on 25 October 2008
Sorry about the title but it seems so apt - "After it, therefore because of it". I first saw this series when first broadcast way back when and I remember it being brilliant. However I have, in similar fashion, bought other series and programs from my dim and distant past released on DVD and been bitterly disappointed when I watched them (testament to a fading memory or a desperate attempt to cling on to my childhood). One or two exceptions (Edge of Darkness and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy being most notable) kept my faith. So, I bought it, unwrapped it, placed it in my DVD player and instantly lost the next 4 hours of my life! It is quite simply the best British TV drama the BBC has ever produced! Forget period time pieces (yes, ladies, even Mr. Darcy climbing out of a lake) this is the most engaging TV I have ever seen. Ian Richardson inexorably draws you in to his spider's web of intrigue, you become complicit when he confides in you directly through the camera and you end each episode feeling vaguely guilty and you're not sure why! If you remember HoC first time around, buy it! If you didn't see it first time around, buy it! If you simply appreciate first class, gripping drama and first rate acting, buy it! Otherwise, buy it anyway!
on 20 July 2004
Everything has been said about the artistic merits of this series. Yes, the acting is fantastic, yes the dialogue is sharp, sarcastic and very eloquent and the characters are just wonderfully entertaining to watch. But there are three main reasons why this series is legendary. First, the actual events overtaking the original broadcast with the resignation of Margaret Thatcher, second, the fantastic Ian Richardson, and third, the direct-to-camera acting of the main character, dragging the audience into his evil deeds. I taped the series when it was broadcast over here in Germany, I bought the tapes from the BBC and finally I own the whole thing on DVD. I know it by heart anyway, because I must have seen it a thousand times, and I'm still not tired of it, because Richardson alone makes this so entertaining.
Although the first installment is widely regarded to be the best, i agree with the first two episodes. They are the best of the whole series, and the finale on the rooftop is just shocking, but the overall best series for me always has been "To play the king" because Michael Kitchen is just fabulous as the monarch and strong opponent to Urquhart. The last series "The final cut" has this air of sadness all through it, and is basically a farewell to Urquharts character. He gets what he deserves for sure, but the viewer is left oddly unsatisfied with the end. It's just sad in my view. Overall it is almost eleven hours of high quality political satire with shocking moments, unforgettable bonmots and the best British acting has to offer.
House of Cards, a BBC production done at the time of Margaret Thatcher's downfall, is one of the best modern political intrigue/satires done. The cast, the story, and the exacting attention to detail make this a piece worth watching and re-watching, to see what details escaped notice the first time.
As the story opens, Thatcher has just resigned. There is a brief glimpse of an inner-party election for a new leader, and the moderate, middle candidate Henry Collingridge wins the post, and proceeds to barely win the next General Election. Almost immediately following this event, tempers begin to flare as Urqhart is denied the promotion he had sought, and is disgusted with Collingridge's 'politics as usual' stance.
Francis Urqhart, Conservative Party whip and functionary, with the unwitting assistance of a junior political reporter Mattie Storin, and the manipulated support of party functionary Roger O'Neill, sets out to undo the Prime Minister, involving the PM in scandals that rock his fragile majority and ever-loosening grip on power. Ultimately, Urqhart's schemes against Collingridge bring the PM down, and the stage is set for another leadership election.
Urqhart, at the urging of his wife Elizabeth, works toward the leadership and works toward solidifying the loyalties of his minions, who include the ruffian Tim Stamper, an associate whip in the Commons, and Benjamin Landless, a newspaper proprietor. However, it is in making Storin his bedroom partner and virtual worshipper that Urqhart has his strongest support; this support is not absolute, something he recognises. This relationship is done with the blessing, nay, with the urging, of his wife Elizabeth.
Urqhart uses his inside knowledge to make short work of all but the top contenders for the job, and then casts his lot for the job at the last moment, splitting the ticket. Knocking one contender against another one final time, Urqhart carries the election. However, O'Neill is unstable and unsure of the propriety of his dealings in bringing down Collingridge, and Storin realises at the last moment that she has been a pawn in a master political chess game. O'Neill's cocaine problem leads to his demise, as Urqhart plants poison in his drugs and permits O'Neill's nature to do him in. Storin discovers this murder plot, and confronts Urqhart, who confesses, but then proceeds to throw Mattie Storin bodily from the roof of the House of Commons.
But, there was a tape recorder running, setting the stage for the sequel...
`To Play the King' is the sequel, in which Urqhart matches forces against the newly installed King, played by Michael Kitchen. The King sees himself as the champion of the underdog and underclass Urqhart has abandoned, and it is a literal battle royale to the end. Storin has been replaced by Sarah Harding, who finds Urqhart is more than a match for her minor turncoating as well.
Finally, `The Final Cut' brings things full circle, as Urqhart beats Thatcher's record of unbroken days in office. However, his lust for power drives him into reckless foreign affairs, and his wife comes into her own with scheming beyond measure.
Ian Richardson is masterful as Urqhart, the scheming blackheart Chief Whip/Prime Minister. His voice, his subtle inflections and tones are perfect for the subtext in the words he speaks. His sidewise glances and knowing expressions to camera as the action plays out is worth far more than any words. He is a perfect snobbish, upper-class politico who considers political office as patrician right, and despises pretenders to the role.
Diane Fletcher is superb as Elizabeth Urqhart, the equally manipulative wife. She is under utilised in this part of the trilogy, coming into her own as a character and an actress in later parts of the trilogy. One gets the strong sense of muted ambition and greed, but not amorality or power for power's sake from her, a distinction hard to play out on video. Fletcher succeeds beautifully.
Susannah Harker plays Mattie Storin, the troubled, intelligent and inexperienced journalist who falls for Urqhart. Her psychological instability and intelligence are played beautifully. Harker can make quite a statement just with the movements of her eyes, making her a good counterpoint to Richardson.
Miles Anderson plays the drug addict/party operative Roger O'Neill, doing a good job at playing the cad, the coward, and the fearful go-along with Urqhart's schemes. A rat trapped, O'Neill is at the breaking point, and Anderson plays this admirably.
Perhaps the best secondary roles were performed by Alphonsia Emmanuel, who plays O'Neill's assistant and lover Penny Guy, and James Villiers, who plays Charles Collingridge, the deposed Prime Minister's troubled brother. Their roles shine brilliantly despite the relative lack of screen time.
In the second series, Michael Kitchen as the King and Kitty Aldridge as Sarah Harding take primary roles, and Colin Jeavons as Stamper repeats his performance of the earlier episode, this time with much more panache. In the third series, Isla Blair as Claire Carlsen and Paul Freeman make a good show, if not altogether convincing as the final opponents for Urqhart.
One gets the impression that everyone in British politics is brilliant and troubled. Well, the truth would be about half that.
The Play's the Thing...
This production, in writing and execution, is full of Shakespearean nuances. There are indirect and direct references to Richard III, and Urqhart is a Machiavellian manipulator in the Duke of Gloucester's image, recast for modern dress and situation, complete with stage whispers and asides to audience. The depth of the characters, while still remaining caricatures, is fascinating. Perhaps the best-known line for a while was Urqhart's attempts to get information out to the journalist Storin without actually telling her, and being guilty (by the letter of the law) for leaks and disclosures. She would hint and speculate, at which Urqhart would reply, `You might very well think that. I of course couldn't possibly comment.'
John Major used this response in one of his own question-time exchanges, a use that was appreciated by the Members on both sides of the House.
For those who know nothing of British politics, this is actually a fascinating way to learn. For those who take an interest in British politics, this provides an intriguing fictional tale that is, in many ways, so close to reality on so many levels as to be positively unnerving.
Richardson rightly won BAFTA awards for his portrayal of Urqhart in each of the three installments, House of Cards and its sequels To Play the King and The Final Cut. These sequels were possibly only because of a BBC change to Dobbs' original manuscript, which had Urqhart rather than Storin falling from the rooftop garden of the House of Commons.
A bonus for the viewer.