House of Cards (1990)

House of CardsSynopsis: Ian Richardson (From Hell, M. Butterfly) leads an all star cast in this malevolent satire of greed, corruption, and ambition in the highest realms of government. As Machiavellian monster Francis Urquhart, he schemes and backstabs his way to the top until he is standing on a pile of broken promises, betrayals, and the bodies of those who oppose him.

Every step of the way, Urquhart lays out his plans with horrifying wit and venomous charm. But the ranks of his enemies are growing, and they intend to bring him down, whatever the price.

Brilliantly adapted by Andrew Davies (Pride And Prejudice, Bridget Jones’s Diary), from Michael Dobb’s best-selling novel, this satirical trilogy took home a primetime Emmy, a Peabody, two BAFTAs and a Broadcasting Press Guild Award.

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House of Cards (1990) 8.0

eyelights: Ian Richardson. its insider’s look at political machinations.
eyesores: its accessibility. its exaggerated conclusion.

“You might very well think that; but I couldn’t possibly comment”

‘House of Cards’ is a 1990 BBC television mini-series based on Michael Dobbs eponymous novel (which inspired the U.S. television series, starring Kevin Spacey). It follows the manipulations of Francis Urquhart, Chief Whip to the Conservative Party, as he contrives the downfall of the newly-elected Prime Minister – with the eventual effect that he’d run for the Party’s leadership to take his place.

Ironically, it was released at the lead-in to the Conservative Party leadership convention that replaced Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with John Major. It is said that Major’s campaign HQ went silent during the broadcasts in order to watch it. In any event, the series was nominated for many awards, landing an Emmy for writing and a BAFTA for Ian Richardson’s performance as Urquhart.

A Shakespearian actor, Ian Richardson based his characterization of Urquhart on the bard’s interpretation of Richard III, making of him an amoral opportunist. His mastery of the character is fantastic: he gives Urquhart a veneer that only the audience can see through; we know that, behind his friendly and professional façade, is a Machiavellian puppet-master who uses his position to gather ammunition.

It’s all in a twinkle in his eye, or a subtle twist at the corner of his lips; Urquhart is merely pretending to be what is expected of him. But, in the back of his mind, he’s conspiring, positioning all the pieces in this political game of chess. Then, delighting in his machinations, he shares it with us by breaking the fourth wall, boasting of his brilliance – and making us complicit to his deeds.

This also serves the double purpose of explaining to the audience what has transpired and the consequences of his actions. Since the series is heavy on political maneuverings and the inner workings of power, it might not be entirely apparent to everyone exactly what is going on. By having Urquhart confide in the audience, as in a play, ‘House of Cards’ ensures that everyone can follow the plot.

The series consists of four parts.

The first part introduces us to Urquhart, who retains the post of Chief Whip under the new Prime Minister, but is bypassed for a cabinet post despite his years of experience and devotion to the party. This upsets him, naturally, and he begins to set up leaks, cause disarray and distrust inside the party, thereby shaking confidence in the PM. This sets up the pieces for the rest of the series.

Watching him do his work as Chief Whip, essentially trading favours with his party’s Members of Parliament, cleaning up after their messes (some of which he obviously set up) and discipline them showed just how clever and devious he was, just how much control he had in the party. It makes us respect his craftiness, even as it also shows us just how far he is willing to go to control his pawns.

The second part shows us for the first time just how cold and cruel he can truly be, when he makes Roger O’Neill the party public relations consultant use his girlfriend to sleep with a party leadership contender for future blackmail fodder. He also places the PM’s drunkard brother in a fabricated position of conflict of interest, so that the scandal can further erode the Prime Minister’s support.

The most surprising to me was how involved his spouse is. In order to attain the devotion of Mattie, a young newspaper reporter who is starry-eyed in his presence, she purposely leaves for their country home, allowing Urquhart to sleep with her. I could have imagined his spouse accepting indiscretions of his, but not actually facilitating them. We gradually discover that she is his Lady Macbeth.

The third part is the least interesting of the lot because it follows Mattie as she investigates the controversy surrounding the Prime Minister. ‘House of Cards’ then devolves into a slice of investigative journalism – most of which we are already aware of. So watching Mattie finding out the truth is of little interest to us. Especially when there is the ever more fascinating Urquhart to watch.

The final part of the mini-series bring its focus back on Urquhart as he finally throws his hat into the ring for the leadership of the Conservative Party. It shows him smearing and blackmailing the other contenders so that he can get the upper hand, all the while taking care of loose ends such as Roger and Mattie. It’s impossible to not watch all the dirty work on display here.

Unfortunately, Urquhart is far too involved in these events; given his position and ambitions, you’d think that he would want to keep some distance so that his hands aren’t too dirty. By not using henchmen to do his dirty work for him, he can be directly tied to any of the crimes being committed. I had a hard time with that, and with the ending, which was perhaps far too exaggerated, contextually-speaking.

But I did like that the show was left open-ended, because at least my concerns are left to be addressed another day; they aren’t just swept under the carpet or excused in some lame fashion. It should be noted that the mini-series departs from the book at the end, which caused the author to revise it years later, when he penned his two sequels to it, ‘To Play the King’ and ‘The Final Cut’.

I relished watching ‘House of Cards’. I not only enjoyed watching Urquhart’s Machiavellian brilliance, but I loved it because of its setting: the British have built up a reputation for stuffiness and propriety, and it’s an extra layer to consider when you watch them stab each other in the back, behind the scenes. It really makes you consider that what we see in politics isn’t really what it seems.

I can’t fathom enjoying the American version as much. The Americans are more overtly ambitious and the Chief Whip’s actions would likely seem less surprising in that context. But that’s okay. At four hours in length, I feel that there’s already plenty for me to sink my teeth into. Plus which Dobb’s two follow-ups were also brought to the small screen. I truly can’t wait to see in which corridors they will take us.

And where the cards will fall.

Dates of viewings: Jan 7-16, 2015

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