House of Cards (BBC 1990) – Episode One

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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?

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House of Cards (BBC 1990) – Episode Two

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The beleaguered prime minster and his colleagues have decamped to Brighton for the party conference.  Urquhart acidly rates the performances of his colleagues, all of whom are subtly auditioning for the PM’s job.

Michel Samuels (“Intelligent, sensitive, caring – all in the same sentence, I bet you”). Peter McKenzie (“God, what an idiot that man is”). Harold Earle is dismissed with a shake of the head, which leaves Patrick Woolton (“The man’s a lout, of course. A lout. A lecher. An anti-Semite. A racist. And a bully. He is however more intelligent than he seems.”)

Woolton is a clear and present danger, so Urquhart once again seeks the help of Roger O’Neill or more specifically, O’Neill’s assistant Penny Guy (Alphonsia Emmanuel). Ian Richardson displays the steel that lies just below Urquhart’s surface when he requests her services, although not for himself. “Shut up. Did you really think I wanted her?”  Instead, Urquhart requests she resume her relationship with Woolton (for reasons which will become clearer later om).

Alphonsia Emmanuel seems to have dropped off the radar in recent years (only one film/television credit post 1998) which is a pity, as she was always a very watchable presence. And every time I see her, it reminds me that Rockliffe’s Babies still remains unavailable on DVD. Maybe one day ….

When Roger suggests that she might like to join Woolton for dinner, there’s a real spark of anger.  “Pimping now, is it? Don’t you care about me at all? Don’t you care what I do?”  The anger quickly fades though and she agrees – which means her energetic love-making with Woolton is recorded by Urquhart (in a lovely scene, where he’s sitting upright in his bed, wearing a pair of headphones).  It’s another piece of insurance, to be used at the appropriate time.

Urquhart’s schemes continue apace.  He convinces Woolton that should Henry Collingridge stand down, he’d be the best man for the job.  Later, he also convinces the boorish newspaper magnate Ben Landless (Kenny Ireland) that Collingridge is yesterday’s man – and the power of the press is a powerful weapon.  Like so much of the story, it’s possible to find real-life parallels (how often has the press been gulity of creating, rather than shaping, public opinion?)  Landless is a rather unsubtle amalgam of the two most famous newspaper and media magnates of the time, Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell.  I’m not quite sure exactly what accent Ireland was attempting, but he impresses nonetheless.

Mattie has an encounter in the bar with the PM’s frequently drunken brother Charles Collingridge.  It’s only a short scene, but James Villiers makes it a memorable one.  “Lord, you are a pretty girl.  Oh, no offence. I’ve got a daughter your age. Lovely girl. Lovely face. Never, never see her. Own fault. Water under the thingy.”

The full revelations of the fake financial scandal engineered by Urquhart seem to spell the end of Henry Collingridge’s career and the episode closes on the developing relationship between Urquhart and Mattie.  Elizabeth Urquhart suggested that there was one way to ensure Mattie’s total loyalty and we see the first steps taken here.

Once again, we see Urquhart standing over the seated Mattie, reinforcing his dominance over her.  He pretends to be surprised at the way the conversation has gone and tells her he’s old enough to be her father.  When she responds that maybe that has something to do with it, after a beat he sits down and tells her that “oddly enough, I always wanted a daughter.”

House of Cards (BBC 1990) – Episode Three

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Henry Collingridge calls an emergency cabinet meeting and announces his immediate resignation.  He thanks all of his colleagues for their friendship and loyalty – at least those who feel that the words apply to them.  Later, he visits his brother in the private nursing home where he’s drying out and emotionally tells him that he’s glad it’s all over and he won’t have to fight the “bastards” anymore.  This is another scenario that has an eerie ring of truth (John Major, after shortly surviving a vote of confidence in 1993, was equally scathing about some of his cabinet colleagues).

Afterwards, Urquhart once again addresses the watching audience.  “Not feeling guilty, I hope. If you have pangs of pity, crush them now. Grind them under your heel like old cigar butts. I’ve done the country a favour. He didn’t have the brain or the heart or the stomach to rule a country like Great Britain. A nice enough man, but there was no bottom to him. His deepest need was that people should like him. An admirable trait, that. In a spaniel or a whore.  Not, I think in a Prime Minster.”  It’s even more impressive that he delivers this speech whilst standing at a urinal!

Urquhart is content to let others announce their desire to stand first, he’ll enter the race later in the day.  He can count on powerful friends when he does though, as he has the support of Ben Landless and his media empire.  Landless tells him that he’ll do everything he can to get him elected – and he’ll expect Urquhart to be grateful for evermore.  It’s another moment that feels horrifyingly like real life.

But there’s a subtle shift in this episode.  It’s less about Urquhart’s scheming and more about Mattie’s dogged investigations.  As the title suggests, a House of Cards may be a substantial structure, but it only takes one small movement to bring the whole edifice crashing down.  And the first stirrings happen when Mattie refuses to drop the investigation into the share scandal (even though she’s been moved off the political section of the Chronicle and onto Women’s Features).

It seems clear that Henry Collingridge couldn’t have bought the shares, since he convinces her that he’s not got a great deal in the old brain box.  So did somebody set him and his brother up?  Urquhart tries to warn Mattie off by sending Roger O’Neill round to her house (to throw a brick through the window and daub her car in paint).  This backfires when Penny confesses to Mattie that Roger was responsible, although she pleads with her not to go the police – in Roger’s current state he could easily commit suicide.

O’Neill is another link to Urquhart, but he convinces Mattie that he’s the best person to speak to O’Neill and find out exactly what he knows.  Poor, easily manipulated Roger O’Neill isn’t long for this world you’d fear ….

At present, there’s no doubt that Mattie believes everything that Francis Urquhart says.  But the problem is that she won’t stop digging.  He takes her to bed, which may be a way of earning her loyalty, but even here there’s the sense that Mattie is subtly (if unconsciously) maneuvering herself into a position of power.

Their meeting in the study is another spellbinding scene, played so well by both Richardson and Harker.  The scene alternates between tight one shots of both actors until Urquhart agrees to her request and they move into the frame together.  But what can she call him?  She doesn’t want to call him Francis and he says that calling him Chief Whip hardly seems appropriate.  After a few beats she says “I want to call you daddy.”  She has to repeat this to the (shocked?) Urquhart, but although he says nothing, the kiss seems to seal the agreement.

So can Francis Urquhart count on Mattie’s loyalty?  At present it seems so, but he isn’t aware that she’s been secretly tape-recording all of their meetings …..

House of Cards (BBC 1990) – Episode Four

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The first ballot for the Conservative leadership election is six days away and Francis Urquhart has finally thrown his hat into the ring.  Patrick Woolton and Michael Samuels are formidable opponents, but Urquhart and his faithful shadow, Tim Stamper, can certainly deal with some of the others, such as McKenzie and Earl.

Ian Richardson and Colin Jeavons make a deliciously entertaining team.  Both have immaculate timing and obviously relish the lines they’re given.  Urquhart begins by mentioning Samuels, the health minister and wonders if they can work something at his next public appearance.  Stamper acidly tells him that he “doesn’t go to hospitals anymore. Kept getting beaten up by the nurses  I think he has trouble getting insured now.”  But a visit to Cybertech (a wheelchair maker) serves just as well and a demonstration is engineered which culminates with Samuels mowing down a demonstrator in a wheelchair.  One down …..

Next up is Harold Earle.  He was tangled up with a rent-boy on a train some years ago (although it was all hushed up).  Urquhart wryly observes that it would be very bad form to bring it all up again but Stamper counters that “getting sucked off for sixpence in a second class compartment is hardly prime ministerial behaviour.”  A few pictures sent to Earle is enough to convince him that he should step down from the race.

After the first ballot, neither Urquhart, Woolton and Samuels have a clear majority – so a second ballot is called.  The sex tape from Brighton (with Penny and an enthusiastic Woolton) is now pressed into service and this is enough to force Woolton out of the running,  He proclaims his support for Urquhart (which should be enough to guarantee his victory).  Patrick Woolton later tells his wife the reason why he decided to support Urquhart  – and it wasn’t out of friendship.  He believes that Samuels and Lord Billsborough engineered his downfall, so whilst he may dislike Urquhart he detests Samuels.  Another small detail that feels very true to life is when he tells her that it’s also worth supporting Urquhart because he’s the older man.  Old men die sooner and the sooner Urquhart dies, the quicker Patrick Woolton will be back.

With the house of cards beginning to wobble, Urquhart has to go to even greater lengths to protect himself.  Roger O’Neill is clearly a liability, so Urquhart invites him down to his country house, gets him drunk and then laces his cocaine with rat poison.  Whilst he’s doing this, he makes the following speech to camera.  His soft, matter-of-fact delivery is truly chilling.  “This is an act of mercy. Truly. You know the man now. You can see he has nowhere to go. He’s begging to be set free. He’s had enough. And when he’s finally at rest, then we’ll be free to remember the real Roger. The burning boy in the green jersey. With that legendary, fabulous sidestep and the brave, terrified smile.”

But even this isn’t enough to stop Mattie’s investigations.  Thanks to a replay of her various audio tapes (and it’s remarkable how each tape she puts into her recorder plays at exactly the right point!) she begins to piece everything together and starts to believe the unbelievable.

She finds Urquhart at the House of Commons roof-garden and their final meeting (a complete reversal from Dobbs’ novel) is a justly memorable one.  And with an unseen hand picking up Mattie’s tape-recorder (which contains Urquhart’s confession) it’s clear that the story is far from over.

As I’ve previously said, this is a thoroughly modern drama that really doesn’t seem to be twenty-five years old (only the slightly clunky computers date it).  Ian Richardson and Susannah Harker, either together or apart, are incredibly watchable.  Richardson imbues Francis Urquhart with a mocking, attractive persona (except on the odd occasion when real anger shows through).  Harker’s Mattie Storin is, at different times, both manipulated and a manipulator.

It’s a memorable production and easily the strongest of the House of Cards trilogy.