What happens when the BBC rids itself of all the woke lefties and liberal snowflakes who pollute the airwaves with their jokes and nonsense? It might look a little like Thatcher & Reagan: A Very Special Relationship (BBC Two), a respectful, if not particularly thrilling, two-part documentary that tells the story of the eight years during which the two leaders ruled their nations at the same time. It is written and presented by Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator, who also wrote all three volumes of Margaret Thatcher’s authorised biography.
This first episode covers Thatcher’s rise to power, Ronald Reagan’s inauguration and the Falklands war, with a bit of nuclear wrangling thrown-in for good measure. Moore argues that the pair had the vision and time in office to imagine an end to the cold war that had been simmering for more than 30 years, and which most world leaders saw as something to accept, rather than attempt to change. Reagan and Thatcher were dedicated cold war warriors, Moore suggests, who worked together to stand up to the Soviet Union, and in doing so changed the course of history. “They saw the beginning of the end of the cold war, as the world emerged from the shadow of nuclear Armageddon,” he says, to a television audience still facing a 24-hour news cycle comprised of east-west tensions and the shadow of nuclear Armageddon. Perhaps the documentary was made last summer.
Thatcher’s steely public image as the “Iron Lady” actually came from a Soviet newspaper, according to Malcolm Rifkind, who first served under Thatcher as a junior minister in the Foreign Office and is one of many interviewees here. Although the programme’s waving away of the nuclear threat might seem horribly dated, this is not a terrible time to revise the history of the 1980s, particularly since Moore delves into US sanctions imposed on a Siberian gas pipeline and the divided response to this in Europe.
But this is a film that is enamoured of its subjects. While last week’s Channel 4 documentary about the Falklands conflict used its insider access to find revelations about the conflict, this documentary does little but admire Reagan and Thatcher. It is almost entirely uncritical, save for Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s chief press secretary, roughly admitting that the early years of her tenure were “dire”, and Moore explaining that just after she was first elected, there was a sense that she would only last a single term. Otherwise, almost every interviewee seems in awe of her fierceness and uncompromising nature. Reagan, too, gets off lightly, with the documentary claiming that there was a perception that he was “very much an actor”, lacking in brains at the start, before his communicative gifts began to dazzle.
There are a few attempts at loosely psychoanalysing what Reagan and Thatcher saw in each other. Reagan, apparently, was close to his mother and drawn to “compelling women”, while Thatcher “wanted to look up to a man … she wanted to admire a man”. One talking head suggests that they were two lone operators, but once they had found each other, “they were never alone again”. Hmm. There has been a run of outstanding political and historical documentaries on the BBC over the past couple of years, from Once Upon a Time in Iraq to Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution, but this is much cosier and far less probing.
This is a traditional documentary stuffed to the gills with the people who were there. Unsurprisingly, given his decades in journalism and his previous biographies, Moore has access to those on the inside, and many of the contributors were at the table, or at least hovering very close to it, during the crucial moments of Thatcher and Reagan’s friendship and political relationship. He often greets his interviewees with a familiar tone; this is a man making the most of his connections.
It is the sort of sober series that serves an educational purpose, to a point, and if you wanted fireworks and melodrama about a ruthless leader felled by hubris, then you would be watching the Peaky Blinders finale, over on BBC One. But as a result of its traditional approach, I found myself under the influence of what I call the “Cunk effect”, which casts a shadow over documentaries such as this. Any time a presenter is shown ambling down a street as if unaware of the camera, or takes a moment to think, the camera lingering on his thinking face, I faintly wonder when a Diane Morgan voiceover is going to kick in, giving us the full Philomena Cunk experience. This is far too sensible a documentary for that, of course. But I would have enjoyed watching it.