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British prime ministers: The best portrayals in film

BY Jamie Flook

2nd Sep 2022 Film & TV

British prime ministers: The best portrayals in film

With the announcement of the new British Prime Minister fast approaching, Jamie Flook explores the best portrayals of British prime ministers in film

It is a curious feature of British democracy that four of the last six British prime ministers have started their time in 10 Downing Street without winning a general election. This trend is set to continue, with our next Prime Minister soon to be announced.   

It’s a difficult job for sure, with a minefield of perils awaiting the chosen one. It does also come with its rewards, such as a free cat named Larry who holds the official title of Chief Mouser to The Cabinet Office. Larry’s competence as a mouser has been called into question, and he was once caught on camera attempting to squash a pigeon—luckily the bird escaped. 

Larry the Cat, Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office

Larry the cat networking, via Wikimedia Commons

Whoever becomes the next PM is sure to make their mark on pop culture at some point, and it’s always fun to see them portrayed by particularly gifted actors. Winston Churchill was in very good hands when John Lithgow brought him back to life in the Netflix series The Crown. But what of the big screen? Here are our top picks of actors who’ve done a cracking job of portraying British prime ministers in film. 

Jeremy Irons as Neville Chamberlain in Munich-The Edge of War

There can’t be many films that have tried harder to rehabilitate the reputation of a much-criticized prime minister than Munich-The Edge of War, which is based on a novel by Robert Harris. Jeremy Irons’ performance brought warmth to a character in a film that appears to ask questions of Chamberlain’s lasting image as a weak leader made to look naive by Hitler.

Irons’ Chamberlain is strong-willed and gives importance to the value of being well-intentioned in a world that does not see things your way. It’s a film that keeps you hooked and is well worth watching. 

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour 

There is a reason why Gary Oldman won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his stint as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Simply, it was one of the performances of the year. Love him or loathe him, Churchill is one of those historical figures whose personality has permeated throughout the collective British consciousness over the last 80 years. 

"It was one of the performances of the year"

In Darkest Hour we are shown a war cabinet in crisis as divisions arise about whether or not to continue fighting Hitler or to seek peace with him. Oldman’s Churchill has a conscience and the film is probably all the better for it, although Churchill’s actions outside of war have provoked debate in public discourse. 

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady 

An American playing a British prime minister will always come under scrutiny on this side of the Atlantic, but it is a testament to Streep’s talent that she, too, won an Academy Award for playing a PM. The Iron Lady is a biopic of Margaret Thatcher’s life and career being told in a series of flashbacks from the perspective of a former prime minister suffering from dementia.

"Whatever one’s thoughts are on the woman herself, Meryl Streep was a successful choice to play her"

The film remained quite neutral in its presentation of Thatcher’s life but whatever one’s thoughts are on the woman herself, Meryl Streep was a successful choice to play her. 

Michael Sheen as Tony Blair in The Deal, The Queen and The Special Relationship

Michael Sheen has played Tony Blair in three films, and he carried it off so naturally that it’s almost as though Blair was playing himself. The Deal focuses on Blair’s pact with Gordon Brown that would see Brown support Blair in his leadership bid in return for Blair eventually handing power over to Brown. The Queen deals with the royal family’s response to Princess Diana’s death, and The Special Relationship offers a take on the friendship between Blair and Bill Clinton. 

Hugh Grant as David in Love Actually

No listicle of British prime ministers in film can be taken seriously without the inclusion of Hugh Grant’s David in Richard Curtis’s Christmas comedy Love Actually. Prime minister David falls in love with a staff member, and in a film full of love stories, this is one of the funniest. 

"Grant injects his trademark charm and humour, which real prime ministers often lack"

Grant injects his trademark charm and humour, which real prime ministers often lack. The chemistry between Grant and Martine McCutcheon, who played his love interest, was a blessing that complemented a film rich in wonderful casting. 

And finally… 

Janet Brown as Margaret Thatcher in For Your Eyes Only 

For Your Eyes Only marked the only time so far that the prime minister has appeared in a James Bond film. It’s only a cameo but it’s a comical scene featuring Janet Brown as Thatcher, who thinks she is talking to James Bond. He has other ideas, because he’s played by the much missed Roger Moore. 

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