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.