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House Of Cards
BBC & WGBH / Boston 1990

"Nothing lasts forever. Even the longest, the most glittering reign must come to an end some day" - Francis Urquhart

Political dramas such as A Very British Coup and, later, G.B.H, had seen a radical shift in the tone and content of such programmes. Whereas politics was once depicted as a revered forum on British Television, the 1980s and 1990s saw a sea change in storytelling in which writers portrayed extreme depictions of Great Britain, governed by left-wing Labour parties determined to restore the health and education systems (savaged, ravaged and neglected under the Thatcher government) and Conservative parties determined to pander to the needs and desires of corporate enterprises at the expense of the under privileged (a survival of the fittest theme prevailing throughout).

However, whilst these productions were hard-hitting and incisive examinations of contemporary Britain (or an alternative to the current government), these programmes paled into insignificance with the arrival of an adaptation of former Thatcher aide Michael Dobb's novel House Of Cards on BBC Television in 1990.

It would not be overstating the case to proclaim this four-part series as a masterpiece which ranks amongst the august company of Cathy Come Home, Pennies From Heaven, Churchill And The Generals and Suez 1956. Andrew Davies (who had previously emerged as a writer of quality, sardonic, witty and immensely entertaining drama with BBC-2's highly-successful A Very Peculiar Practice) adapted Dobb's novel in four parts, scripting a Machiavellian tale of the struggle for and acquisition of power, the workings of the political machine and the innocent parties crushed underfoot in the dirty games played out in the forum of the House of Commons. Ian Richardson was cast as the devious Chief Whip, Francis Urquhart, who would transform throughout the series from a mere backroom figure to emerge as the Prime Minister of Great Britain. In a technique normally reserved for Shakespearean productions, Urquhart confided in the audience with Machiavellian asides in which he verbalized his thoughts, desires, ambitions and schemes. Matched beautifully by Richardson's purring tone, Urquhart became a sinister yet indomitable force which seduced audiences into empathizing with and urging on the Urquhart character to ascend to the summit of power.

His efforts to destabilize the weak
Conservative leader, Henry Collingridge, whilst appearing as a close political colleague, his manipulation of the secrets known only the Chief Whip to muster support for himself in a covert rise to the top, his manouevring and seduction of naïve journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) and his elimination of leadership rivals made for gripping television, delicately laced with a nice line in black humour (and underpinned by a magnificent musical score by Jim Parker, who received a coveted BAFTA for his efforts are the second instalment in the Urquhart trilogy) were all prominent features of the production, as was the delightful use of a rat motif, as Urquhart tinkered and manipulated behind the scenes..

Diane Fletcher appeared as his wife, Elizabeth, a constant source of support and yet as equally manipulative as her husband, whilst Colin Jeavons starred as Tim Stamper, the weasel-like aide to Urquhart in his capacity as Chief Whip. Remarkably, the adaption of House Of Cards differs considerably to that which Michael Dobbs penned in his novel. The culmination of the programme, with Francis Urquhart admitting his part in the death of Roger O'Neill (Miles Anderson) and the destruction of Collingridge to Mattie Storin, followed by his throwing the journalist from the roof of the House of Commons to her death, differed radically from Dobb's book (in which Urquhart plummeted to his death) and yet succeeded in consolidating the representation of Urquhart as an unbeaten and unbowed political force of nature (perhaps aptly summed up in a classic Urquhart monologue during the third and final stage of the trilogy, The Final Cut). In a scheduler's dream, the series had been transmitted during the 1990 Tory leadership election, and perhaps formed an art-imitating-life situation, as events unfolded at Downing Street amidst cries of "You might very well think that, I couldn't possibly comment", an Urqhuart parlance which has since become House of Commons phraseology.

The series was an astounding success for BBC Television (despite the finished product being at variance with the sympathetic Tory tone of Dobb's original novel), and, sure enough, Urquhart would resurface three years later to lock horns with the King. House Of Cards received a Region 1 DVD released in 2003, with many additional scenes restored to the production after BBC Worldwide's edited version was released on VHS during the 1990s. This cult series has yet to be released in the country of its origin, despite the desire of its fan base to once again enjoy this superb series.

Characters
Portrayed By
Francis Urqhart
Ian Richardson
Mattie Storin
Susannah Harker
Elizabeth Urqhart
Diana Fletcher
Roger O'Neill
Miles Anderson
Guy Penny
Alphonsia Emmanuel
Tim Stamper
Colin Jeavons
Patrick Woolton
Malcolm Tierney
Benjamin Landless
Kenny Ireland
Charles Collingridge
James Villiers
Lord Billsborough
Nicholas Selby
Michael Samuels
Damien Thomas
John Krajewski
William Chubb
Sir Greville Preston
John Hartley
McKenzie
Christopher Owen
Harold Earle
Kenneth Gilbert
Anne Collingridge
Isabelle Amyes
Stoat
Raymond Mass
Stephen Kendrick
Tommy Boyle
Sir Jasper Grainger
John Arnatt
Newsreader
Angela Rippon
Presenter
Robert Ashby
Treasurer
Frank Williams
Biggman
Jeff Nuttall
Charles Goodman
David Blake Kelly
Junior Health Minister
Sally Faulkner
The Speaker
Colin Dudley
Secretary
Henrietta Voigts
Jhabwala
Tariq Yunus
Blackhead
Gertan Klauber
Bank Manager
Nadim Sawalha
Police Constable
Michael Tomlinson
Commissionaire
Alex Leppard
Political Secretary
Delaval Ashley
Political Secretary
Peter Gales
Interviewer
Geoffrey Bateman
Doctor Christian
Hugh Dickson
Kevin Spence
Richard Brain
Public Relations Girl
Julie Glenton
Prestatyn Powell
Bill Powell
Waiter
Subash Singh Pall
Man at Clinic
Iain Collier
Young Man At Number 10
John Duval
Stephanie Woolton
Vivienne Richie
Adrian Shepherd
Eric Allen
McKenzie's Assistant
Jan Winters
Sir Humphrey Newlands
Robin Wentworth
Chauffeur
Kenneth Hadley

Written by Michael Dobbs, adapted for television by Andrew Davies. Series director was Paul Seed, producer Ken Riddington.
Script Editor for the series was Ellen Fraser
1
TX : 18th November 1990

Synopsis : Who Will Be The Next Prime Minister? When a new leader for the Conservative Party is chosen, and it falls to Chief Whip Francis Urquhart to muster support for Charles Collingridge, the successor to Margaret Thatcher. But when the new Prime Minister casts Urquhart aside in favour of stable government, the gloves come off as he seeks revenge in pursuit of the highest office in the land.

Publicity :
With impeccable timing the new BBC Sunday night drama is a political thriller about an attempt to undermine a conservative Prime Minister. The scenario imagines that Mrs Thatcher has finally been toppled and replaced by a man of straw who calls a general election and sees the Tory majority fall from one hundred to less than thirty. The knives are out, orchestrated behind the scenes by the devious Chief Whip (Ian Richardson) who uses Michael Caine's trick from Alfie and talks straight to the camera. With the whip's wife egging him into higher things there are hints of the Macbeth story, although the script by Andrew Davies (of Mother Love and A Very Peculiar Practice) is often closer to a farce than a tragedy. Based on a book by a former Thatcher aide, Michael Dobbs, House Of Cards, has the makings of highly satisfying entertainment. (The Times, November 18, 1990).

Notes : Episodes were transmitted between 9pm and 10pm. Music for the series was composed by Jim Parker.

2
TX : 25th November 1990

Synopsis : It is Party Conference time and a scandal is about to break. Urquhart musters the support of media tycoon Benjamin Landless in a bid to bring down the Prime Minister.

Notes : The series was filmed at Manchester Town Hall, the interiors of which doubled for the House of Commons.

3
TX : 2nd December 1990

Synopsis : Thanks to Francis Urquhart's subversion, the Prime Minister's position looks precarious, but political journalist Mattie Storn suspects a frame-up.

Notes : Political Adviser for the series was The Right Honourable Ernest Armstrong P.C.

4
TX : 9th December 1990

Synopsis : Having manipulated the present incumbent out of Downing Street, the way seems clear for the devious Chief Whip Francis Urquhart to take over as Prime Minister. Unless of course young Mattie Storin stumbles on the truth.

Notes : The stunt in this episode was performed by Tina Maskell, the stunt arranger was Gareth Milne.


Text © Matthew Lee, 2004.