To Play the King

To Play the KingSynopsis: Urqhart Is Back!

Ian Richardson (From Hell, M. Butterfly) returns as villainous statesman Francis Urquhart in this acclaimed sequel to the Masterpiece Theater thriller House Of Cards.

The sardonic statesman’s Machiavellian schemes have brought him to the pinnacle of government, but at the moment of his triumph, an idealistic and determined young King stands in his way. How far will Urquhart go to maintain his grip on his growing power? As he threatens to expose a royal scandal, he seems unstoppable, but someone out there knows the secret that could bring him down.

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.


To Play the King 7.75

eyelights: Ian Richardson. the King’s principles. the spouse’s surprising ruthlessness.
eyesores: Urquhart’s uncharacteristic weakness.

“God save the King.”

Broadcast in 1993, ‘To Play the King’ is the direct follow-up to the original ‘House of Cards‘ mini-series. It was adapted from the eponymous novel by Michael Dobbs, and this time it takes us in the corridors of power, with Francis Urquhart now firmly entrenched as Great Britain’s Prime Minister.

Once again, it stars Ian Richardson in the lead, and he is an absolute marvel to watch. With a twinkle in his eye, he breaks the fourth wall to let us in on each devilish move Urquhart makes. But Richardson doesn’t just paint him as a Machiavellian manipulator, he also gives him layers of vulnerability.


But never weakness: his Urquhart steels himself soon after being shaken and lunges for the throat of any opponent. Still, in this series, he does need a little bit more moral support from his spouse, who is even more callous and plotting than we’d ever envisioned. She might even be his match.

Interestingly, she doesn’t figure as much in the original novel as she does here. It is one of many substantive changes that were made in the adaptation from page to screen. Even more interesting is the fact that Dobb’s book was in fact a continuation of the first mini-series – not his own novel.

So why not follow his blueprint, then?

In any case, ‘To Play the King’ revolves around Urquhart’s confrontations with the new monarch, who has just ascended to the throne following the death of the Queen. Not one to tolerate any form of opposition to his government, the PM decides to neuter this new King before he gets too ballsy.

The first episode is the set-up, including the initial confrontation. It’s a bit like a soap opera (Urquhart enlists a pollster to be his “slave”, Mattie’s death troubles his conscience, and the infamous tape recorder resurfaces), with the filmmakers putting all the pieces in place for a really dramatic series.

What’s interesting is that there are nods to the current Queen and the Lady Diana affair (ex: threats are made to a banished member of the Royal Family for her to keep her secrets; the King’s spouse is vaguely reminiscent of Lady Di). And yet this was broadcast four years prior to the death of Lady Di.

So it clearly wasn’t inspired by those events. (Perhaps it was the other way around… kind of like ‘Wag the Dog‘ and the Clinton sex scandal) (Wild conspiracy theory stops now!)

The new King is a principled man, but he’s anxious and unsure of himself. He is prodded onward by his political advisor, an idealist who sees potential in him: he meets with all the opposition parties to try to band them together in support of his position – to better the life of British commoners.

However, Urquhart is furious with the King’s disloyalty and interference; he decides to put in place the pieces of the King’s defeat. He even spreads the rumour of an election, planning to ask the people to support his government in the face of this opposition – which he fully intends to smite.

But he’s beginning to face some internal problems, and has to rein in some of his closest confidants. Stamper, in particular, is disappointed that he’s not getting the appointment he wanted and claims was promised to him. He may prove to be more dangerous than the PM ever anticipated…

As expected, I rather liked ‘To Play the King’.

While I found Urquhart’s machinations less impressive in this series, I was rather taken with his confrontations with the King. Showdowns, really, these duels of words were! Seeing the King stand his ground was delicious; I’ve never seen Urquhart as upset (livid, actually) as he was after these meetings!

Richardson remains phenomenal to watch. His voice control and body language show total mastery. It’s brilliant stuff, yet again. It’s surprising that he didn’t win the BAFTA for Best Actor (after winning for ‘House of Cards’). But perhaps it’s all in the material, which wasn’t nearly as empowering this time.

Still, while the first series was stronger, ‘To Play the King’ was appealing because it took an unexpected tack in putting the PM and the King in opposition; I enjoyed that twist. I especially liked the King, who was the antithesis to the utterly unprincipled Urquhart. It brought balance to the mix.

Thus, I’m a big fan of the series thus far.

I was disappointed that Urquhart seemed less in control here, however, and that the final stretch seemed hurried, perhaps too loose to be satisfying. But it’s a fitting follow-up, and I very much look forward to seeing what will transpire in the last part of this series, ‘The Final Cut’.

What will Urquhart do next? Who will he play next? Whose throat will he cut?

Post scriptum: I’m also a bit curious to see if the U.S. version of the series will continue to follow the British storyline, or if it will split off completely. What could possibly substitute the King, I wonder…? I will no doubt check it out one day, perhaps once the series has wrapped up completely.

Dates of viewings: Feb 3-20, 2015

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