A DARK TALE OF GREED, CORRUPTION AND BURNING AMBITION.
Michael Dobbs, who is now The Lord Dobbs of Wylye, knew what he was doing when he wrote the novel “House of Cards”. Depicting a Conservative Party dominated by dark schemes and dishonorable gentlemen, Dobbs must have drawn from his rich experiences as an advisor to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chief of Staff of the party. He was once called “Westminster’s baby-faced hit man” by The Guardian. Dobbs knew the dirty deals that were made behind the curtains all right. “House of Cards” may be a wicked fantasy, but so many aspects of its story ring true.
As stated early in the first episode of this miniseries adaptation of the novel, “Nothing lasts forever. Even the longest, the most glittering reign must come to an end someday.” Viewers are led to understand that Thatcher has just resigned and the race to nominate a new leader of the party (and since the Conservatives are in power, a new prime minister) is on. Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) invites us to watch the jockeying behind the scenes. He is the Chief Whip, a dapper gentleman whom no one could mistake for having ambitions… but he does and the only people who know are his wife Elizabeth (Diane Fletcher) and we in the audience, his confidants whom he tells everything.
When the unremarkable Hal Collingridge (David Lyon) wins the contest and becomes the next Prime Minister, Urquhart is dismayed. For the good of the country (what else?), he sets a devious plan in motion, involving the seduction of a bright reporter (Susannah Harker) with daddy issues…
Political intrigues are knowingly staged
Dobbs was inspired by the great Shakespeare tragedies and Richardson looked to “Richard III” in particular for his interpretation of Francis Urquhart. The character became his most famous and he is totally mesmerizing as the devilishly clever politician, exuding charisma to the degree that the romance between him and the much younger reporter becomes believable. Every detail in his performance, from his subtle mannerisms to the way he laces his lines with either sugar or acid, seems to come naturally and is a marvel to behold. Every time Richardson breaks the fourth wall and tells us something of value, we hang on his every word.
He is supported by an exceptional cast, especially Harker as Mattie, the reporter who comes to believe in Urquhart as a leader Britain might need, but who is eventually destroyed by both her investigative talents and the feelings she harbors for him. The political intrigues are relevant of course regardless of which party is in power, and knowingly staged throughout the miniseries, complete with sex, drugs and smear campaigns… but there are a few minor problems. Urquhart’s wife is completely in on his scheme, but her background is never covered; we’re left wondering about their marriage.
The final scene is a shocker that reveals a nearly impossibly psychopathic trait in Urquhart. One is still willing to accept it, because everything is so well orchestrated… but on some level the filmmakers do go too far in their depiction of naked ambition. There is something about his final action and subsequent chilly aside to us that breaks the realism of the preceding intrigues.
Jim Parker’s engaging title theme has an elegance that is matched by Urquhart’s façade. The most brilliant aspect of the miniseries is how every human weakness is depicted as tools in the hands of the Chief Whip. He will stab you in the back with one of the tools, and never look like anything but a saint to you and the general public.
House of Cards 1990-Britain. Made for TV. 220 min. Color. Produced by Ken Riddington. Directed by Paul Seed. Teleplay: Andrew Davies. Novel: Michael Dobbs. Music: Jim Parker. Cast: Ian Richardson (Francis Urquhart), Susannah Harker (Mattie Storin), Miles Anderson (Roger O’Neill), Malcolm Tierney, Diane Fletcher, Colin Jeavons.
Trivia: Originally shown in four episodes. Followed by two additional miniseries, starting with To Play the King (1993). Remade in the U.S. as House of Cards (2013-2018).
Quote: “You might well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.” (Richardson’s catchphrase)
Last word: “Urquhart was a wicked character but Richardson portrayed him in such a way that everybody loved it. In anybody else’s hands, that role could have fallen flat on his face. […] Even John Major’s leadership campaign in 1990 came to a halt at 9 p.m. on a Sunday night so that the whole campaign team could sit down and see what was happening.” (Dobbs, MSNBC)