I stayed up way past my bedtime Saturday night when I found that Connecticut Public Television was airing the four-part 1990 BBC series House of Cards. The screenplay was adapted by Andrew Davies from a novel by Michael Dobbs, former chief of staff at the Conservative Party.
They’ve made an American version starring Kevin Spacey, but this is the original British version, set at the end of the reign of Margaret Thatcher, as conservative members of Parliament elbow one another to become prime minister.
Ian Richardson is fiendishly delightful as Francis Urquhart, who speaks directly to the viewer, introducing the principals, and guiding us through intricacies of the political process.
Urquhart is chief whip of the Conservative Party, marshalling the ‘back benchers’ and ‘putting a bit of stick about to watch them jump.’
He knows everybody’s foibles and peccadillos, and he uses his knowledge to take down his rivals, one by one, all the while seeming to be the loyal party man who has everyone’s back in a tight spot.
Most of the time he has this devilish twinkle in his eye, and he looks a great deal like my grandfather, so he’s really the most lovable villain since J.R. Ewing.
The backdrops are wonderful — the chambers of Parliament, Urquhart’s town house and his country home and the famous landmarks of London, and the cast is absolutely brilliant.
Susannah Harker gives a magnificent performance at Mattie Storin, a young journalist befriended by Urquhart, and the two have these exquisitely crafted interchanges where Mattie guesses what’s going on and when she’s right, urquardt says, “You might think that, Mattie. I couldn’t possibly comment.”
Diane Fletcher plays Urquhart’s wife Margaret, who is complicit in all his dastardly deeds and even suggests he have an affair with Mattie, who seems to have an Electra complex, because she likes to call him ‘Daddy.’
Miles Anderson does a star turn as Michael O’Neill, the cocaine addict/party public relations director, who is compelled to further Urquhart’s schemes, and Alphonsia Emmanuel does a great job as his beautiful mixed-race girlfriend Penny Guy, who bears a striking resemblance to Diana Rigg, my favorite actress of all time, and the only one who ever played the part of Mrs. James Bond.
Another great character actor, Colin Jeavons, plays Urquhart’s ruthless henchman, aptly named Tim Stamper. Jeavons is an experienced villain, having also portrayed Uriah Heep in David Copperfield, Adolph Hitler and Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, Dr. Moriarty.
The series was a huge success in Britain and the United States and the BBC followed it with two sequels based on Dobbs’ novels To Play the King and The Final Cut, which follow Urqhart’s career as prime minister.
Of course he continues his nefarious ways: whenever he wants to get rid of someone he has their car blown up and it’s blamed on the Irish Republican Army.
The fact that Francis Urquhart’s initials are ‘F U’ is deliberate. That’s why the star of the American series is named Frank Underwood.