House of Cards

1990 | United Kingdom

The behind the scenes sniping that is seemingly always present in politics is the ideal subject for a drama series. All you need to do is magnify it a bit and away you go. Of course, if you just happen to be a politician turned author it’s even better and that’s just what former MP Michael Dobbs did with House of Cards.

Dobbs was a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher and deputy chair of the Conservative Party in John Major’s Government. He was described by the Guardian as Westminster's baby-faced hit man."

Broadcast in 1990, The first showing of the series had perfect timing as it was shown just two days before the Conservatives were holding an actual Party leadership election, but this was far more interesting than the election of John Major.

The best-selling novel was adapted for television by Andrew Davies whose work also includes To Serve Them All My Days and A Very Peculiar Practice. Ian Richardson played the main role of Francis Urquhart and the veteran Shakespearean actor based the politician on the bard’s version of Richard III. A major part of the series was when Urquhart would break the ‘fourth wall’ and talk to the audience at home often remarking "You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment".

Urquhart is the Chief Whip of the Conservative Party so used to getting his own way. When Margaret Thatcher resigns and is replaced by Henry Collingridge, Urquhart seeks promotion but the new PM refuses. Hell, hath no fury like a disappointed Chief Whip and with the full support of his wife, Elizabeth, played by Diane Fletcher, he sets out to ensure Coleridge isn’t PM for long.

As evil as Urquhart is, his wife is almost on the same level, a kind of Lady Macbeth character. She even gives her blessing to her husband’s affair with junior political journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) who refers to him as ‘Daddy’ as he tries to manipulate what her paper ‘The Chronicle’ will write.

The story progresses with scandal after scandal erupting with more leaks than a worn-out boat. Mind you, the fact that the public relations consultant is addicted to cocaine makes blackmailing him oh so easy. Urquhart must rarely see his constituents as he’s far too busy humiliating the PM and thanks to a dodgy shares deal, he finally gets Coleridge to resign.

Not wanting to be in the position where a successor doesn’t give him the job he wants, Urquhart announces his candidacy, though he makes out it’s not what he really wants. Cue more manipulation and scandals as he gets rid of most of his main opposition. He’s well on his way to becoming Prime Minister but Mattie is beginning to get suspicious of the fact barely a day goes by without some kind of scandal. She confronts him but does so on the roof garden of the Houses of Parliament, not the safest place to accuse someone and that’s confirmed when he throws her off the roof to her death, but we see her tape recorder full of evidence against Urquhart taken by an unknown person. The series ends with Urquhart becoming PM.

Those who had read the book were in for a bit of a surprise. Dobbs hadn’t imagined the possibility of a sequel let alone a trilogy of books on Urquhart, so he killed him off at the end of his novel. The BBC reckoned quite rightly they had a hit on their hands so were having none of that, so he survives allowing the series to be followed by ‘To Play the King’ and ‘The Final Cut’ show in 1993 and 1995 respectively.

Readers also wouldn’t have been expecting the sexual relationship between Urquhart and Mattie or the influence of his wife. It got even more confusing when the American version of the show came out in 2013 with Dobbs rewriting some of his book

Richardson deservedly won a Best Actor BAFTA in 1991 with Davies getting the Emmy for outstanding writing in a mini-series. Questions will be asked over which the best is, the English or American series, "You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment" doesn’t apply here, this is TV drama at its very best with a superb performance by Richardson.

Published on February 26th, 2019. Written by Steve Ashfield (2018) for Television Heaven.

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