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House of Cards (1990)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of House of Cards (1990)
BBC, 18/11-9/12/1990
4 x 60 min, colour
DirectorPaul Seed
ProducerKen Riddington
ScriptAndrew Davies
From the novel byMichael Dobbs
PhotographyIan Punter
 Jim Fyans
MusicJim Parker

Cast: Ian Richardson (Francis Urquhart); Susannah Harker (Mattie Storin); Miles Anderson (Roger O'Neill); David Lyon (Henry Collingridge); Malcolm Tierney (Patrick Woolton)

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Frustrated at being passed over for promotion by the new Prime Minister, ambitious Conservative chief whip Francis Urquhart begins a ruthless pursuit of politics' top job.

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Michael Dobbs, who wrote the original novel on which this drama is based, had worked as a political reporter in the US during the Watergate scandal prior to rising through the ranks of the Conservative Party. As such, he was able to pepper his tale with insightful and realistic touches, but in truth, Andrew Davies, who adapted the work, makes House of Cards his own. The black humour which laced his earlier screenplays such as Lucky Sunil (BBC, 1988) and Mother Love (BBC, 1989) adds an entertaining edge to the four-parter, and he redefines Francis Urquhart as a much less sympathetic character, who survives the mass of machinations, unlike his literary blueprint who is killed at the close of Dobbs' novel.

The pacey and at times melodramatic plot is engaging but it is Ian Richardson's BAFTA-winning central performance which makes House of Cards so compelling. His depiction defines menace and cold cunning but his ultimate success lies in his ability to make Urquhart simultaneously loathsome and likeable. The audience may be repelled by his ruthlessness, but his wit, coolness, preening intelligence and conspiratorial asides to camera combine to make this minister a strangely charismatic monster.

Richardson based his character on Richard III, and the serial offers other Shakespearian touches. Urquhart's wife is clearly a modern version of Lady Macbeth, the clandestine court intrigues suggest many of the history plays and the minister's candid confessions to the audience - a device Davies used again in Moll Flanders (ITV, 1996) - are also reminiscent of Elizabethan drama.

By good fortune, the serial was screened during late 1990, coinciding with Margaret Thatcher's fall from power. It proved a ratings winner and an immediate favourite with the critics; Urquhart's oft-used, evasive reply, "You might well think that; I couldn't possibly comment" swiftly became common political parlance in the UK. The drama also proved an international hit, scoring highly in the US, where Davies won an Emmy for his screenplay.

House of Cards concludes with Urquhart on the verge of becoming Prime Minister, and his tenure at Number 10 is explored in the two sequels, To Play the King (BBC, 1994) and The Final Cut (BBC, 1995).

Gavin Collinson

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Video Clips
1. The PM's embarassing brother (3:13)
2. A loyal servant (4:56)
Complete first episode (57:04)
Extract 4 (5:22)
Politician's Wife, The (1995)
State of Play (2003)
Davies, Andrew (1936-)
Rippon, Angela (1944-)