House of Cards will soon be a programme on the lips of the masses. It’s Netflix’s first exclusive release, and perhaps a sign of a shift from shows being released first on TV and instead coming out on streaming platforms.
Who knows if that’ll make money or not, but since my preference is to watch a show all in one go, I’m all for it.
With the release of the American remake, I decided to go back and watch the original UK series from the early 1990s.
I can’t help but feel that most people my age or younger – who were probably too young to really appreciate a show like this when it was first shown – might have passed it over and now have no intention of giving it a shot.
But I think that’s a mistake.
What’s It About?
In the wake of Margaret Thatcher standing down as leader of the Conservative Party, Chief Whip Francis Urquhart expects to be given a good seat on the cabinet under the new leader, but when he’s passed over for promotion, he plots not only
to bring down the new PM, but to take power for himself.
Over three series, each based on books by former real life Chief of Staff for the Tories, Michael Dobbs, we see Urquhart’s devious rise to power, battles with the monarchy and ultimately his downfall.
Thoughts – The Character of Francis Urquhart
It’s only natural that any review of House of Cards would start with the central figure and the reason why it’s remembered as fondly as it is; the character of Francis Urquhart, expertly played by Ian Richardson.
In terms of performance, Richardson is superb as the English Gentleman with a nasty side. He manages to be both charming and malevolent at the same time; not someone to be messed with.
But as good as Richardson is – and he is really is exceptional – the real credit has to go to the writer who made the decision to present the character as a narrator.
I know it’s been said before in probably every review of House of Cards ever written, but having Francis Urquhart take time out to break the fourth wall and speak to the viewer is a master-stroke. What it does is make us co-conspirators, complicit in his devious plots. And it makes us as viewers feel as though we’re a part of what is going on.
And let’s not kid ourselves; Urquhart is not a nice man at all. He’s one of TV’s greatest ever villains and yet we enjoy what we see him do and cheer him on.
It’s not a one man show though, as there are plenty of other strong performers flexing their acting muscles throughout. Special mentions must go to Colin Jeavons as the incredibly sleazy Tim Stamper, Malcolm Tierney as the bullish MP Patrick Woolton, and Diane Fletcher as Urquhart’s callous wife, Elizabeth.
Three Seasons, Three Storylines
In the same way as shows like Dexter operate, each season of House of Cards has its own story-arc. Indeed, only the first season is even called House of Cards; to be correct, the second season is To Play the King, while the final one is – aptly enough – called The Final Cut.
For me, there is a decline as the series progresses, with House of Cards being the best, To Play the King being very good, but The Final Cut maybe lacking a little bit. It’s still good, but when we’ve seen him defeat his political rivals in the first season, and the King in the second, there isn’t the same level of opposition for him in the end. That said, it has a pretty shocking conclusion.
What I found most interesting about the third season was the relationship between FU and his wife. Very slowly over the course of the series it’s shown that she really is the driving force behind him. It’s like people say about business; the real decision maker in any business is the owner’s wife.
That Early 90s Look
As good a show as this is, I think one of the most significant barriers to entry for anyone wanting to give it a shot now is how dated it looks.
Shot entirely on film, it has that horrible drained look that you could only get from a show filmed in the UK between about 1985 and 1999. You’ll know it when you see it.
You can watch a show in black & white or onefilmed on video from the 70s or 80s and they’ll all look newer now than that style of film does.
But if you can get past such aesthetic issues – and it would be pretty silly if you can’t – what you’re left with is a great show, and it goes without saying that I recommend it highly.
How Will The American Version Compare?
So with the UK series fresh in my mind, I’m now looking forward to this US remake more than ever.
But how will it compare?
Does the US political system even allow for a politician to make his way to the top in the same way as FU managed to seize power? I wouldn’t have thought so, but then most of my knowledge of the US political system comes from the West Wing.
Certainly the plot of To Play The King won’t work across the pond, so what I’d like to see from this show is a definitive ending and not a situation where the show is dragged out beyond its natural life in the way that the likes of Homeland are.
I don’t think Kevin Spacey – as good as he is – can recapture that vulture-like heelishness of Ian Richardson, but I still think it’ll be one of the better shows we’ll see this year.
Bring it on.