Few people could have escaped the popularity of the Netflix political drama series House of Cards. However, the US show is actually a remake of a 1990s British TV miniseries of the same name. While I have heard wonderful things about the remake I have always had somewhat of a fondness for British television and have always found the UK political system more interesting than its American counterpart. Therefore, it should be of no surprise that I decided to devote the little time that I had between lectures and project work to watching the original (though its length – just four hours in total compared to the remake’s thirteen hour long first season – was probably also a contributory factor). I must say that I wasn’t disappointed.
Set in a fictionalised version of the aftermath of the resignation of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, the show follows Francis Urquhart, the Chief Whip of the Conservative Party – responsible for maintaining discipline on the back benches. After helping his colleague Henry Collingridge become leader of the Conservatives and win the subsequent general election, he expects a reward in the form of a senior Secretary of State position. However, when Collingridge reneges on his promise and decides to leave his Cabinet unchanged Urquhart vows revenge and begins scheming to become Prime Minister himself. This sets off a tense and densely plotted story as Urquhart uses every dirty treat in the book to unseat his opponent.
The focus of House of Cards is, of course, Urquhart himself. He is fiercely intelligent and absolutely ruthless. Much of the fun of the show comes from seeing how he manages to skilfully and subtly manipulate all of his opponents into doing exactly what he wants. His genius comes from doing almost everything indirectly, from the shadows, never admitting to anything. His approach to politics is perfectly summarised by his oft used line: “You might think so, I couldn’t possibly comment”. He appears to be so charismatic and earnest, thanks in large part due to a stunning performance by Shakespearean actor Ian Richardson, that even his greatest enemies believe him to be their best friend.
Urquhart is also a great character on a more personal level. At the start he appears to be an ordinary, if ambitious, upper class man. However, as the show progresses we find out that he has a darker core – he is utterly self-centred and doesn’t care about anyone who gets into his way. However, he never becomes an outright villain. He is always a well-rounded and nuanced character. Through the writing, acting and the unusual technique of Urquhart often performing asides to camera, we get a picture of him as real life, three-dimensional human being. This is an intelligent drama that works on many levels. It has a tense plot and is effective as both a political thriller and an in-depth character study – certainly something worth devoting four hours of your life to.