The Day Mrs Thatcher Sang Abba's Greatest Hits to Me; Meryl Streep Is a Truly Formidable Iron Lady Says Richard E Grant, Who Plays Heseltine in a New Film about Maggie. but Off-Camera, Mamma Mia, She's a Scream!

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Byline: by Frances Hardy

OSCAR-WINNING actress Meryl Streep, attired with uncanny accuracy as Margaret Thatcher, is shooting a scene from the forthcoming film Iron Lady.

Striding down a parliamentary corridor in power suit and pearls, her blonde wig coiffed to replicate the distinctive Prime Ministerial hair-do; her voice crisp with authority, Streep, it seems, has perfectly caught the power and allure of our first female PM.

But then the cameras stop rolling and an unexpected transformation takes place. She shrugs off the mask of political gravitas, kicks the air with her court-shoed heels and bursts into a chorus of Abba songs.

Richard E. Grant, who plays Mrs Thatcher's political nemesis Michael Heseltine in the film, watched with amusement and delight as Streep -- who won plaudits as Abba-loving Donna in the blockbuster movie Mamma Mia! -- performed an impromptu medley of songs from the film.

'We were doing a scene in which Mrs Thatcher walks down a corridor with a group of ministers. Between shots, Meryl, still suited and bewigged as Mrs T, sang the Abba hits. It was so incongruous and hilarious and it sums up her humour and sense of mischief. It's naff to say it, but Meryl makes you feel better about yourself,' says Grant.

'As an actress, she's the best of the best. But she's also unbelievably down-to-earth. She knew everyone on the set by name. She's appreciative of what other actors do. She has no entourage. It's like working with a British theatre actress: very unexpected and disarming in someone who has 16 Oscar nominations and two Academy Awards in the bag.

'The legend precedes her but she undercuts it all the time. It's endearing. Having seen every film she's been in, I expected her to be much more serious. Steve Martin [who starred with Streep in It's Complicated!] told me she was an irrepressible giggler -- and it's true: she is a constantly erupting volcano of laughter. She has this incredible sense of humour -- which came out when she burst into that Abba chorus.'

Grant, too, is not quite as I'd expected. Anyone recalling his breakthrough in the cult film Withnail And I -- which propelled him to fame 24 years ago -- associates him with the unhinged, irascible drunk of the title.

Then he went to Hollywood and established himself as a powerful character actor. His range encompasses a diverse array from The Player and LA Story to Gosford Park and Bright Young Things. He is now both screenwriter and director, living in Richmond, Surrey, with his wife of 25 years, voice coach Joan Washington.

Last winter, I interviewed him on set in an icy school hall playing a sinister headmaster in the forthcoming Horrid Henry: The Movie. After we'd exchanged a few terse words, I had him down as aloof. But later, off set, he was engaging, funny and disarmingly frank.

A fortnight after he finished filming Iron Lady we meet again. His dark hair still bears traces of the Heseltine-esque blond mane. Mercifully, though, he has discarded the stuck-on eyebrows. And now he is assuming a new role. Midway between an English master and a benign Simon Cowell, he is to mentor a gifted new screenwriter.

In the run-up to the 2012 London Olympic Games, Grant is teaming up with British Airways -- the Games' official airline partner -- in a competition to find a bright, emerging writing talent. The winning script will be made into a short film to be shown on flights and screened at the opening ceremony.

'Hopefully, it will flush out something exciting and original,' he says. 'The film will have a global platform which will be unprecedented for a newcomer, so I can't think of a better way to help someone with their first try.'

GRANT, who turns 54 next week, is lean, long-legged and still a keen athlete. The prospect of next year's Olympic hoopla clearly excites him hugely. 'I was in Sydney for the 2000 Games and the ebullience and positive feeling was extraordinary. …