sized can of Elnett, certainly gave the role her papery best and, once you had got over the realisation that this performance was not going to be yet another impression, all elocution lessons and breathless flirtation, she did become Mrs T to a degree - which is to say that she inhabited the cartoon Thatcher as ably as any of those (Patricia Hodge, Kika Markham, Angela Thorne, Greta Scacchi) who came before her. Yet, as ever, the former PM resisted all efforts to make her anything other than a striding, lipsticked exhortation.

For sure, Cottan gave Margaret the introspective speeches. Alone with her dresser Crawfie, she talked of her father, Alderman Alfred Roberts, of how he had wanted a son; she spoke, too, of her inability to understand jokes, especially the great joke - the "ha ha business" - of "me as a man". But the speeches sounded tinny and unconvincing, grafted on. Even if she had thought these things, I doubt she would ever have said them aloud.

The sense grows that Margaret Thatcher was a mystery to herself; and thus, that she remains one to us. You feel this when you read the second volume of her memoirs, The Path to Power. How chilling the absence of her mother, Beatrice, and her elder sister, Muriel - shadows of shadows, the pair of them; how bewildering the lack of a single wrinkle or stain on the starched linen tablecloth that was glorious Grantham; and how muffling the tedium of her prose, even as she recalls the class war that was her battle to wrest the Conservative Party from the hands of a bunch of unworthy toffs.

You feel it, too, when you gaze at old photo­graphs. The one-word headline that always inks itself up in my mind is "Carapace"; she is like some beetle, hard and shiny, with nothing soft to speak of inside. This is why, artistically speaking, she works best as a cameo, or on the receiving end of satire: times when surface, or a couple of well-worn tics, will do. Put her at the centre of the action, go for depth and for humanity, and you will always end up looking foolish. The best you can hope for is to capture a sense of how she made us feel. Marcus Harvey, the British artist, has unveiled a portrait of her made from, among other materials, dildos. It is 15 feet tall. The impulse behind it is nasty and childish, but there is no doubting that, judging by this feeling measure, it works: not only does queasiness beset you, the way it used to every time you switched on the television, but a murmur of excitement, too. The size of the thing. The domination!

And beyond queasiness and excitement? Well, didn't she always transmit a kind of awkwardness, a social wrongness that made you wince inwardly, but that you could never quite put your finger on? (You were aware, though, that she shared it with the Queen, for example - which is perhaps why both women appear in so many people's dreams, or, at any rate, the dreams of the late Kingsley Amis.) The single best portrait of Thatcher that I've come across since she headed off into the sunset pins this feeling to the page so neatly that, once read, you can never forget it. The point, however, is that its author knows better than to allow his unlikely character anything more than a brief, insect-like dance across a few scant pages.

In Alan Hollinghurst's 2004 novel The Line of Beauty, the prime minister attends a party. She walks on in a "gracious scuttle, with its hint of long-suppressed embarrassment, of clumsiness transmuted into power". A character describes her as looking, not queenly, but rather like "a country'n'western singer", her face an "improbable fusion of the vorticist and the baroque". A few courtiers start "like pheasants". And then . . . she is gone.

This is how it is done. The woman can only really be seen out of the corner of one's eye, and we should pity her biographer, steadily filling his box files. As for Tristan, Cranley and all the rest, they are not worth more than a minute of anyone's time, as Lady Thatcher would surely tell you, given half the chance.

"Margaret": BBC2, 26 February (9pm)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Thatcher: 30 years on, the final verdict