Friday, 11 October 2013


When Margaret Thatcher's tenure as UK Prime minister comes to an end, Henry Collingridge becomes the Conservative Party leader and the new PM. Francis Urquhart, the party's Chief Whip, expects a top job in the new Cabinet but Collingridge maintains him in the Whip's office.

Encouraged by his wife, Urquhart decides to bring down Collingridge and ensure his way to the 10 Downing Street by any means. Conspiracy, manipulation and even worse.

« What, me? Oh no, no, no. I'm the Chief Whip, merely a functionary. I keep the troops in line. I put a bit of stick around. I make them jump. And I shall, of course, give my absolute loyalty to whoever emerges as my leader. »

House of Cards, the 1990 BBC political thriller is at last available on DVD in France thanks to Koba Films. Directed by Paul Seed, this four 55-minute part drama serial was adapted by scriptwriter Andrew Davies from a book by Michael Dobbs. Dobbs, an ex-advisor to Margaret Thatcher and former Tory official, crafted a realistic novel about intrigue and corruption behind the scenes of post-Thatcher British politics while she was still in charge. The serialisation stars Ian Richardson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as Francis Urquhart, whose job as Chief Whip is to enforce discipline of the governing party in the House of Commons.

« Nothing lasts forever. Even the longest, the most glittering reign must come to an end someday. »

After the resignation of Margaret Thatcher, ruling Tories need a leader. The decent and popular Henry Collingridge (David Lyon) emerges as the new PM and Francis Urquhart, who supported him, expects to join the Cabinet. But after the general election, won by the Conservatives with a reduced majority, Collingridge rejects Urquhart's proposals for a reshuffle including his promotion. Francis's wife Elizabeth (Diane Fletcher) suggests to her husband that he should take the leadership from Henry Collingridge by doing "whatever is necessary". And so he does.

Francis Urquhart quietly moves his unwitting pawns: the coke-addicted party publicity man Roger O'Neill (Miles Anderson), junior political reporter Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker), the ultraconservative Foreign Secretary Patrick Woolton (Malcolm Tierney), even media mogul Ben Landless (Kenny Ireland). No 10's power is slowly undermined, Collingridge is clueless and badly hit through his alcoholic brother Charles (James Villiers). Pawns can be sacrificed, not only figuratively. For House of Cards, Michael Wearing (Edge of Darkness), then Head of Serials at the BBC, advised Andrew Davies to "tweak" the book a bit and "think Jacobean".

« Quite a little touch of Richard of Gloucester at Baynard's Castle.
- "Shine out, fair sun!" »

Davies made his Francis Urquhart address the audience directly, like Richard III. He considerably developed the character of Francis's wife, called Miranda in the novel, as a modern Lady Macbeth. He also modified Urquhart's relationship with Mattie (« There are some things a gentleman never discusses. ») and reversed the ending. Richardson's Shakesperean stage background and his collaboration with Susannah Harker in Troubles (1988) served the dramatisation. Paul Seed's direction, ideas from producer Ken Riddington and the music of Jim Parker contributed as well to highlight Andrew Davies's substantial changes.

« 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. »

House of Cards aired on BBC One from 18 November to 9 December 1990 and rightfully joined political TV classics like Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister (1980-1988) and A Very British Coup (1988). Michael Dobbs's accuracy was unexpectedly echoed when a Tory challenge to leadership lead to Margaret Thatcher announcing her resignation on November 22. The portrayal of Urquhart by the amazing Ian Richardson and his "You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment." left their mark on popular culture. Dobbs brought back his scheming politician in To Play The King and The Final Cut, respectively adapted in 1993 and 1995.

Richardson won a Best Actor TV BAFTA in 1991 for House of Cards. Susannah Harker was nominated for Best actress. The rest of the cast delivered equally solid performances. Especially the fantastic Diane Fletcher, Miles Anderson, Alphonsia Emmanuel (Penny Guy) and James Villiers - very moving as Charles. The excellent Colin Jeavons returned as Tim Stamper (« If I had a dog like that I'd shoot it. ») in To Play The King. In France, pubcaster France 3 aired House of Cards in the 90s as Château de Cartes. Stage, TV and movie actor Bernard Dhéran lent his voice and his talent to Ian Richardson.

« Why should I yearn to be everybody's daddy? »

Koba Films releases House of Cards in a 2-disc DVD set with its original dialogue track, available with optional French subtitles done for the occasion, and its French dubbing. An audio commentary of Episode 1 by Andrew Davies, Ian Richardson and Ken Riddington is provided as bonus material. A 13-episode American adaptation of House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey premiered last February on the streaming service Netflix. (In French)

See also (Spoilers):