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Mrs Thatcher, the woman I met and got to know – and like

    CPS Research Fellow Kathy Gyngell writes on her relationship with Baroness Thatcher, getting to know her as a result of an invitation to Downing Street and after her exit from power. 

    Unlike most people my interactions with her were mostly woman to woman and surprisingly intimate.

    I first met Britain’s Iron Lady, as she was already known, at a Downing Street reception in the early summer of 1988 just after my late husband, Bruce Gyngell, had got over a heart attack which was the result of working an 18 hour day, 7-days a week for two months running TV-am on a skeleton staff with the unions locked out.

    He had just returned to his daily crossing of the hundred strong union picket line.

    Our Number Ten invite was clearly by way of  Mrs Thatcher’s appreciation of his courage and determination in taking on the TV technical unions who, for years, had held not just ITV, but the BBC too, to ransom.

    She sought us out across the thronging salon. “How are you”, she concernedly greeted him. Hoping he might make her laugh, he recounted how on his return to work he was confronted by picket line greeting - a huge banner strung across the building saying, “Give it up Bruce, your heart isn’t in it.” He had made me laugh telling me.

    “How dreadful’ she intoned. Taken aback Bruce looked to me to fill in. I had recently watched her visit to Russia on the news. “Your outfits in Moscow were wonderful” I stammered. “You looked quite wonderful. Who designed them?”

    “My dear" she beamed, “Aquascutum!" Did you like them?” The ice was broken and Bruce relaxed.

    This was just the first of a number of invitations to Downing Street and soon Bruce found himself employing her incredibly clever if idiosyncratic daughter Carol. They got on like a house on fire.

    This was how I found myself giving Mrs Thatcher dinner at my house just days after her party brutally ejected her from office.

    Carol was due to come to supper with us that Friday night. When I rang to check arrangements I asked how her mother was. She told me it was desperate. Her life had simply stopped. There was nothing in her diary, no red boxes and it was shocking. Carol was clearly worried.

    I heard myself asking, “Maybe if she has nothing on she would like to come to supper too Carol?”  and was startled to hear her immediate reply: “I will be back to you in 15 minutes”.

    In less than fifteen minutes the phone rang. Yes, Carol said, her mother would like to come.

    I rang Bruce to confess to what I had landed on us. Supper changed to dinner and hurried invites went out to two of her most loyal advisers and friends, cooks and flowers were booked. I found my house being run over by a security contingent and being told by her protection squad to keep my front floor drawing room curtains drawn and to expect to have a police presence in the house for the evening.

    Friday arrived all too soon. I was nervous and had just managed to get my two and four year old into their dressing gowns when one minute before 7.30 she arrived – the first to arrive.  Bruce was still changing his shirt in the bedroom.

    I was alone with my children as she walked in.

    My sons know, as she died today, that they met, as small children, one of the two most significant political figures of the 20th century. Yet they will remember a woman who looked tired and poorly with a cold, coming into our drawing room. They will always remember too, how, almost without looking at me, she approached them, bent down to their height, took their hands and said to them: ‘Thank you so much for staying up to meet me”.

    It was symptomatic of the intimacy and sensitivity I was to experience again and again. Later that evening when I took her for her ‘nose powdering break’ (that I had been instructed to do after the second course) she took me by surprise by wanting to stay and chat in my bedroom.

    Instead of going back downstairs, she plumped down onto the small sofa there and talked families and children. It was almost as though she knew this was the life she had sacrificed to now find herself with nothing ahead.

    She came to dinner again in the next year or two and Bruce and I were guests at other ‘loyal friends’ parties for her. We saw her quite frequently. Like the rest of the relatively small circle who remained loyal, I was deeply conscious that she was, outside of this group, shunned.

    I expect that is why, when Carol found we were going for our summer holiday to the Swiss mountains near Gstaad, she asked again whether we might have her to dinner and spend some time with her.  Carol wanted people around her who would be kind and cared. I was instructed to ring her at the Palace Hotel when I arrived.

    “Mrs Thatcher”, I queried tentatively as the phone at the other end was picked up, “It’s Kathy Gyngell here”. “You must call me Margaret dear,” she interrupted me, “Will you and Bruce join me for dinner at the hotel tonight. Just a small informal family affair,” she reassured me.

    Well not quite. After drinks in her private suite, as our twelve strong party processed in to the huge and gracious Palace Hotel dining room, it fell silent. As the diners saw their fellow dining guest enter to a man, regardless of nationality, they stood without prompting to honour her. Their clapping did not stop until we had all sat down. At home shunned and reviled, abroad she was revered.

    There followed further barbeques – with the children – and dinners. It was not how I had anticipated spending my holiday. On each occasion she was relaxed,  kind and thoughtful. Over one dinner table discussion she asked what I was planning to do. I said I was thinking about going back to work. Her response was emphatic. ‘Don’t rush back’ she said, ‘they (your children) still need you’. She never made me feel inadequate or lesser for being ‘just a mother’. Later she would personally endorse my application for the Parliamentary Candidates list.

    It was after this, in 1991, that Bruce suffered the blow of losing the TV-am franchise.  It was deeply ironic for us that this was a result of changes to the broadcasting legislation that Mrs Thatcher herself had overseen, and of which Bruce has been deeply critical – criticisms she had not listened to.

    His fears were borne out. A process which granted the franchise to the highest bidder ensured that the wholly unrealistic GMTV bid won – a bid that Bruce knew in a world of retreating TV advertising revenue could and would never be met. Indeed it wasn’t – several years later it was written off, virtually without comment, by the Independent Broadcasting Authority.

    Bruce was understandably dismayed by the outcome of the licence auction – he had turned TV-am from a failing station on the cusp of closure into an independent news channel and cutting edge morning show; into one used by Harvard Business School as an example of best business practice and success. He had also, in the process, single handed, defeated the technicians unions and begun the process of releasing the broadcasting industry from their grip.

    It seemed a poor reward. And Mrs Thatcher was mortified too. She simply had not anticipated this outcome. With huge humility (believed by many to be uncharacteristic of her) and dismay she wrote of her regret in a handwritten letter to Bruce. He received the letter just before the press conference started.

    Bruce could not resist from, on the press conference platform, reading its contents. The room fell silent as he read. Mrs Thatcher’s first apology ever led the news that night. 

    Her letter sits, glass mounted in my drawing room. It reads:

    Dear Bruce,

    When I see how some of the other licences have been awarded I am mystified you did not receive your and heartbroken. You of all people have done so much for the whole of television – there seems no attention to that.

    I am only too painfully aware that I was responsible for the legislation/and that you have been very kind to me. That makes it harder to bear.

    Carol is deeply upset for all the other people who work with her.

    Denis I and send our warmest regards and affection and are thinking of you both.

    Yours ever

    Margaret.

    But Bruce was out of work and had to find a job. Australia beckoned and that is where we headed for the next few years. But Mrs Thatcher did not forget us. We were invited to her wonderful dinner party at Claridges – attended by the Queen, Prince Philip and the great Bill Deedes. And after Bruce died, I still received her annual Christmas card and a further party invitations, as did every other widow.

    It was characteristic of Mrs Thatcher that she never forgot ‘the widows’ of men who had helped her put her political philosophy into action, some of whom died in the cause. This alone says all you need to know about her character and values. “Do as you would be done by”, she told me one evening was her driving principle.

    Today’s politicians have much to learn from the way she lived her values.

    Mrs Thatcher is revered for fearlessness – quite rightly. But any idea she was insensitive or lacked compassion or humility is quite wrong.

    It is for these qualities as well that I mourn her today and want to cry for sadness at her and their loss.

    Kathy Gyngell has a first class honours degree in social anthropology from Cambridge and an Oxford M.Phil. in sociology. She has worked for the former ITV companies, LWT and TV-am as a producer and senior programme executive. A full time mother after the birth of her second son, she founded the voluntary organization Full Time Mothers.

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    Comments

    David Banks - About 1838 days ago

    Beautifully written.

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    Joanna Goodman - About 1833 days ago

    Another side to the Iron Lady - a compelling and personal piece beautifully written.

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