What was it about the handsome Hollywood film star Ronald Reagan that Margaret Thatcher liked so much? Of course, they were close political allies with an ideological affinity. But Thatcher was also attracted to male glamour, according to her biographer Charles Moore, and Reagan had that in spades. “He was her sort of man: the easy charm, the big build, the smart clothing,” said Moore, who presented Thatcher & Reagan: A Very Special Relationship (BBC Two). “She wanted, despite her incredibly dominating personality, to look up to a man. She wanted to admire a man, and she found that easy to do with him.”
The admiration, though, was mutual. And if anyone was occasionally over-awed, it was the US President. “She was indispensable – she was his best friend… his only confidante,” recalled Bill Martin, who served in the Reagan administration. “In these meetings, she would speak 90 per cent of the time and there were a lot of ‘yes, Margaret’s.”
As the journalist who knew Thatcher best, Moore provided plenty of informed analysis. But he also understands the basis of a good history documentary: seek out the people who were there and ask them to tell the story. Former aides on both sides – including Thatcher’s press secretary, Bernard Ingham, and her personal assistant, Cynthia Crawford – shared their recollections of this special relationship. It was an unexpectedly touching blend of the personal and the political.
We learned about the background to the Falklands conflict, with Reagan trying to act as peacemaker (Argentina being a US ally against communism). He tentatively proposed that Britain accept a deal which involved replacing UK forces with a UN presence, and some face-saving for the Argentinians. You can imagine how that suggestion went down. “It ran straight into Margaret Thatcher and it couldn’t possibly survive,” said one of Reagan’s advisers. “Ronald Reagan collapsed, he completely agreed with Margaret Thatcher, and that idea disappeared.”
These insights into Reagan ensured that the documentary had something new to say. They offered an interesting psychological take on his reasons for bonding with Thatcher. Years of female adulation as a Hollywood heart-throb had their effect: “Ronald Reagan is at his best when there’s a woman in the room. You can see him adjust himself just slightly,” said his speechwriter, Peter Robinson. Also, Reagan had an alcoholic for a father, and his strong parental bond was with his mother. “He’s drawn to compelling women,” said Robinson, “and in Mrs Thatcher he meets one.”