Directed by Paul Seed
Written by Andrew Davies, Michael Dobbs
Starring Ian Richardson, Susannah Harker, David Lyon, Diane Fletcher
The Netflix series House of Cards has been a major critical and popular success, so much so that its origin has been given short shrift. But the original British series is at least as good and is, in may ways, better.
Note: Here be spoilers for both series. Proceed at your own risk.
Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) is the Conservative Party whip in the UK. After missing out on a cabinet appointment, Urquhart decides to oust the Prime Minister and take his place. Encouraged by his wife Elizabeth (Diane Fletcher), he starts an affair with a political reporter Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) and quietly undermines the prime minister and discredits all potential rivals.
If you’re watching the Netflix version, this sounds familiar. But Urquhart is different from Netflix’s Frank Underwood. The differences between the US and UK political system make a big difference in the story, since Urquhart is able to directly work his way up to prime minister without an election, while Underwood has to be more indirect. The relationship between Urquhart and Mattie is more perverse and Elizabeth takes a smaller but more significant role in the affair (she suggests it to him).
The delight of the series is Ian Richardson. He takes his cue from Shakespeare’s Richard III* and plays it more menacingly, while, at the same time, more charming. He takes the audience into his confidence in a way that makes him seem appealing. While Spacey is a favorite actor of mine, Richardson plays the character with a little more depth and is far more unpredictable.
There’s also the matter of his catchphrase. Urquhart often uses the line “You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment” as a way to lead the press the way he wants. He gives the words different emphasis to make different points.
The series was successful enough to spawn two sequels: To Play the King, where Prime Minister Urquhart goes up against the new king of England, and The Final Cut, where his administration finally falls. It is exhilarating television.
*A role he had played on stage.