Netflix’s Washington DC-based political drama House of Cards has bagged 13 nominations at the prestigious Emmy awards. The series will return for its fifth season in 2017, but not many are aware that this tale of naked ambition set in the backdrop of the highest office of the land has already been televised in another country.
Michael Dobbs’s novel, after which the series takes its name and broad contours, was also the inspiration for the British House of Cards, which ran on BBC in 1990 to popular and critical acclaim. About a new government being formed in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s reign, its broadcast coincided with the ouster of Thatcher as Prime Minister, giving the show an added allure.
House of Cards was thoroughly fictional – or one hopes it was, given its coiling menace. It charts the sinister tactics adopted by Francis Urquhart, the Conservative Party Chief Whip in the House of Commons, played to perfection by Ian Richardson, as he goes about exacting revenge for being denied a coveted post in the new administration.
When Henry “Hal” Collingridge (David Lodge) is selected as the new Prime Minister, Urquhart is certain that Collingridge will make good on his promise to give Urquhart a senior Cabinet post. When that does not happen, an incensed Urquhart plots Collingridge’s political demise. To reach his goal, Urquhart uses every trick in the book, from forging identity to massaging the media to even plotting murder. It’s a story dripping in high intrigue, ripe with psychological depth and backroom shenanigans.
Viewers of the American version are familiar with Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood, who, like Urquhart, does not bat an eyelid as he goes about putting his plans in place. While the British series stuck to the remit of Dobbs’s novel, the US version has expanded substantially from that premise. Underwood’s wife, Claire, played by Robin Wright, is a central character in her own right, assisting her husband in his ploys but with one eye fixed firmly on her own budding political ambitions. Urquhart’s wife, Elizabeth, on the other hand, plays a far less significant role in the British version.
There are other differences. Urquhart is a far slimier figure than Underwood, if that were possible. He does not let his mask slip except under the most intense pressure, and even on those occasions, sticks to his uniquely amoral code. He rationalises, say, his affair with the journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) as one that is forced on him by the persistence of a hack looking to endear herself to the country’s top leadership. Urquhart presents the consequences of his godless actions as a fait accompli, a slew of mere inconveniences that must be dispatched with.
Like Underwood, Urquhart breaches the fourth wall and silkily goads the viewer to see the point of his diabolical designs. Like Underwood, he is keen to establish that he is, in some indecipherable way, superior to the web of wickedness he has spun. But Richardson’s demeanour (the actor earned his chops on the stage) is more restrained that Spacey’s. His is the classic English detachment that the American Underwood, for all his surface apathy, cannot fully muster.
The British series was wrapped up in four, crisp episodes, with Urquhart receiving an invitation from the Queen to become Prime Minister. That was a neat, if demonic, touch – a natural conclusion of the relentless villainy wrought by Urquhart. In contrast, Underwood was already the US President by the end of season 2. His tale judders along, and from all indications, he will meet his nemesis in his wife.
To one kind of viewer, that will be a long-overdue serving of just desserts. To another kind, it would be the needless imposition of a moral arc. In either case, the series will continue to draw audiences for its darkly over-the-top portrayal of a deeply human instinct. From Machiavelli to Shakespeare, from Urquhart to Underwood, the corrupting influence of power, absolute or otherwise, is a story for every age.