Political drama doesn't get more near the knuckle than Michael Dobbs' House of Cards
trilogy, adapted for the screen by Andrew Davies and originally broadcast in the post-Thatcher years of the early 1990s. A splendid dissection of naked ambition, greed and rampant hypocrisy in the corridors of power, the original four-part series House of Cards
documents in thrilling detail the rise of Tory Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (magnificent Ian Richardson), a man who likes to "put the stick about a bit" and has unwavering contempt for those with "no background, no bottom". With the downfall of Margaret Thatcher, a bitter internecine power struggle ensues within the Conservative Party. Urquhart schemes more devilishly than Iago to depose Thatcher's colourless John Major-style successor. And even Machiavelli would baulk at Urquhart's methods: any and every act--including murder--are legitimate as the end very much justifies the means. Idealistic journalist Matti Storin (Susannah Harker) becomes embroiled in Urquhart's nefarious plans (and ends up in his bed) as she attempts to question him about what's really going on: "You might think so, I couldn't possibly comment," is Urquhart's mantra of hypocrisy.
In To Play the King, the second part of the trilogy, we find our anti-hero comfortably installed as PM at No. 10 but facing a fresh challenge in the person of the newly crowned King (Michael Kitchen in a pitch-perfect Prince Charles impersonation), who wears his social conscience on his sleeve and publicly opposes Urquhart's hardline policies. With the help of political analyst and new mistress Sarah Harding (Kitty Aldridge), as well as that of his ambitious wife Elizabeth (Diane Fletcher), Urquhart is forced to resort to still more underhand plots. Then, in The Final Cut, we find Urquhart determined to last as long in office as Mrs Thatcher (whose statue, much to his chagrin, is about to be unveiled in front of his window). But ambitions to make a mark on the world stage, as well as his wife's desire to provide themselves a comfortable retirement nest egg, lead him into the choppy international waters of the Cyprus situation. The temptations of corrupt businessmen and his wife's goading might just have pushed Urquhart's luck too far this time.
Throughout, Richardson is a delight as the hypocritical, arrogant patrician who loathes the hoi polloi whose favour he must court at election time, and manipulates all his minions with a ruthless singlemindedness of purpose. However much a monster he seems, though, the viewer might just find themselves secretly admiring his determination and his lion-like strength of will: in contrast to many drab modern politicians, at least he knows what he wants, and makes sure he gets it. If it's strong leadership you want, Urquhart's your man.
On the DVD: The House of Cards trilogy has the three four-part series on three double-sided discs, with two hour-long episodes on each side of each disc. The first episodes come with a commentary from Andrew Davies and Ian Richardson, who share their memories and anecdotes. --Mark Walker
Box set containing the Urquhart trilogy: three series based on the bestselling novels by Michael Dobbs, starring Ian Richardson as corrupt politician Francis Urquhart. In 'House of Cards', Urquhart is a long-serving MP who has his eye on the top job, and will stop at nothing to fulfil his ambition. As the trusted Chief Whip, he has insider knowledge that could bring down the already precarious Prime Minister, and in order to unleash his power he draws innocent young journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) into his schemes. 'To Play the King' continues to follow Urquhart's career. Having been made Prime Minister at the end of the last series after murdering an investigative reporter, he now crosses swords with the newly crowned monarch (Michael Kitchen) - a passionate man with firm liberal beliefs on the future of the country. In the final part of the trilogy, 'The Final Cut', Urquhart is well on his way to becoming Britain's longest-serving Prime Minister, and is starting to plan his retirement. He still has the Cyprus peace treaty to tie up, however, and the dark secrets from his past are beginning to come back to haunt him.Important product note:
The DVDs in this box set play on both sides, and therefore no printed information or artwork appears on the discs.