Matt Tedford plays the former British Prime Minister and co-wrote the ‘drag comedy musical extravaganza’ with Jon Brittain.
“The show I saw at Theatre 503 last year was so complicated and so slick with such high production values – it was a fully-realised West End production – the lighting, the sound, the props – I remember thinking: They are never gonna want to take this show to the Edinburgh Fringe because it is so complicated they could never do it up there. Then I realised: Hold on! I’m sitting watching it in an Edinburgh Fringe-type venue here and they’ve done it brilliantly.
“That’s the thing about Jon as a director: props and sound and lighting cues,” Matt Tedford told me this week. “I’ve never known anybody to use so many props. He’s very dedicated. He has a writer’s mind. I faff about a bit. We complement each other very well. I’ve learned so much from him about how writing works. He says: I like the characters to all have an ending.”
Matt studied drama with Jon and (last year’s used-to-be-called-Perrier Best Newcomer Award winner) John Kearns at UEA (the University of East Anglia). Comedian Pat Cahill was in the year above them. But, until Margaret Thatcher, Matt had not performed for five years – not since he graduated from UEA.
“I went into jobs,” he told me.
“Jobs?” I asked.
“Well, I worked for the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. Now that Labour has gone, it’s just called the Department of Education.”
Bizarrely, comedian Gareth Morinan also worked there at around the same time although they seem not to have met.
“And then I worked for an alcohol training company,” Matt said.
“Training bar staff,” he explained.
“Had you ever been a barman?” I asked.
“No. I used to sit in bars at 11 o’clock in the morning and make them do tests on laptops.”
“So why did they employ you?” I asked.
“No idea. I think because I have very strong arms and could carry eight laptops at once. Also I have a bit of a schoolmasterish thing about me: No talking! Now I work for an accounting body.”
“Do you know a lot about accountancy?” I asked.
“So,” I asked, “after UEA, you were a frustrated thespian?”
“Yes,” said Matt. “Then, two years ago, I went to Jon Brittain’s Hallowe’en party dressed as Margaret Thatcher. Then she died and Theatre 503 asked Jon if he wanted to write a rapid-response piece for their Thatcherwrite night. That was this time last year. And it just spiralled from there.”
“For the last few months,” I said, “I’ve seen posters in the tube for another Maggie show in the West End – Handbagged. Does that mean you’re screwed for a West End run?”
“I think we’re very different types of show,” said Matt. “I’ve not seen Handbagged, but theirs is about Maggie’s relationship with the Queen.”
“Whereas your one is…?”
“About Section 28.”
Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.
“When I went to see the play,” I said, “I thought it would be a hatchet job on Maggie Thatcher and, in fact, it was a hatchet job on the MP Jill Knight (who ‘introduced’ Section 28 to Parliament). Maggie came out of it OK.”
“We didn’t set out to make Margaret Thatcher likeable,” said Matt, “but, at the end of the play, people come up and (amiably) tell us: You made her a likeable person. I hate you for doing that!
“When Jon and I sat down to write a play, I said: The weird thing about Margaret Thatcher is that she has all the makings of a gay icon – the power dressing, the androgynous voice; she’s a strong woman. But, because of Section 28, she’s a very hated figure. If she’d put out an album singing a few Cher songs, she could have made it.”
“She had gays in her Cabinet,” I said, “though, admittedly, they were not out.”
“She actually voted in favour of legalising homosexuality,” said Matt. “The only thing she ever said about homosexuality was that children as young as five were being taught they had an inalienable right to be gay. That was the only thing she said. And then they all clapped at the Party Conference and said: Oh, this is terrible. We need to sort this out.”
“So how come,” I asked, “you sat down, decided to skewer Margaret Thatcher for Section 28 and ended up making her a loveable icon?”
“I don’t know. I don’t like any of her politics at all. But she’s a really interesting character. Every now and then in the show, we’ve had a heckler and it’s just so good to shout them down as Margaret Thatcher.”
“I never want to meet people I admire,” I said. “People who seem admirable turn out to be shits and people who seem awful turn out to be nice.”
“My aunt did meet Margaret Thatcher quite a few times,” said Matt, “and had dinner with her and said she was just crazy.”
“In what way?”
“There was something just a bit unbalanced about her. So focussed on stuff without any human side. I don’t think there was any sort of empathy there. Eleven years at the top, with no-one really around you saying No. A very interesting person. But thank god she died, otherwise I would still be sat working in the office.”
“Why did your aunt meet Margaret Thatcher?” I asked.
“She worked high up in the Civil Service. It wasn’t anything personal. My aunt met people as part of her job. She met Princess Margaret, who would open supermarkets and they’d have to be careful which aisle they walked her down because you couldn’t have her walk past the tobacco or the drink. They would have someone pushing the trolley for her.”
“The thought of Princess Margaret opening supermarkets,” I said, “had never crossed my mind.”
“If they were trying to encourage job creation in an area, they would sometimes wheel out Princess Margaret.”
“Is your aunt still in government?”
“Oh yes. She likes Prince Charles.”
“Anyone who talks to plants is OK with me,” I said. “Did your aunt hate Margaret Thatcher?”
“Oh yes,” said Matt. “We’ve always been a very political family. A family of civil servants.
“My parents are very much left wing Socialists, but my granddad is a really staunch Conservative. I used to do the voice just to wind him up.”
“Did he enjoy being wound up?”
“Yeah. He’s very open-minded.”
“Are you going to walk up and down the High Street in Edinburgh in character to publicise the show?” I asked.
“That sounds dangerous,” I said. “You could get stoned.”
“If I’m lucky,” said Matt. “Actually, I’m going up to Edinburgh in the train dressed as Margaret Thatcher.”
I must have looked surprised.
“Why not?” asked Matt. “I’ve been out in Soho dressed as Margaret Thatcher. I’m not a cross-dresser but, at every opportunity at the Fringe…”
“Three-and-a-half weeks dressed as Margaret Thatcher?” I asked.
“If I have to walk around supermarkets dressed as Margaret Thatcher to publicise the show, I will do it.”
“What’s it like to have people think of you as Margaret Thatcher?”
“People come up and talk to me after the show and it’s almost like therapy for them. People come up and say: I didn’t like you, I didn’t vote for you, but I really enjoyed the show. It’s just weird. In Ireland, they went mad for the fact they could meet me after the show, dressed as Margaret Thatcher, and shake my hand.
“Have you ever been curtsied at?”
“Yes. In Ireland. And people do kiss your hand every now and then, which is weird.”
“After a while,” I said, “the Thatcher voice must do your throat in.”
“Yes it does,” said Matt, “and I have had a lot of conversations with my mother about tights.”