“That’s the last thing this country needs — two women running the show.”
Prince Philip’s (Tobias Menzies) cranky comment in the season 4 premiere of The Crown kicks off a season defined by its narrative focus on the relationships between two of history’s most influential women leaders: Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman).
Until now, The Crown has centered around the unparalleled power of a single woman: Queen Elizabeth II. Since her ascension to the throne at the age of 26 in 1952, she’s been the one to capture the hearts and minds of Britain, and as a female monarch, has enjoyed freedoms that transcend the traditional roles of women in contemporary society. She is, for all intents and purposes, the breadwinner in her family, the one who gets final say in every decision, and the only woman in the land to the kind of political power that the men around take from granted.
Not anymore. This season of The Crown kicks off in the late 1970s and runs into the early 1990s, a time defined by the political reign of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The first episode “Gold Stick,” shows her 1979 election, and her very first meeting with the Queen. It...doesn’t go well.
Though Queen Elizabeth is initially excited at the prospect of working with another woman after seven consecutive male counterparts (starting with Winston Churchill, who served as her very first prime minister), she and Thatcher do not hit it off. The rest of the season is characterized by their ideological and personality clashes, which echo the turmoil wracking the United Kingdom during those difficult years.
Despite being only six months older than the Queen, and growing up in the same wartime generation, the two had very different approaches to public life.
“Because of their generation, they had a lot of things in common—they’re both very resilient, very committed, work incredibly hard, have an extraordinary sense of duty,” Anderson told Refinery29 ahead of the season 4 premiere.” They both have a strong Christian faith. They’re both girls of the war generation who switch the lights off when they leave a room. But then they had such different ideas about running the country.”
Anderson, who completely transformed herself into Thatcher — gigantic bouffant hairdo and prominent teeth included — said that in order to nail those scenes with the Queen, she really had to understand the woman she portrays.
“What in her youth led to the woman that she became?,” Anderson thought first and foremost. “In doing that, I can recognize some pretty impressive milestones that she passed, and really appreciate the fact that she was a self-made woman and started in a very frugal and meager upbringing, doing real hard work. Getting into Oxford as a woman and becoming a chemist, sitting her bar weeks after giving birth to [twins], all of those things, and the capacity of her brain to retain all information at all times, and essentially be the smartest person in any room. In order to play her, you kind of have to put aside any opinions you might have about her actions or her policies.”
A lot of the animosity between Thatcher and the Queen, Anderson argues, stems from the difference in their backgrounds. As the daughter of a London grocer, Thatcher often doubled down on her middle-class roots, arguing that if she’d been able to rise and thrive on her own, there was no reason for others to demand government help to do the same. Compare that to Elizabeth, who holds her station by a happy accident of birth and abdication.
“They were royalists in [Thatcher’s] family of origin, and she revered the institution.,” she explained. “And I think part of that reverence brings an awkwardness and also an acknowledgement of the big distance between the royal family and the shopkeeper’s daughter.”
As a source told The Daily Beast in 2013, around the time of Thatcher’s death: “It was the starchiest relationship. She was deferential, much too deferential. The Queen was not requiring so much.”
That class distance is hilariously emphasized in episode 2, “The Balmoral Test,” which sees Thatcher and her husband Denis (Stephen Boxer) travel to Balmoral Castle in Scotland to spend a weekend with the royal family. From the moment they arrive, they stick out like sore thumbs, with Thatcher insisting on going against convention and sharing a bedroom with her husband, and the couple showing up in full formal attire for cocktails right as the royal family settles in for tea after a day spent stalking (read: traipsing through the countryside looking for animals to hunt). But the biggest disaster comes when the Queen asks Thatcher to accompany her outside the next day, and the latter arrives wearing three-inch pumps, perfume, and a bright blue cobalt jacket for a sport that requires that one disappear into nature.
“It’s a fun episode,” Anderson said, laughing. “Apparently there was an infamous first visit where [the Thatchers] got everything wrong. I’m sure there’s a degree of creative license taken, as there is in every episode by necessity, but yes, I understand that there are great parts of that that are true.”
The peak of their conflict comes towards the end of the season, in episode 8, called “48:1.” Ahead of a meeting of the Commonwealth states, Queen Elizabeth tries to convince Thatcher to sign a declaration censuring South Africa’s racist apartheid policies. The latter, allied with Ronald Reagan, is very reluctant to do so. What follows is a tense political dance the likes of which we’ve rarely seen on this show, with the Queen determined to get her way against all advice from advisors who tell her she’s overstepping her role.
What’s interesting is that deep down, these two women probably had more in common than they’d admit. “The way these men patronize me, lecture me,” Thatcher says at one point, referring to the men of the Conservative Party who would eventually plan her demise. It’s a sentiment that’s not far off from Elizabeth’s relationship with the men of Court, who have spent several seasons trying to tell her how to do her job.
In her memoirs, Thatcher even wrote that “stories of clashes between ‘two powerful women’ were just too good not to make up,” attributing much of the media’s fascination with their relationship to good old-fashioned sexism. There’s certainly some truth to that — but it’s just as sexist to imply that just because two women are in power, they are automatically going to get along and braid each other’s hair. What’s more, it would be a mistake to gloss over Thatcher’s own sexism: In all her years in office, she only promoted one woman to her Cabinet, and was vocal in her opposition to any reform in policy that might help women rise in the workforce. She openly preferred her son to her daughter, and dismissed women as emotional and hysterical, a point that comes up in episode 4, “Favorites.” When her son Mark goes missing in the desert during the 1982 Paris-Dakar rally, a distraught Thatcher breaks down in front of the Queen, and then laments that she, the first woman prime minister, would be the one to cry.
“We’ve seen so much of her as this strident force, an unfeeling, uncaring, leader who potentially didn’t like women, etc.,” Anderson said. “What we do know is that during that period of time when Mark was missing, she could not focus. I like the fact that we are seeing a well-rounded human being in a way that we really haven’t seen of her before, and certainly, she wouldn’t have wanted to present to the public, because particularly back then, it would have been seen as weakness.”
Still, as the season finale proves, the two women did have a deep-rooted respect for one another, even as they disagreed. In their final audience, after Thatcher has been ousted as leader of the Conservative Party, the Queen gives her the Order of Merit, an honor that comes at the discretion of the sovereign. In 1992, when she retired from the House of Commons, she was made Baroness Thatcher, making her a peer of the realm. Her husband became Baron Thatcher, making him the rare commoner to be granted a hereditary title.
But the strongest sign of their bond would actually come some years later. When Thatcher died in April 2013, Queen Elizabeth granted her a state funeral, something she’d only previously done for Sir Winston Churchill, back in 1965. What’s more, she and Prince Phillip attended the service, breaking with tradition of the monarch refraining from attending funerals. And if The Crown has taught us anything, it’s that Queen Elizabeth is a stickler for the rules.