April 11, 2013 / 4:59 PM / 6 years ago

No heads lost in Thatcher statue debate...yet

LONDON (Reuters) - Revered or reviled, history shows that the placement of a public statue of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher anywhere in the capital risks becoming a lightning rod.

A visitor views a statue of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher by Neil Simmons, 2001, on display in the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London April 8, 2013. REUTERS/Olivia Harris

Reactions to the idea of Thatcher atop the empty fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square mirror the emotions stirred up by the death of Britain’s “Iron Lady” on Monday.

Some mourners left flowers outside her home, while others “celebrated” with a street party and buying so many copies of the 74-year-old “Wizard of Oz” song “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” that it surged into a top 10 spot in the UK charts.

One small indication of the future prospects for a public statue of Thatcher happened more than a decade ago.

Theatre producer Paul Kelleher decapitated a statue of Thatcher in 2002, saying it “looked better that way”.

The work, created by sculptor Neil Simmons, was on display at the time at London’s Guildhall, just a short walk from St. Paul’s Cathedral where her funeral will be held on Wednesday.

In a telephone interview with Reuters, Simmons laughed as he recalled hearing of the attack on the statue, adding that he knew it was a “poisoned chalice” when he took on the commission.

“I thought it might be sprayed with graffiti, maybe a few eggs thrown at it, but the decapitation was something else,” he said.

Conservative London Mayor Boris Johnson said his office would do everything it can to ensure Thatcher gets a high profile London memorial.

A tribute in Trafalgar Square would put Thatcher on equal footing with King George IV and British army generals Henry Havelock and Charles Napier who occupy the other plinths. Though she would still be some way below the 50 meter-high monument of naval hero Horatio Nelson, who won the Battle of Trafalgar.

London Labour leader Len Duvall said on Thursday that such a gesture would be “crass triumphalism”, particularly as the popular tourist spot was one of the sites of the riots over a deeply unpopular “poll tax” which contributed to her downfall.

Visitors to the square on Thursday were split over the idea.

“It would become a monument of hatred, you’d have a deluge of people coming from the north to vent their anger,” said 57-year-old Glasgow-born Laurie who declined to give his last name.

But 20-year old Mia Cook said Britain’s first female prime minister did a lot for the country.

“I think it would be a good idea and right now there’s only men around here,” she said.

Kelleher’s first attempt at the Thatcher statue in 2002 with a cricket bat failed to get the job done, but a second swipe with an iron pole took its head clean off.

“Mr Kelleher was an Englishman armed with a cricket bat and inevitably destined to fail,” the prosecution noted. Kelleher was later sentenced to three months in jail.

Simmons’s original 2.6-metre likeness of Thatcher was designed for the Members’ Lobby of Britain’s House of Commons where a new larger-than-life bronze statue was placed in 2007.

“I might have preferred iron, but bronze will do,” Thatcher quipped to laughter and applause at the statue’s parliamentary unveiling. “It won’t rust. And, this time I hope, the head will stay on.”

Additional reporting By Dasha Afanasieva, editing by Paul Casciato

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