When the first episode of House of Cards was transmitted, on the 18th of November 1990, it was perfect timing since Margaret Thatcher had announced her resignation as Prime Minister earlier the same week.
Michael Dobbs’ novel House of Cards, published in 1989, tells the story of a completely unscrupulous politician, Francis Urquhart, who manages to lie, cheat and murder his way to the position of Prime Minister following Mrs Thatcher’s departure.
Dobbs had held a senior position in the Conservative Party, so there’s very much a ring of truth to his writing. And although it was highly topical twenty-five years ago, it’s hardly dated at all – indeed, its theme of power-hungry and amoral politicians is probably just as relevant in 2015 as it was back then.
Andrew Davies adapted Dobbs novel and made several key changes. One difference was the twisted relationship between Urquhart and Mattie (in the novel they only meet a few times and are never intimate). Davies decided that “Mattie can have an affair with Urquhart, and let’s make it kinky, she can call him Daddy when they’re doing it.”
By far the greatest change was the ending. In Dobbs’ novel, Urquhart commits suicide after being confronted with evidence of his crimes. It’s a neat, moral ending but Davies decided to do something arguably more realistic, which led the way open for an intriguing sequel.
Dominating the four episodes was Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart. Richardson had already many notable credits to his name (such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Porterhouse Blue) but the House of Cards trilogy would prove to be his signature role. In another change from Dobbs’ novel, Davies chose to have Urquhart make numerous asides to the audience. This breaking of the fourth wall (an unusual dramatic device in modern drama) was a masterstroke as it gave Richardson an incredible amount of scope to directly share his innermost thoughts and feelings.
Episode one opens with Urquhart mourning the departure of Mrs Thatcher (albeit with a faint ironical smile). “Nothing lasts forever. Even the longest, most glittering reign must come to an end some day.”
But who could replace her? As Urquhart says, there’s plenty of contenders and he gives us a brief summation of each of them. Lord Bilsborough (“Too old and too familiar. Tainted by a thousand shabby deals”). Michael Samuels (“Too young. And too clever). Patrick Woolton (“Bit of a lout. Bit of a bully-boy”). Henry Collingridge (“The people’s favourite. A well-meaning fool. No background and no bottom”).
What’s absolutely clear is that, at this time, Urquhart has no thoughts about the job himself. He’s content to serve and after Collingridge wins both the election as party leader and the General Election (although with a greatly reduced majority) he looks forward to the senior cabinet position he was promised.
But Collingridge (David Lyon) tells him that he’s much more valuable to the party if he remains as Chief Whip. This snub is the motivating factor in convincing Urquhart that Collingridge should go and that he would make a much better PM. But he still requires a push from his wife, Elizabeth (Diane Fletcher), before he starts to scheme in earnest.
This is another change from the novel, as Mrs Urquhart is a much more central figure in Andrew Davies’ adaptation. And just as Davies drew on Jacobean Theatre to craft Urquhart’s asides to the audience, it’s clear to see how Elizabeth acts as a Lady Macbeth figure, urging her initially unsure husband on the path to absolute power.
That same night, he’s visited by Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker), a young journalist working for the Chronicle. She’s desperate to know the thinking behind Collingridge’s lack of cabinet reappointments following the election and hopes that Urquhart will explain the reason why. Harker is perfect as the ingenuous Mattie who Urquhart instantly realises can be manipulated to serve his own ends.
The pupil/master feeling is enhanced thanks to the way Paul Seed shot their initial meeting in Urquhart’s study. For part of the scene, Richardson is standing whilst Harker remains seated. This means that Mattie has to constantly look up to Urquhart, placing her in a subservient position (this simple staging helps to instantly establish his dominance over her).
After he’s fed Mattie some misinformation, Urquhart begins to manipulate all those around him who may be useful. They include the charming, but unstable cocaine addict Roger O’Neill (a lovely, twitchy performance by Miles Anderson) as well as the Prime Minister’s drunken brother Charles (a typically fine turn from James Villiers).
Other key characters who will figure in the story later on are also introduced, such as Urquhart’s number two, Tim Stamper (Colin Jeavons). He’s got little to do in this one, but Jeavons is always so watchable (observe the slight hurt on his face when Urquhart asks him to step out of the office when Roger O’Neill enters. It’s the smallest of moments, but it helps, even this early on, to sell the idea that his loyalty may be called into question one day).
Before this, they both enjoy dressing down a rather pathetic MP called Stoat (Raymond Mason). After Urquhart tells Stoat that he’s been able to persuade the police not to proceed, he goes on to say that “if you must use whores, for God’s sake go to a decent knocking-shop where they understand the meaning of discretion. Stamper will give you a list if you don’t know any yourself.” After the unfortunate Stoat has left, Stamper says that “if I had a dog like that, I’d shoot it.”
Thanks to a system of embarrassing leaks engineered by Urquhart, Collingridge begins to feel the pressure. And all the time Urquhart continues to pretend to be his most loyal supporter. He reckons that one more scandal should finish him off – maybe a nice, juicy financial one which involves his brother?