The story behind The Crown: Margaret Thatcher’s son Mark goes missing in Sahara desert during Paris-Dakar rally

The two most powerful women in Britain are united in motherhood when Margaret Thatcher’s son Mark is reported missing in season 4 of Netflix’s royal drama The Crown.

By Rhys Lewis Published: 15 November 2020 - 10.56am
Geoff Bruce/Getty

Season 4 of Netflix’s royal drama The Crown explores the relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s first woman Prime Minister – two powerful women and both mothers but with very different attitudes to their roles and to life.

In episode 4, entitled The Favourite, Mrs Thatcher – played by Gillian Anderson – breaks down during her weekly audience with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. The Prime Minster explains that her son Mark, who she calls “my favourite” has gone missing in the Sahara desert during the Paris-Dakar Rally.

In the drama series, the incident leads the Queen, played by Olivia Colman, to consider which of her four children is her favourite.

Mark Thatcher’s disappearance gripped the country for almost a week in January 1982 and, amid rising unemployment, civil unrest and a struggling economy, showed the Prime Minister as a mother, rather than a politician. 

Gillian Anderson plays Margaret Thatcher in The Crown Netflix

Thatcher, 28, his co-driver and mechanic had last been spotted two days previously, driving in convoy with two other cars near the border between Mali and Algeria. It later transpired that they had become separated after stopping to repair a damaged rear axle.

The Prime Minister’s son, a motor racing enthusiast, had taken part in the Le Mans 24 Hour race in 1980 and 1981. He was then asked by his co-driver in 1981, Anne-Charlotte Verney, to take on the gruelling Paris-Dakar Rally, but later admitted making no special preparations for it.

The trio, driving a Peugeot 504, waited for help and told the other members of their convoy to report their position. Unfortunately, these cars’ crews passed on the wrong location to the rally's organisers. With only a compass to help them navigate, Thatcher and his team were hopelessly lost.

Margaret Thatcher Getty

It was only after the rally organisers had failed to find the lost Peugeot crew that Mrs Thatcher intervened, calling the Algerian ambassador for help. The official search utilised four Algerian planes and a helicopter, plus three French aircraft and a diverted RAF Hercules.

Thatcher’s father Denis flew out to Algeria to assist with the hunt while the Prime Minister, naturally upset at her son’s disappearance, faced television reporters looking unusually stressed, telling them: "I'm afraid there is no news".

After six days, with the crew’s supply of food running low and water rationed to two cups each a day, they were finally spotted by an Algerian air force plane. Thatcher and his father were reunited and flown back to the UK in the Algerian presidential jet.

Mark Thatcher Gamma-Rapho/Getty

He claimed to have not been distressed by his dilemma, saying: "When [they] didn't come back for us in the first day I remember planning to be out there…for two weeks. That was very important psychologically. I was never scared for my life."

After the crew were found, a celebration dinner was held which ran up an extensive bill, leading to the Foreign Office being contacted after local police became involved. Mrs Thatcher was forced to cover the bill from her own pocket.

The bad publicity generated by the story led Bernard Ingham, Mrs Thatcher’s press secretary, when asked what Mark Thatcher could do to help the Conservatives in the 1987 General Election, to respond: “Leave the country”.

Mark Thatcher did in fact leave the UK in 1986 and has lived all over the world since. In 2005 he given a four-year suspended sentence and a fine in South Africa in relation to a coup d'état attempt Equatorial Guinea.

Season 4 of The Crown is now available to watch on Netflix.

Watch The Crown seasons 1-3 on Netflix.

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