If you haven’t seen it, you must see the original TV series of House of Cards
It’s almost been ten years since I found a battered old copy of House of Cards, starring the late Ian Richardson. It was almost abandoned in my local library and its photocopied cover didn’t really appeal. I was also only four year’s old when it was originally broadcast and ironically Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minister.
It opens with Richardson who plays Chief Whip Francis Urqhart in a dark study looking at a picture of Margaret Thatcher. And that was enough for that particular ‘box-set binge’ before it was even a phrase.
It was one of those brilliant dramas that captured its time that and predicted a scarily plausible future; what would have happened if the Tories had held onto power in 1997 and beyond? Michael Dobbs, now Lord Dobbs, was a junior adviser in the inner sanctum of the Thatcher cabinet and in an interview admits to writing the original novel as a kind of therapeutic exercise on holiday. Dobbs had a front row seat to the Machiavellian plundering and backstabbing during the final days of Thatcher’s era at ten Downing Street. His novel was then adapted by veteran TV screenwriter Andrew Davies. Not wanting to spoil it, it’s uncannily close to what was revealed.
Despite its dark undercurrents, what made the series excellent that it was theatrical with a small ‘t’. It didn’t over do the incidental music; the pace was just right; and as with the American version, Richardson as Urqhart addressed the audience almost tapping you on the shoulder letting you in on his games as he traversed the corridors of power.
Nor can an American series hope to reflect Dobbs’ dark British humour because they don’t really have an equivalent; Chief Whip Urqhart with fellow Whip Tim Stamper – after berating a disgraced MP who offers a grovelling apology – reflect on him thus:
‘What a frightful, little man! Where do we get them?’
‘If I had a dog like that I’d shoot it.’
It could have been a Fry and Laurie sketch.
The American House of Cards takes this story and puts it in an interesting Washington context. It takes some priceless digs at Putin – including featuring actual members of Pussy Riot in one episode, but it falls shy of saying something about the state of America at the end of the Obama era. Perhaps the fact that Frances Underwood makes a far more desirable President than either Trump or Hillary is a powerful statement, but it’s almost certainly unintentional. The UK House of Cards is closer to the knuckle and uncomfortably close to the reality of what goes on in modern politics, nor does it take itself too seriously while delivering its cautionary tale about power.