Thatcher: A Very British Revolution****

BBC2, Monday, 9pm

MARGARET Thatcher was a secret feminist and could throw together a mean Coronation chicken.

These were the headline takeaways from the first in a sumptuous five part look at the life and controversial times of Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. How sumptuous you ask? Well, Thatcher: A Very British Revolution has its own composer and three, count ‘em, directors of photography.

Yet Mrs Thatcher has had no shortage of excellent biographers, so what can television bring to the party on this, the 40th anniversary of her entering Downing Street?

'Thatcher would have handled Brexit better'

We’ll get to that in a minute, but first the big news about Maggie being a member of the sisterhood. It came from Shirley Williams as she recalled the days when she was a Labour Government minister and Mrs T was in the foothills of the Tory party. Williams recalled there being a “ladies’ room” in the Commons that had a nice sofa - for “fainting on”, she joked - and an ironing board. The latter was almost permanently occupied by Mrs Thatcher ironing husband Denis’s shirts during late sittings.

One night, Williams returned after a tough grilling at the despatch box. She asked Thatcher if she had done all right. Yes, said Mrs T. Then there was a pause before she said softly, “We shouldn’t let them get the better of us.”

“Them” being the men, the MPs who at the height of the Maggie Thatcher milk snatcher row (as Education Secretary she scrapped free milk for pupils) shouted “Ditch the bitch” at her during a particularly rowdy sitting, as Jonathan Aitken recalled.

Aitken was one of many one-time big beasts lining up to praise or bury Thatcher all over again. Most withering was Michael Heseltine, who described the Grantham grocer’s daughter as being "from a certain social background, one step up the ladder of economic success, with it a lot of the characteristics that you associate with people who have just made it, a certain intolerance of those who haven't, a certain suspicion of those who are further up the ladder, a certain bigotry, slightly over-simplistic solutions about the nature of the society in which they live". Saucer of milk over here for Lord Heseltine, please.

The first episode was a canter through very familiar territory: being a daddy’s girl, chemistry at Oxford, marriage to Denis, the twins, defeating Heath for the leadership, the major makeover of voice, dress, teeth, the Winter of Discontent, onwards to victory. Even the most junior student of politics would know all of this.

Files reveal health care advice

The beauty of this documentary series, helmed by Steve Condie, former Newsnight producer (and a Scot), lies in its use of footage. This is the kind of film that has pictures, and not a narrator, driving the story. Showing rather than telling is a far more time-consuming and painstaking way to make a documentary, one that relies on ever deeper digs into the archives. But done properly, as here, it draws the viewer in close and keeps them there.

Mining the archives also throws up the chance of striking documentary gold, as in the clip of Mrs T appearing in a mini Question Time with Cliff Michelmore in 1971. Michelmore tells her he saw her maiden speech in the Commons and she seemed entirely without nerves. “I’m normally as frightened as a kitten!” she exclaims. It is like watching a Tyrannosaurus Rex being interviewed by Larry the Lamb.

From her proclamation of St Francis of Assisi on entering Downing Street, to her tearful departure, Margaret Thatcher’s premiership lived and died on television. It is entirely right that television should now have its say, and this promises to be the definitive look at a political figure whose actions to this day continue to affect so many lives.