Borders firm makes its mark on Iron Lady

Meryl-Streep-as-Margaret Thatcher
Meryl-Streep-as-Margaret Thatcher
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BORDERS cinema-goers enjoying the new smash-hit biopic about former prime minister Margaret Thatcher can be forgiven for thinking they are seeing things if they notice a model of the reiver figure from Galashiels war memorial on the Iron Lady’s mantelpiece.

The figurine, along with a number of others, was supplied by sculpture-makers Ballantynes of Walkerburn for the film, The Iron Lady, starring Oscar-tipped Meryl Streep in the title role.

Neil Ballantyne of Ballantynes of Walkerburn (centre) with staff members who all contribute to the art of figurine making.

Neil Ballantyne of Ballantynes of Walkerburn (centre) with staff members who all contribute to the art of figurine making.

It was almost two years ago that Ballantynes was asked to supply its military figurines as props for the production after the movie’s makers realised Mrs Thatcher had a love of military sculpture. Her home has numerous items on display, including at least one of those produced by Ballantynes, now the leading British manufacturer of this type of item.

The firm’s managing director and founder, Neil Ballantyne, and his staff had to keep the movie commission secret until after the film went on general release at the cinema.

“As well as our sculpture of the Border reiver from Galashiels war memorial, we also supplied sculptures of military figures from the First World War, as well as the Northern Ireland and Falkland Islands eras,” said Mr Ballantyne, a former captain with the Parachute Regiment.

“The call from Pinewood Studios came right out of the blue. The makers of the film had the use of Mrs Thatcher’s house, but they had to move all of her personal belongings out and fill it with props,” explained Mr Ballantyne.

Meryl-Streep-as-Margaret Thatcher

Meryl-Streep-as-Margaret Thatcher

“While they were doing this they found a military figurine which had our name on the bottom and so they got in touch and asked us if we could supply some pieces to be used as props in the film.

“We said, ‘no problem at all’, and shipped down two or three large boxes containing a selection of figurines.

“My wife, Michelle, and I went to the film recently when it came out and we had to do a double take when we saw a shot of Mrs Thatcher’s mantelpiece because our figure of the Border reiver was sitting on it.

“The film-makers had mainly wanted figurines depicting soldiers from the period of Mrs Thatcher’s premiership covering 10 years, including the Northern Ireland Falklands eras.”

Founded by Mr Ballantyne after he left the army in 1989, the company has gone on to become the major supplier of individually crafted presentation figurines to the various units, brigades, museums and charities of the British army and fire service. The range of figurines produced has steadily expanded over the years and the designs are now sought after and collected by people the world over.

Mr Ballantyne said this success is down to the high quality of the company’s 12 staff, all of whom – bar one – are from Innerleithen or Walkerburn.

“We are a highly unique company and are the best in the UK at what we do, and that is all down to the superblytrained craftspeople and staff we have working here,” Mr Ballantyne added.

Although the niche market his firm has carved out protected it from the worst effects of the recession and business continues to grow, Mr Ballantyne admitted it has not been easy, with more than 20 years of hard work and effort by all involved.

“It has been very difficult at times over the years, but you have got to just keep going. The internet has been a massive boon to us, but our success is down to the hard work of all involved.

“The fact the quality of our craftsmanship has been recognised by the makers of this Hollywood blockbuster just underlines the quality of the company’s staff.”

Asked if he had enjoyed The Iron Lady, Mr Ballantyne said for someone of his generation – he is 51 – it struck many chords.

“Being a former soldier with both the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and then the Parachute Regiment, the scenes concerning things like the Falklands I found very emotional.

“I think the film is really brilliant, as is Meryl Streep in the title role. What it made me realise was just how amazing it was that a woman had managed to become prime minister during the period depicted.

“Regardless of what you think of Mrs Thatcher’s politics, that was a phenomenal achievement in its own right.”

And what sculpture made by Ballantynes staff does Mrs Thatcher actually own? Mr Ballantyne revealed: “Ten years after the Falklands campaign a very large sculpture was commissioned to commemorate the Royal Marines’ role. We were asked if we could produce a smaller version – it is based on the famous image of the marine yomping towards Port Stanley with a Union Jack fluttering from his radio aerial.

“And the very first figurine in the series was presented to Mrs Thatcher.”