The Final Curtain Call
In A Tribute in Words and Pictures (a collection of reviews by those closely associated with Margaret Thatcher) its editor, Iain Dale, has included an amusing anecdote by John Whittingdale about Margaret Thatcher and Monty Python. As Whittingdale recounts, in 1990, the Conservative Party Conference speech was particularly important and the hardest part of the speech to write were the jokes, especially for someone who was not a natural joke teller. The people brought in to write this part of Margaret Thatcher’s speech frequently needed to persuade her that what they had written was funny.
A few weeks earlier, the Liberal Democrats had unveiled their new Party symbol. It was supposed to represent a bird taking wing, but in the mind of John O’Sullivan it immediately became a dead parrot. He decided that he would write a section of the speech devoted to mocking the Liberal Democrats. He included a section of Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch, however, the Prime ‘Minister had not even heard of Monty Python.
On reading through the draft of the speech, Margaret Thatcher paused when she reached the dead parrot section and looked at John O’Sullivan as if he were completely mad. Whittingdale then explained the reason behind the joke, telling her that was one of the most famous comedy sketches ever written and would will be instantly recognized by every person in the audience. He was was slightly less certain of this latter point, knowing Conservative audiences, but insisted to the Prime Minister that it would be the highlight of her speech. The joke survived that read-through but he knew that she was not convinced.”
At every reading Margaret Thatcher asked Whittingdale; “Are you sure that this is funny?” After about the third or fourth occasion, she said, “I need to see the sketch.”
Watching the sketch with Margaret Thatcher, John O’Sullivan, Robin Harris, and Peter Morrison her PPS, the absurdity of the situation resulted in one of the more surreal moments of Whittingdale’s time at Number 10. To some of them the sketch was so hilarious that tears were rolling down their cheeks but Margaret Thatcher was completely nonplussed. Nevertheless, while it was clearly not her type of humour, she accepted that it must be funny.
In the days leading up to the Conference, the Prime Minister, clearly full of doubt, required constant reassurance that people would find the lines funny. Every time the speech was rehearsed Whittingdale laughed at the passage, which simply added to the Prime Minister’s puzzlement. On the day of the speech with Margaret Thatcher waiting to go on to the stage to deliver the speech, she was still worrying about the passage and looking for reasons that it might not work. Just as she was about to go on, another doubt arose in her mind. She looked at Whittingdale and said anxiously: “John, Monty Python – are you sure that he is one of us?”
As Whittingdale said, “To try to explain to her that Monty Python did not really exist would have been to risk disaster”. Instead he said to her: “Absolutely, Prime Minister. He is a very good supporter.”
Margaret Thatcher concluded her scripted joke with, “And now for something completely different” and it did indeed become the highlight of her October 1990 party conference speech. An ironic conclusion to what became her final curtain call, when a month later she resigned as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party.
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