Friday, 19 June 2015


Francis Urquhart became the new British Prime Minister after a merciless rise to power. Now he will let nothing or no one stand his way. Neither the ghosts from the past, nor the recently crowned King. 

To Play the King (1993), the second BBC drama serial in the House of Cards trilogy based on the books by Michael Dobbs, is available since May on French Region 2 DVD from Koba Films as "House of Cards - Saison 2".

« A new king. A new age of hope and peace and spiritual growth, et cetera. And I'm still here for my sins. »

Ian Richardson returns as Francis Urquhart (nicknamed "FU"), the scheming politician created by British author Michael Dobbs, an ex-advisor to Margaret Thatcher and former Tory official, in his realistic 1989 political thriller House of Cards. Scriptwriter Andrew Davies adapted the novel in 1990 as a BBC serial helmed by Paul Seed. Davies made his Urquhart address the audience directly like Richard III. He developed the character of Francis's wife as a modern Lady Macbeth. He also modified Urquhart's relationship with journalist Mattie Storin and reversed the ending.

The Shakesperean portrayal of Francis Urquhart by the amazing Richardson and his "You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment." left their mark on popular culture. Michael Dobbs brought back FU in To Play The King (1992) and The Final Cut (1994). Andrew Davies and Paul Seed reunited for the four-part serialisation of To Play the King. « Remember that frightfully nice man who talked a lot about the classless society? He had to go, of course, in the end. Everything changes. » Urquhart is now Prime minister but he's haunted by the fate of Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) and his wife Elizabeth (Diane Fletcher) thinks he needs a new challenge.

The freshly crowned King (Michael Kitchen) has social and environmental preoccupations he wants to share with his Prime Minister, except Francis Urquhart will have none of it. « But the trouble is... he has ideas. He has a conscience. He wants to... contribute.» Urquhart gets rid of a secretary of state favourable to inner cities regeneration and asks Tim Stamper (Colin Jeavons) to ensure that dissolute Princess Charlotte (Bernice Stegers) sells her memoirs to press baron Sir Bruce Bullerby (David Ryall). Mrs Urquhart introduces brilliant pollster Sarah Harding (Kitty Aldridge) to her husband, who hires her as his "slave", an informal political advisor.

« You know the way it works, Sarah. It tends to corrupt. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. »

The sovereign's idealism is encouraged by his assistant press secretary Chloe Carmichael (Rowena King). His chief of staff David Mycroft (Nicholas Farrell) deals with personal issues. « You practically abandoned Wales and Scotland. Thousands live in cardboard boxes under bridges. » The rift between Urquhart and the monarch increases, prompting the PM to call a general election. With Elizabeth and the sinister Corder (Nick Brimble) behind him, Francis Urquhart is ready to use any means to enforce his views and preserve his position: manipulation, electronic surveillance, blackmail and far worse. In the shadows, someone has a proof of what happened to Mattie Storin and tips off Sarah Harding, who started an affair with her boss.

«Kings aren't supposed to think. It was a great mistake sending him to university, letting him talk to all these architects and philosophers. »

To Play the King is the legit heir to A Very British Coup (1988) and stands the test of time very well (« And it's a terrible temptation to throw money at these problems now, borrowed money.»). It is blessed with splendid performances amongst a solid cast. The talented Michael Kitchen plays an unnamed King blatantly modeled after Prince Charles. His ex-wife, regularly met by Urquhart, looks like Lady Diana. The formidable Colin Jeavons shares great scenes with John Bird (Bryan Brynford-Jones) and Kitty Aldridge. Diane Fletcher is once again remarkable (« He's actually getting quite keen on Solti's Götterdämmerung. ») alongside the masterful Ian Richardson.

« As the cat's eyelids flicker, some part of us must stay awake always, ready, as the coiled spring is ready. »

The classy and wonderfully mischievous music by Jim Parker often sounds like a rehearsal for his work on Midsomer Murders. To Play the King aired from November to December 1993 on BBC One. In France it was confidentially shown on cable as Échec au Roi. Koba Films releases it in a 2-disc DVD set with its French dubbing and the original dialogue track (subbed in French or not). The latter is preferable to appreciate the fabulous screenplay of Andrew Davies.

« What's the matter? You do trust me, don't you? Of course you do. » (The Final Cut) (House of Cards with Ian Richardson)

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Wednesday, 3 June 2015


In the 19th century, Texas fights for its independence from Mexico. James A. Michener's Texas (aka Texas), the 1994 miniseries based on the book by American best-selling author James A. Michener (1907-1997), is available since April on French region 2 DVD from Koba Films with Showshank Films. 

Published in 1985, Michener's 1,076-page Texas, chronicles the history of Texas from 1535 to the 1980s through the destinies of fictional characters and historical figures. In 1984 ABC wanted to turn the yet unfinished novel into an event 10-hour "Novel for Television" similarly to what NBC did with Centennial (1978) in 12 episodes. Then the Alphabet network also had an adaptation of Poland in development. Rival CBS aired a lengthy treatment of Space in 1985.

The Texas miniseries actually materialised in 1993 thanks to the acquisition of TV mogul Aaron Spelling's Spelling Entertainment Group by video rental giant Blockbuster Entertainment. The companies wanted to showcase their synergy with a big project for the direct-to-video market. Blockbuster and Spelling teamed with Republic Pictures for a $12 million production of James A. Michener's Texas. They convinced ABC to put a third of the budget for half the network usually paid a four-hour miniseries (1). In exchange the broadcaster gave them a three-month video window before telecast.

The producers condensed their source material into 180 minutes. Written by Sean Meredith and helmed by veteran director Richard Lang, Texas spans 1821 to 1846 and focus on the colonization and the march to independence. Filming took place with an impressive cast mainly at Del Rio and at the Alamo Village, built for John Wayne's movie The Alamo (1960). In 1821, Stephen F. Austin (Patrick Duffy) is hired by the Mexican government to bring hundred of American settlers in the wild Texas territory. Amongst them are Mattie Quimper (Chelsea Field) and her step-son Yancey (Esteban Powell, later Anthony Michael Hall).

Finlay MacNab (Daragh O'Malley) and his son Otto (Sully Ross, later Rick Schroder) are persuaded to join the colony by James Bowie (David Keith), a famous knife fighter. The settlers live with inhabitants of Spanish origins like mustang trainer Benito Garza (Benjamin Bratt). They must swear loyalty to Mexico and convert to Catholicism but the "Texicans" want to be Americans. Sam Houston (Stacy Keach), a Tennessee statesman, meets Stephen Austin. Conflict grows and, in February 1836, 157 men prepare to defend the Alamo mission against 1,200 Mexican troops of General Santa Anna. Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett (John Schneider) and William Barrett Travis (Grant Show) are with the fighters.

The hefty budget didn't prevent the use of stock shots though the reenactment of the battle of San Jacinto is quite convincing. The credits of John Wilder, who exec produced Texas with Aaron Spelling and E. Duke Vincent, include Return to Lonesome Dove (1993) and Centennial. James A. Michener's Texas hasn't the scope of the latter but a solid story and strong performances make it follow the trail of the Lonesome Dove saga with efficiency. Rick Schroder played Newt Dobbs in Lonesome Dove (1989) and Return to Lonesome Dove.

The narration is provided by Charlton Heston. Lee Holdridge composed the great score. Bonus material of the two-disc DVD set is comprised of a Making Of, a trailer, a presentation film and an "Espace découverte" Koba Films and Showshank Films. The two 90-minute parts of James A. Michener's Texas are available with its French dubbing and the original dialogue track - subbed in French or not. The miniseries hit U.S. video stores in November 1994. ABC aired it in April 1995 and French television in February 1998.

(1) Running time with commercials.

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