It is remarkably easy to paint the bulk of politicians as self interested autocrats detached from their supposed constituency. Partisan, factional, dishonest and hypocritical may seem unworthy of ourselves, but deep down we can appreciate that such traits are the markers of success for a parliamentarian. We practically expect it, and so Francis Urquhart is a natural leader to guide us through this intricate and often ugly process. With good humour and sound experience, the House of Cards trilogy exposes a perception of the sleaze prone British parliament that is easy to accept as plausible, which adds to the fun of one man’s pursuit of power by any means.
Loyal part whip of the incumbent Tories, the anti-hero of the piece has decided that it is his turn at Number 10 after many years faithful service to the party, the people and the crown. With this in mind, Urquhart (Ian Richardson) accepts that the means will justify the end and to this end he takes us into his confidence early and wins our trust with a clever and practical demeanour. To acquiesce so soon is our own experience of the crafty manipulation in which F.U (as he is known) is expertise. Most people in the immediate service of this man will have cause (if not opportunity) to question their involvement but all are political animals and we watch the games they play with interest. Yet the man we learnt to trust has shown that this is not enough to be safe with him, only now we are tied to him and acknowledge his successes however questionable his actions have been.
F.U is the only character permitted to speak to the camera and through this association we are both aligned to him, and at least marginally repulsed by his darker nature. Character to camera narration is so often a cop-out but here it is used to good effect. Lubricating the machinations of the plot, letting us in on little secrets and tricks of the trade, we remain dependent on this nasty, scheming, cold blooded yet conversely likeable man. In an inverted, blackly comic way we acknowledge that he may well be right about being the best man for the job, but whether he is or not does not matter, what matters increasingly to him is the game of attaining and protecting power. It seems as though nothing is beyond Francis and his co-conspirators. Be it of character or life itself, assassination is second nature to this man. He is little concerned as to whether the people he climbs over are breathing or not in his morally corrupt defence of morality and the supposed greater good.
To paraphrase a classic political maxim, ‘behind every great man there is a great bitch,’ to keep the wheels greased and the man in line if he should ever seem to waiver or stall. Behind the villainous F.U is his complicit wife played with dangerous charm by Diane Fletcher. It takes a special kind of woman to suggest her husband ‘press the flesh’ with a pretty young journalist in order to further their aims. Having recently reviewed the BBC’s MacBeth, another tale of a conniving couple in the political arena, it is clear to see that F.U and his partner in crime are far better suited to malevolence than the Scottish thane and his crazy lady. The leading man himself cited Richard III as a more appropriate role model.
The tone of the House of Cards trilogy is understated in a typically British fashion. Suspense is secondary to the black humour of the character driven drama and unsurprisingly there are no big action set pieces. The twelve episodes are well paced with very little superfluity and capture the essence and intricacy of Michael Hobbes’ three books with excellent detail. The cast is very good, especially in the key roles with Richardson and Fletcher working particularly well together as the scheming and ambitious couple. Colin Jeavons is notable as F.U’s long standing right hand man, with thoughtfully understated turns from many supporting a script which holds interest for the complete 667 minutes. And as the support cast are turned over for each series, the story is refreshed with new characters who are quickly established into the newly formed narrative.
There is also a small but brilliant moment in the third series worth mentioning. I enjoyed a surprised chuckle when noticing a brief but certain homage to the famous walk-on cameos of Alfred Hitchcock. A Hitchcock look-alike meanders from left to right behind Urquhart with the same incongruous, wooden action as the master film-maker himself. It is an unmistakable re-creation, beyond the reach of mere coincidence. As a fan of Hitchcock, I was impressed with such an acknowledgement of the master of black humour and suspense.
The presentation of this BBC plotter has been excellently transferred and is available in the usual television format 4:3. It even stretches OK if you want to get a closer look at the devious wheels spinning behind the eyes of a naughty Prime Minister. If there is a layer change it is buried between episodes. Dolby digital sound works great for the pompous marching tune overlaying the credits, and dialogue is crisp and easy to follow, which is rather necessary.
The extras are limited to audio commentary over the first episode of each series. It is interesting to listen in on the collaborative efforts and perceptions of Richardson, scriptwriter Andrew Davies and producer Ken Riddington. Great for a rainy Sunday afternoon and no test match on the telly.
My communist flatmate likes to tease me about being an Aussie redneck because I am white, but why would I let a pinko into my home if I was? I vote Green and complain about the war but I can see myself voting for Urquhart because there is something respectable and likeable about this two faced Tory bastard at the top of his game. Ian Richardson is perfect as the narrator and centre stage Prime Minister of a classically British political drama with a dark comic edge. The evolution of the plot allows the three series to stand alone as they did for television release but belong together as a trilogy. To reveal detail of the third is to deny some intrigue of the first, and though not exceptionally taut in terms of suspense, we are better served in seeing all the threads slowly come together as story by story the house of cards is built.