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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