Treachery With a Smile on its Face

Ian Jones on the House of Cards trilogy

First published November 2006

In one particularly arch episode of Yes, Prime Minister, Jim Hacker is seen lecturing his Private Secretary Bernard Woolley on the options open to an MP seeking to avoid answering a question.

It is a salutary lesson in the black arts of political comedy. Among Hacker’s itemised list of cheats are attacking the questioner (“How many years have you spent in government?”), using the time factor (“That’s a very interesting question, and there are nine points that I should like to make in answer to it”) and invoking shameless secrecy (“I’m sure you wouldn’t want me to break a confidence, so I’m afraid I can’t answer for another week or two”).

At the time, Yes, Prime Minister was pretty groundbreaking in the way it methodically yet humorously ruptured the pomposity of British government. It portrayed lovable rogues, sympathetic innocents and harmless chicanery. It also made politics hugely entertaining and uniquely comprehensible.

As a piece of political TV comedy, it has yet to be beaten. Much of what it revealed about the processes of government, however, was roundly blown out of the water by the House of Cards trilogy, screened by the BBC not three years after the comedy’s final episode.

Here was a whole different take on the practice and pursuit of power, a world away from the cosy banter of Hacker and co, set in precisely the same location but substituting skulduggery for sitcom. Instead of broad laughs and buffoonery, earnest treachery and intricate politicking were the order of the day. Yet it became, almost overnight, a critical and commercial runaway success, establishing a new benchmark for its genre and ending up somehow capturing the entire mood of the nation.

What was its secret? What made such a rarefied and literate a venture so instantly iconic and memorable? What, in other words, could we itemise as constituting the black arts of successful political TV drama?

For starters, it’s clear not one minute of the trilogy would have made such a potent impression on viewers had Andrew Davies not been charged with the job of penning the screenplay. In the original House of Cards novel by Michael Dobbs, central character Tory Chief Whip Francis Urquhart is a far less laconic, confident and dimensional creation, his wife a shrinking violet rather than a screaming Lady Macbeth, and his inscrutable right-hand man Tim Stamper doesn’t even exist.

There’s no question Davies elevated the text into a far more immediate and captivating piece of dramatic entertainment, writing in the language of television and with an eye and ear for the tricks of the medium.

It was he, not Dobbs, who came up with the absolutely fundamental notion of having Urquhart – played by Ian Richardson – speak directly to camera at key moments. It was he, not Dobbs, who made Urquhart strike up a relationship with investigative journalist Mattie Storin. And it was he, not Dobbs, who had Urquhart kill Storin at the story’s conclusion, rather than follow the original novel and have Urquhart himself leap to his death in a fit of remorse. It’s hard to imagine House of Cards ending in anything other than Storin’s demise, representing as it does such an utter subversion of the viewer’s expectations while opening the way for Urquhart’s subsequent return.

Davies’s influence was so great that Dobbs felt no choice but to write the two sequels, To Play the King and The Final Cut, very much in the style of the TV adaptation of House of Cards and singularly not in the tone of his original book. As such Urquhart’s wife was promoted to a leading role, Stamper was retained and expanded as a character, and Urquhart himself was turned into a desiccated calculating machine.

Davies continued to embellish his texts, however; a tetchy arrangement which culminated in Dobbs withdrawing from the production entirely. Richardson and Davies ended up more or less dictating the terms on which The Final Cut was made, the former insisting he’d only appear if Urquhart was killed off. On reflection, it’s hard to see how this was in any way a bad thing.

Indeed, such was the speed and extent to which Ian Richardson came to inhabit the version of Francis Urquhart fashioned by Andrew Davies, the writer soon found himself needing to give only the tiniest of directions within his script concerning gesture and expression. Ultimately, “Francis gives another one of his looks,” was all Davies had to write for Richardson to know precisely what was required and how best to deliver it.

The famous asides to camera became the actor’s favourite plaything, and it’s obvious from watching the series how much he enjoyed this deeply theatrical device. “Someone’s going to get it in the neck,” he confides in House of Cards with a Richard III-esque relish, “but not us, eh?” In To Play the King, the asides become more petulant in light of the stature of Urquhart’s regal opponent. “The trouble is he’s got ideas,” he spits to us, “he’s got a conscience. He wants to contribute.” Nobody is safe from a hissed retort. Even in death, Margaret Thatcher is a menace. “I want to erase that woman from the public memory,” he cries, a man obsessed.

The asides became the trilogy’s chief calling card, a blessing (by way of dramatic novelty) and also a curse (by way of ending up something of a cliché). As if to reflect as much, the number of asides drops off considerably in The Final Cut, effectively shutting the audience out and rendering the last couple of episodes grim, thankless viewing. It’s telling that once Urquhart stops confiding in us, he becomes just another hackneyed baddie. Worse, he becomes ordinary.

“I heard all sorts use it,” noted Richardson in retrospect. “John Major, Tony Blair, MPs, minister, even a politician in Australia. Everywhere.” The ubiquity of Urquhart’s chief catchphrase was, for a time in the mid-’90s, all-conquering. “You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment” was invented by Andrew Davies as a suitably duplicitous motif for his hero to intone throughout the fictional corridors of power. That it soon resonated endlessly within the real Westminster village is just as much Richardson’s fault as Davies: a lesser actor wouldn’t have recognised the potential within such a sentence to evoke such anticipation and exultation with an audience.

Indeed, at one point he actually rang Davies up to ask if he could put in another “You might think that …” because he considered he hadn’t said it enough that episode.

But elsewhere, Davies’s use of language isn’t anywhere near so delectable. It’s as if he channelled all his energy into coming up with one killer catchphrase then eased off for everyone else. Mattie Storin’s repeated invocation, “I want to call you ‘Daddy’” is toe-curling enough the first time, but simply horrendous on each subsequent repeat. Davies’s clumsy attempts at passion – “God, I want you so much”, “Come on then: have me!” – are similarly excruciating, while his efforts at fashioning posh insults (“Shags like a rattlesnake, that’s what I’ve heard!”) would fall totally flat were the posh characters themselves equally unbelievable.

Davies writes best for Urquhart and indifferently for everyone else. Perhaps this doesn’t matter. In a way, Urquhart should be the only one speaking sense while all around him talk rubbish, in order for the viewer to more readily empathise with the idea of the man being the captain of a ship of fools. It’s a close run thing, though, particularly in The Final Cut where verbal frivolity (“Time to put a bit of stick about!”) all too often gives way to über-earnest proselytising (“I feel strong again! I feel young again!”).

Another of Davies’s predilections leads to similarly mixed results. It’s no accident that the name Francis Urquhart can be shortened to F.U. The acronym is not merely commented upon but positively endorsed throughout the trilogy, to the point where any humour it once possessed is completely run dry.

However it is not the only case of somebody’s name constituting a rather clumsy extension of their personality. Urquhart’s assistant as Chief Whip and stooge as PM, the man charged with carrying out his (sometimes literal) character assassinations, is called Stamper. His polar opposite as Foreign Secretary, a man of reconciliation and reassurance, is called Makepeace. The Cabinet Secretary, epitome of establishment pomposity and elitism, bears that most clichéd of toffy-nosed names, Ponsonby. Menial MPs and ministers are branded with suitably unflattering titles: Stoat, Bullock, Crow. One reporter goes under the name Sarkey.

Watching the series, you’ll either find this kind of device unbelievably grating or strangely endearing. Moreover, given the fact it continues unabated throughout the trilogy, such feelings will only increase, not diminish, in intensity. For like much else in the series, there is no let up in the rough, often infantile, bombarding of the senses.

Through complete coincidence, the trilogy began unfolding on screen in precise parallel with eerily-similar events in real life. The very first episode, with its famous opening scene featuring Urquhart solemnly placing a framed photo of Margaret Thatcher face down on his desk and murmuring, “Nothing lasts forever”, aired just two days before Thatcher faced Michael Heseltine in a leadership contest and failed to secure enough votes to avoid a rematch.

Then the second episode, charting the fortunes of the new, more consensual and softly-spoken Prime Minister Henry Collingridge, went out two days before John Major won the actual race to become PM off the back of a campaign projecting himself as a similarly inclusive, conciliatory individual.

The consequence was to raise both the profile and acclaim of House of Cards and undoubtedly contribute to the searing impression left by Richardson’s Urquhart upon popular consciousness. From then onwards, however, the action moved ahead of real events and turned prophetic rather than reflective.

Collingridge holds an election and is returned with a majority of just 24; in 1992 Major went to the country and won victory with a majority of 22. Collingridge soon faces calls to quit and make way for a more right-wing leader; in 1995 Major stood down and challenged his critics to, “Put up or shut up”, fighting and winning a leadership contest against hardline Tory opponent John Redwood.

Ultimately a scandal-hit Collingridge resigns; Major, on the other hand, carried on to fight and lose the 1997 election. In both cases their successors as PM were received as far more decisive and populist figures. But while Tony Blair pitched his political tent somewhere in the centre ground of politics, Urquhart is seen to unashamedly embrace far-right policies, in the process winning three elections in a row.

Watching all this in retrospect renders much of the second and third parts of the trilogy pure fantasy. It now seems obvious that after almost two decades of Tory rule the UK would never countenance yet more far-right governments and would seek a less dogmatic alternative. Watching it at the time, however, must have fed the paranoia of those who thought the Conservatives would go on and on and on, while at the same time enthusing supporters who hoped the party would never relinquish power.

While To Play the King and The Final Cut both contain elements that serve up useful contrasts with today’s world (in particular the section in The Final Cut where the PM decides to launch a foreign military campaign to boost his flagging popularity) overall the passing of time has not been that kind to them. Once comical sequences in To Play the King showing Michael Kitchen – a thinly-veiled parody of Prince Charles – working out in a gym and helping the emergency services rescue victims from the rubble of an explosion now seem preposterous. The broad, crude parodying of all the feuding that went on in the real Royal Family during the 1990s also feels juvenile rather than inspired, though credit must go to Dobbs for foretelling the vituperative nature in which the real heir to the throne divorced his wife.

The constant reverent references to Margaret Thatcher, meanwhile, feel laughably misplaced. The Final Cut is set at a point where Urquhart has been in power for over 10 years and just about to equal Thatcher’s record in office. This would place it in either 2002 or 2003; a time when, in reality, far from still casting a shadow over the British political scene, Thatcher had all but disappeared from the collective memory.

Indeed, The Final Cut is bookended by two events which were, upon the serial’s original transmission, hugely controversial. The first is Thatcher’s funeral: an event of Andrew Davies’s devising which so infuriated Michael Dobbs that he requested his name be removed from the programme’s credits. The second is the unveiling of the lady’s statue on the inaugural Thatcher Day. Even though, at the time of writing, the woman is still alive, it is hard to imagine either such instances coming to pass nowadays. Both serve to render The Final Cut less high ideological drama and more low political farce.

By contrast the portrayal of the press, and the way characters relate and react to the newspaper industry, is one of the more enduring components of the trilogy.

From the off everybody is shown to be out to court and control the print media, from the PM downwards, while the newspapers themselves are portrayed as a fickle, opinion-led, proprietor-controlled bunch switching sides as soon they sniff which way the wind is blowing.

A recurring, if unsubtle, image of the entire series is of somebody plonking the latest editions down onto their breakfast table and proceeding to read out the headlines in a pointlessly loud yet thoroughly aggrieved way. This reaches a crescendo in The Final Cut, where a What the Papers Say-style outburst of mimicry occurs almost every 10 minutes. It’s impossible to really take these scenes of calculated hysteria seriously, especially given cartoonish headlines such as MAKEPEACE MAKES WAR (on the Foreign Secretary’s leadership bid), F OFF TO F U (when Urquhart’s unpopularity reaches a new low) and KEBABBED! (when British soldiers put down a Greek uprising in Cyprus).

House of Cards, conversely, offers a sober and striking reminder of how the Tory party enjoyed almost total support from the press at the start of the 1990s. Interestingly it is a Conservative-supporting paper – the fictional Chronicle – which leads the charge against Collingridge, whereas the conventions of TV drama usually dictate the press is almost always of the left. Similarly by tradition TV journalists are mostly radical, activist types. Here, however, Mattie Storin is portrayed as a rather docile and gullible Tory who stumbles upon the truth only after being blind to Urquhart’s scheming for almost the entire length of the series.

The lack of sympathy the character invites is arguably down to her lacklustre portrayal by actress Susannah Harker, who has an irritating habit of enunciating her admittedly clunking lines with the utmost precision as if reciting a complicated shopping list (“There really is a loT of rivalry anD dissenT in the CabineT, isn’t there?”)

What is more persuasive, however, are the means by which the press are shown to manipulate outcomes (cooking up scandals, inventing opinion polls, articulating unspoken assumptions) and how this in turn drives the course of political events. Urquhart is shown becoming more irritated by the press as time goes on, in The Final Cut declaring them to be alternately ungrateful and cynical. Yet despite, or maybe because, of his declining lack of interest, they never succeed in actually bringing him down. He (or rather his wife) is the master of his own demise, the one factor that doesn’t quite ring true from a contemporary newspaper perspective.

Sexual intrigue formed only an incidental part of the original House of Cards novel. Before beginning his adaptation, however, Andrew Davies had been on a screenwriting course in which he had been told to always make sex “the spine of a story”. He promptly invented a relationship between Urquhart and Mattie Storin and turned it into the most contentious element of his finished script.

The result, depending on your point of view, is either a thoughtful examination of cross-generational infatuation and powerplay, or a seedy romp laced with incestuous overtones. Storin’s imploring request to address Urquhart as “daddy”, and his ultimate insistence that she refer to him solely by that title, add little by way of plot. The viewer is already convinced she is obsessed with him and consequently blind to his premier league scheming long before she coaxes him into the bedroom.

From a characterisation point of view, though, Davies never deigns to explain why Storin falls for Urquhart in such a linguistically-charged way. As a result her paternal-inspired infatuation often ends up feeling just as much perverse as pitiful. The sight of Ian Richardson in the throes of passion, meanwhile, seems totally out of place, unflattering and unconvincing.

How effective you find the notion of Urquhart as a commanding philanderer as well as first class apparatchik rests ultimately on how effective you find the on-screen chemistry between Richardson and his respective leading ladies. The idea of a Chief Whip bedding someone in order to further his career still feels far more plausible than a PM slipping between the sheets with his political advisor, and certainly the idea of having Urquhart repeat precisely the same tactics in To Play the King with Sarah Harding as in House of Cards with Mattie Storin smacks of lazy storytelling on the part of either Michael Dobbs or Andrew Davies.

At least the sexual horseplay is left to other people in The Final Cut, albeit of a far more graphic and unsubtle nature (probably down to the presence of a different director calling the shots). Still, when placed against the latterday knowledge that the likes of John Major (though not as PM) and John Prescott indulged in lengthy affairs while holding high office, Urquhart’s clipped, clumsy romps are relatively tame.

After all the active cunning and flair Urquhart wields in order to emerge the victor in House of Cards, it is somewhat disappointing to see, as the trilogy continues, our hero settling for far more passive ways of keeping tabs on his opponents.

Andrew Davies has Urquhart come to rely more and more on the work of the secret service in eavesdropping and intercepting the conversations of both his real and imagined opponents. Time and again we see a surreptitious conversation and furtive exchange followed by a shot of two blokes in a van listening in. This ill-becomes such a hands-on political operator.

It’s also idle scriptwriting. The only way Urquhart thwarts Stamper and Harding’s joint initiative to bring him down in To Play the King is thanks to their meeting being bugged – despite neither character being shown to have been under surveillance ever before. With such a revelation the fun goes out of the story. From that moment on, the viewer expects that whenever anybody hatches another plot, the camera will promptly reveal that they are being bugged yet again.

It’s important for Urquhart to always be shown as indomitable, sure; but that quality can only be sustained from having opponents who are able to make a bit of mischief in the first place. The increasingly predictability with which Urquhart swats away his foes is perhaps the main factor why each subsequent series doesn’t quite match the level of persuasive machination of the former.

The single weapon that does remain in Urquhart’s armoury throughout the trilogy is the telephone. It is the one piece of apparatus without which the man could not prosecute his nefarious actions. It is also the one element above all else which datestamps the series in the early 1990s.

Viewed today, the business of sitting down at a desk to place long calls to somebody else who also has to sit down at a desk to answer seems cumbersome and farcical. Yet Urquhart is shown to relish such procedural habits, preferring to do his plotting, hiring and firing over the phone wherever possible. It’s a device that subjects the viewer to long periods of static exposition, where lots of people are doing nothing in shot except talking into a receiver, but simultaneously works as a simple and direct illustration of Urquhart’s icy stillness. His love of routine and ritual is shown to be at its element whenever he picks up a telephone: it is the “right” way to use power, and, as he doesn’t tire of demonstrating, abuse it as well.

We learn it is an instinct derived from his years spent as Chief Whip, where the ability to hold people to account through a swift call in the dead of night evidently helped fashion Urquhart into the monster we see on screen. And it’s during his time as Chief Whip that this preponderance of telephone-led machination is at its most ubiquitous. At one point he rings up the Foreign Secretary pretending to be a Scottish blackmailer. In another scene he impersonates a Middle Eastern banker (before going one step further and actually dressing up as said financier in order to open a bogus account).

Such shenanigans are just about plausible from a dramatic point of view while Urquhart is still trying to become PM. Once he’s got the top job, however, the fact he continues to wield power solely through a choice telephone call or two can’t help but deliver diminishing returns and, to the viewer, soon looks hugely anachronistic.

The scenes in The Final Cut of Urquhart directing a foreign war through an ordinary British Telecom handset are the least convincing of all. Here he simply looks a plain fool, as opposed to a misguided and beleaguered loser, which is what the script wants you to believe. It’s one of the reasons why his ultimate downfall doesn’t have quite the resonance it should. Rather than a wounded lion, he ends his days being portrayed as a petulant donkey, which doesn’t do him, or Ian Richardson, any favours.

Somehow, though, each and every one of the trilogy’s weak points never fails to derail the entire project. And here we come to the most important of all the black arts of political TV drama: us, the audience.

“You do trust me, don’t you?” Urquhart inquires of the viewer just after forcing the abdication of the King. “Of course you do.” The price for gaining the confidence of the man and hearing his deepest, darkest secrets is that we become complicit in his crimes. We are accessories to, among others, fraud, theft, blackmail, impersonation, manslaughter and murder – all in order so we can hear Urquhart’s real motives and learn his real plans.

It is a steep price. It’s no surprise you sometimes end up coming away from an episode feeling dirty and compromised. After all, we are the only ones, apart from his wife, who know what Urquhart is up to.

Moreover, the fact we go on watching and keep coming back for more is implicitly acknowledged by Urquhart – and by scriptwriter Andrew Davies – in the way the trilogy spirals upwards into increasingly lofty and developed realms of skulduggery. Our sustained fascination is Urquhart’s passport to continue his journey; without our support (couched on screen in ongoing references to the support of “the electorate”) this particular history lesson would take a far more innocent, and far less interesting, course.

So it’s an uneasy pact and one that plays on the idea of the viewer investing their time in a programme and expecting something decent in return. “Oh come now,” Urquhart chides in To Play the King after ordering the killing of some unarmed civilians. “They were terrorists. I thought you liked strong government.” And when his actions directly lead to the deaths of innocent children in Cyprus in The Final Cut, he issues a timely reminder to anybody watching at home in feigned disgust: “You chose me. Whatever I do, whatever is done in my name, you partake of it.”

It is perhaps the ultimate embodiment of a relationship between performer and audience. And it remains, to this day, unquestionably TV drama of the highest order, expertly conceived, and impeccably delivered.