April 19, 2013 6:44 pm

The real national theatre

Much that happened in the arts during the Thatcher era is still celebrated now

Marc Roche, the London correspondent of Le Monde, has identified a new British art form. Writing home to his compatriots after Wednesday’s grand funerary event for Margaret Thatcher, he explained the strange ways of the tribe he lives among by reference to “l’art britannique d’organiser des obsèques nationales”.

The British adore a funeral, he went on to explain. The art of orchestrating such formal events, “ruled as rigidly as a musical score”, is in the national DNA, thanks partly to “insularity and a taste for theatre”. And so on, in a brisk canter through every hoary old national stereotype.

Annoying? Yes, a bit. But that’s a healthy reason to read other people’s newspapers. Just as you are bridling at some phrase or other you think, “Well, he has a point.” Even the BBC itself echoed the theme, with Nick Robinson declaring that the choreography, music and poetry of burials are “natural” to Brits.

I’ve never noticed in myself any natural talent for making six black horses walk at 70 paces a minute while pulling a gun carriage but, after listening to Wednesday’s commentary, I know all about it. (It’s difficult, in case you were wondering, but it was done perfectly.) And so much else was perfect too. Timing of arrival of coffin at cathedral? Impeccable. Getting a coffin up 24 steps? Oh, very difficult, but perfectly executed.

And then, in the light of Roche’s comments, I realised how deeply self-congratulatory the whole thing was. I can’t help feeling sorry for the broadcast commentators who have so much time to fill that they need to tell me the difference between a bearskin and a busby – but their tone, each time another strange facet of the British national pantomime was anatomised, was relentlessly pleased-with-selves. It was all marvellous, absolutely marvellous. Gosh, we were telling ourselves, we are so good at this!!!

It was in fact national theatre, in the truest sense. With all theatre’s power to entertain, to distract, and to evoke emotions both introspective and communal. And to create a powerful reality in which its audience can believe. Super-careful ceremonial made Wednesday’s event into one that was actually less about Thatcher than about us all – and in doing so, made a potentially divisive event surprisingly consensual. No such thing as society, eh?

Her legacy in the cultural world has been much discussed. In the media it’s easiest to see: in taking on the print unions, in liberalising the broadcasting industry, in allowing Rupert Murdoch to flout monopolies legislation and so handing his empire a power that still reverberates.

Elsewhere in the arts, her impact is harder to quantify. Thatcher had few friends in that world, apart from the artist pairing Gilbert & George, whose vocal support for the Iron Lady was probably a contrarian gesture, like the wearing of natty suits at a time when no one else did.

Did she actively dislike the arts? Probably. (She is routinely excoriated for cutting arts funding, but state provision was still at a level that we’d now find munificent.) Or perhaps the arts were simply not that significant in her worldview. If the cultural world showed up on her radar at all, it would merely have been as yet another area of state-funded floppiness. Definitely “wet”.

Although if Thatcher had been able back then to envisage our present era – of an art market that draws the richissimos to London like bears to a honeypot, and culture’s huge contribution to the national coffers – she might have taken more interest.

. . .

But it wasn’t like that then. Culture was less central in a national mood that was polarised. Confrontational. Angry. Violent, on those picket lines, and with Irish bombs going off. European politics was not the mealy-mouthed don’t-offend-anyone consensualist business of today.

And art responded – as art does. The excesses of punk, some fine political playwriting and other radical theatre, the Young British Artists, a golden age of novel-writing and so much else: a lot of what happened in the Thatcher era is still celebrated now. Cool Britannia, circa 1962, was growing up and finding its feet.

But before you think that I’m starting to argue that old line about a bit of conflict and hardship being great for art – I’m not. In looking back on the British cultural scene in the Thatcher era, we can see that much of that vivid creativity had its roots sunk deep in a social compost laid down much earlier. The playwrights, artists, musicians and writers who emerged then were the postwar generation for whom free education – all the way through to tertiary level, right up to and including whatever apparently daft stuff the artily-minded wanted to get up to – started to produce dynamic results.

In the cultural world, we’re still reaping those benefits. Whether or not the grammar-school girl wanted to hack away at that system, regardless of how it would affect the future, she didn’t. We did that later.

Peter Aspden is away

Hear the podcast of this column at www.ft.com/culturecast

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