Lloyd Evans

The perils of playing a Prime Minister

The perils of playing a Prime Minister
Jonny Lee Miller will play John Major in The Crown (Image: Getty)
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Jonny Lee Miller is to play John Major in Series Five of the Crown. In the 1990s, when Major was prime minister, Miller got his big break as Sick Boy in Danny Boyle’s iconic film, Trainspotting. So it looks like a counterintuitive piece of casting. The dour and insipid Major will be played by an actor who achieved fame as a jobless heroin-addict.

When Major entered Number 10 in November 1990 he seemed like a bank of cold grey fog after the storms and excitements of the Thatcher years. But his image as a boring bean-counter is inaccurate. The real life John Major is attractively masculine. Though not exactly a pin-up, he has a strong jaw and a shapely, symmetrical face. He’s tall and stockily built (he was a sportsman in his youth), and there's a definite twinkle in his eye. But his true persona never came across on TV and he wasn’t able to share his sense of fun with the public. The comic Geoff Norton tells a story about Major visiting his old school Rutlish in south London, during the 1990s. The distinguished former pupil spoke at assembly and gave the boys the benefit of his wisdom. He asked them not to concentrate in class, not to finish their homework and not to pass their exams. ‘I didn’t bother with any of that and look – I’m prime minister.’ The kids loved this performance. The headmaster wasn’t so impressed.

Major’s adversary, Tony Blair, has been played on screen several times by Michael Sheen. The Welsh maestro manages to capture the essence of Blair which is somehow concentrated in his eyes. A blend of eagerness and calculation, an elusive and energetic slipperiness.

Major’s predecessor, Mrs Thatcher, was recently played by Clare Bloomer in Michael MacManus’s play, Maggie and Ted, which enjoyed a short run at the Garrick. Bloomer portrayed young Mrs T as a diffident but determined outsider inspired by the example of her alderman father. Alongside her was Martin Jarvis who conveyed the strange mixture of influences and tastes that made up the character of Ted Heath. Heath was one of the most talented and intrepid figures ever to occupy Number 10. He’d been the organ scholar at Balliol and he continued to conduct choirs and orchestras throughout his time as prime minister. He was awarded the Charlemagne Prize, (for services to European integration), and he spent the money on a Steinway grand which he installed in Downing Street. 

But there was another side to him that had no connection with music. In his mid-50s he took up competitive yachting and became an international success. In 1969, while leader of the opposition, he won the Sydney to Hobart race aboard his own boat, Morning Cloud. In 1971, during his term as PM, he led Britain’s winning team in the Admirals’ Cup. Back then, the public regarded him affectionately as a man with a great sense of humour. Everyone in the country, including a child like me, could impersonate Ted Heath. You just heaved your shoulders up and down and laughed your head off. He came across as a decent, well-rounded figure who succeeded at everything he turned his hand to. With one exception – politics. He never forgave Thatcher for ousting him and in Westminster he was dubbed, ‘the Incredible Sulk’. That may explain why film-makers have shunned him as a potential subject.

Mrs Thatcher’s story is far more dramatic and she’s been played on screen by Sylvia Syms, Lindsay Duncan and Gillian Anderson (in the Crown). Meryl Streep’s performance in ‘The Iron Lady’ was so uncannily accurate that it was hard to believe the movie wasn’t a documentary. The British actor Christian Bale gave a similarly convincing performance as Dick Cheney in the 2018 movie, Vice. Like Major, Cheney gained power almost by accident. His great strengths were modesty, patience, cunning and good luck. In Vice we see how he tricked the decent-hearted but gullible George W Bush into giving him control of America’s foreign policy. This enabled Cheney to start the disastrous war in Iraq. The film, written and directed by the satirist Adam McKay, is a deliberate act of propaganda that portrays the Republicans as a bunch of greedy, rotten-hearted scoundrels.

The Crown works more subtlety than that but the show has been accused of allowing too much ‘dramatic licence’ to creep in. The producers will face a tough choice when they tackle Major’s notorious affair with fellow MP, Edwina Curry. She maintains that their romance ended before John Major entered Downing Street but that creates an awkward and anti-climactic scenario. The prospect of a prime minister committing adultery in secret while living at Number 10 may be too tempting to ignore. We’ll see.

Written byLloyd Evans

Lloyd Evans is The Spectator's sketch-writer and theatre critic

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