I recently watched this quite superb example of TV drama for the first time in a few years, and I thought it was worth giving it a review for the benefit of regular readers who might not have seen it. It was first shown in the early 90s on the BBC, and I gather it was also shown in the US, and must have got some attention there, too. I actually bought the DVD set on import, as at the time it hadn’t been issued in the UK. Anyway, what we have here is a trilogy, so I’ll deal with each part in turn.
House of Cards
Set in the near future (at the time), the story starts when long serving Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has finally left office, and the race is on to elect a new leader of the Conservative Party. We see events through the eyes of the Chief Whip, Francis Urquhart, played to perfection by Ian Richardson in perhaps his finest role. Urquhart draws us into his world, talking direct to camera, involving us in his schemes, confiding in us. He denies having any intention of standing for the leadership, but with a little persuasion from his wife, who would appear to be a spiritual descendant of Lady Macbeth, he soon decides that the new Prime Minister isn’t up to the job, and through a delightfully complex plot, manipulates him into resigning. Having removed the shortest-serving Prime Minister ever, it’s time for another election. As before, he initially denies wanting the job, but after discrediting a few candidates, he allows himself to be “persuaded” to stand. And then sets about blackmailing, manipulating and deceiving his way to the top. To describe Urquhart as Machiavellian would perhaps be an understatement. I get the feeling that he could have taught Machiavelli a thing or two…
Along the way, he meets a young journalist, Mattie Storin, who becomes his lover. Storin eventually learns more than she really wants to about Urquhart, who has gone as far as murder to secure his victory in the leadership election. Just as he has triumphed, Urquhart is confronted by Storin in a roof garden at the Houses of Parliament. She confronts him with what she knows, and he admits what he has done, and in his most ruthless moment so far, he picks her up and throws her from the roof. Everyone calls it suicide – after all, no less a figure than the new Prime Minister saw her jump! And so the first part of the trilogy ends: Urquhart has reached the top. But can he stay there?
To Play the King
Some years later, a new King is crowned. The King is played by Michael Kitchen, who does a quite superb Prince Charles impression. Urquhart is still in power, and still driving hard-line right-wing policies. The new King is determined to make things better for the people, and sets himself against Urquhart. FU (as the popular press and his cronies call him) is not going to allow anyone to interfere with his running of the country. When the King directly challenges Urquhart, the Prime Minister calls a general election. At first, it seems that the old villain might be defeated, but it’s not a good idea to underestimate FU…
More manipulation, deceit and evil follow. Urquhart wins the election, and forces the King to abdicate in favour of his young son. But he’s gone too far. Having snubbed his henchman Tim Stamper (played quite wonderfully by Colin Jeavons), Urquhart stands to lose it all. Stamper has a tape. Unknown to Urquhart, Mattie Storin recorded all their conversations, including the fatal final one. Furious at being passed over, Stamper decides to give the tape to the police. Not the security boys, of course. Their leader Corder is loyal to Urquhart and not averse to a little murder himself. Just as his car is pulling into Scotland Yard, it explodes. Officially, the bombing is blamed on Irish terrorists, but we know who really was to blame.
And so Urquhart clings to power. But it’s not all going well for him. He’s haunted by the memory of killing Mattie Storin.
At the time, this series generated a lot of controversy over the portrayal of the King. Some people thought that Prince Charles was being mocked. But with the perspective of time, it seems to me that the King is portrayed as a decent, principled man who wants to improve people’s lives, and cares about the environment. And Urquhart comes across as even more ruthless and vile than in the first part…
The Final Cut
Urquhart is still here. He’s been Prime Minister for ten years now, and he desperately wants to outlast Margaret Thatcher. In this future, the Iron Lady has died, and we’re treated to her state funeral. Calls are increasingly coming for Urquhart to go, and to add to his woes, a statue of his illustrious predecessor is to be erected in Parliament Square. But he’s not going to go quietly.
Urquhart and his wife need to plan for their retirement, and an opportunity for some ever so slightly dubious dealing presents itself. A treaty, negotiated by Britain, is to be signed between the two parts of Cyprus. And unknown to at least some of the people concerned, oil has been found offshore. If a boundary is drawn in just the right place, the oil will belong to the Turkish side, and they will share the exploitation rights with Britain. And pay Urquhart millions of pounds in secret “consultancy fees”. And so, the deed is done.
And then things begin to unravel. Urquhart’s foreign secretary, outraged at being sidelined after all the work he did in good faith in negotiating the treaty, resigns, and challenges for the party leadership. When news of the oil discovery is released, the Greek side of Cyprus erupts. Britain is blamed for the dodgy deal, and the British High Commissioner and the Greek Cypriot leader are captured by a rebel group.
Urquhart sends in troops to settle matters. At first, it seems to go well, and the hostages are freed. But when the troops fire on civilians on Urquhart’s direct order, FU begins to lose his grip.
And his rival for the leadership now has a copy of the tape.
It’s left to his wife Elizabeth and his loyal guardian Corder to salvage what’s left of his reputation. At the unveiling of the Thatcher memorial, a sniper acting on Corder’s orders fatally shoots Urquhart, who dies in his wife’s arms.
So there you have it. Getting on for twelve hours of quite superb TV drama. Ian Richardson is quite wonderful as the evil Urquhart, as perfect a villain as I’ve ever seen. The stories are involving, and you find yourself wondering how he can get out of each succeeding hole that he’s managed to dig for himself. He’s so persuasive in his direct to camera pieces than you almost find yourself admiring him, sympathising with his plight. And ultimately, he leaves us with one of my all time favourite catchphrases
You might very well think that, I couldn’t possibly comment
It’s all much more complicated than I’ve outlined here, and all I can say is that if you haven’t seen this, do so. Buy it, rent it, borrow it, look out for repeat runs on digital channels, but watch it. And you don’t find me saying that about a lot of things that aren’t actually science fiction, do you?
 Both of you
 The Chief Whip’s job is to make sure that a party’s MPs do what they’re expected to – vote in the House, not get caught if they’re up to no good, and so on. The ideal whip is a ruthless bully.
 Good word, and entirely accurate in this case
 I’m saying nothing.