Friday, November 23rd 1990 – as the Funeral March strikes up I mope slowly to the dimly-lit centre stage of the Hackney Empire and declare, in sepulchral tones, that I have come to bury all the Mrs Thatcher jokes – jokes that no longer serve any purpose following her resignation the previous day. Then I leap up and beam, the theatre is flooded with light and loud music as I rip my shirt off in dramatic fashion to reveal a red T–shirt emblazoned with the words: ‘Hooray! She’s gone!’ As I recall it the routine didn’t get many laughs.
There weren’t actually many good Thatcher jokes – Ben Elton did a few but then disappointed a lot of people by teaming up with a known Thatcherite; the only one anybody can remember, which was quoted in most of the reports and obituaries, was Spitting Image’s “What about the vegetables?” “They’ll have the same as me.” Mrs Thatcher famously had no sense of humour and was impervious to criticism so she was untouched by anything comic. Nevertheless she unintentionally altered British comedy forever as a new style of comedian began to usurp the golf-playing establishment acts who were perceived to be Tory supporters and numbered several who did racist, homophobic and sexist material.
There was an irony about the new comics’ opposition to Thatcher of course. What could be more Thatcherite than a stand-up comedian? Self-employed, un-unionised, unsupported by any namby-pamby arts grant, he/she has got on a bike and got a gig. As she won the next two elections, the not very good jokes and the vitriol continued, but I am not persuaded that the routines of a small number of comics troubled Conservative Party ‘Think Tanks’ for long.
Another irony for me was that my own fortunes, in contrast to those of the millions she put out of work, improved radically during her governments. When she became Prime Minister, I was 24, unemployed, skint and living in a slum. By the time of that Hackney Empire gig I was an established act, was writing a play that would enjoy a decent run in the West End and had moved into a palace in Balham.
When the news broke about her death I wondered if I should make some similar gesture to my 1990 effort at my gig in Solihull 2 days later. Or maybe I should send some angry tweets, write a piece for a paper, host a party or just stand in the street with a megaphone railing against all she did?
Coincidentally, the day before the announcement I MC-ed a show at the Royal Court in London put on by the Stop the War coalition, marking 10 years since Tony Blair, Mrs Thatcher’s illegitimate son by Lionel Blair, had ignored the huge anti-war demonstrations and invaded Iraq. Naturally at one point I shouted “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie!” and the audience responded with the old roar, “Out! Out! Out!” I joked that in Guildford the same cue produced the response ‘Hoorah! Hoorah! Hoorah!” Lord knows how different the show might have been if she had died a day earlier.
In the end I chose not to join in the kerfuffle because I decided that the judgement of her career should not be confused by the celebration of her death. It was her political life that counted, not the one that ended in a hotel room at the Ritz – besides, I knew there would be plenty of people doing all those things without my encouragement. Mind you, there is one particular Rod Stewart song I cannot seem to get out of my head: “Maggie, I wish I’d……”