Politics is, even more than usually, big news at the moment. In the UK, there are the ongoing repercussions of the election result, with a Tory majority elected for the first time since 1992. The USA is on countdown to 2016 and the possibility of a Bush vs. Clinton Presidential contest. Maybe this is why House of Cards feels like such essential viewing right now. A story of both the allure and corrupting influence of ultimate power, it has been a huge success for Netflix, due in no small part to the outstanding performances of Kevin Spacey as the scheming Francis Underwood and Robin Wright as his equally shrewd wife.
My first encounter with the world of House of Cards came in 1990, with the original BBC TV series. Based on a novel by Michael Dobbs – who, interestingly, worked for the Conservative Party in important capacities – it starred Ian Richardson as the Chief Whip Francis Urquhart. When he is passed over for a Cabinet seat, Urquhart vows not just to get revenge but to replace the Prime Minister himself.
Broadcast at the same time that Margret Thatcher was overthrown, it was truly electrifying. Part of the cleverness of the writing was that while Urquhart was utterly without compassion, he was also very charming. Like his later American counterpart, he frequently turned to the camera to address the audience. His black humour gave even his most terrible acts an edge of comedy -. until the last episode, when a shocking conclusion – which was completely different to that of the book – proved just how ruthless Urquhart was and left the way open for two further series.
I was fifteen when I saw House of Cards. It was the second entirely ‘adult’ series I watched (the first was a rerun of the equally brilliant I, Claudius) and I loved it. Partly it was because that while Urquhart was evil, he represented the triumph of intellect over the physical. A bullied kid at a school where the sporty were at the top of the tree, it was a concept that appealed to me. But also, I think, it tapped into a fairly universal truth that while power can be dangerous it is also fascinating. The genius of it was that Urquhart made us complicit in his actions (‘Whatever I do, you partake of it’ he says in the second series). And it was just so damn funny! I was left-leaning, even then, but Urquhart was a bewitching anti-hero.
When I heard that the series was to be re-made as an American series, with the Conservative Urquhart replaced by the Democrat Francis Underwood, I was very sceptical. It sounded like just another unnecessary reboot. How wrong I was. The US version uses some of the ideas from the original series but takes them in entirely new directions (it is perfectly plausible to imagine the two series occurring in the same continuity). Underwood, a rougher character than Urquhart with less of a line in arch wit, is a distinct creation in his own right. For all that he is, among other things, a murderer, some of the characters opposing him – such as the odious Raymond Tusk – seem even worse. As with the original, sometimes you can’t help but cheer him on.
Both Urquhart and Underwood are men prepared to pursue their ambitions at any cost. They move unerringly from the edge of the frame to the very centre of the picture. They illustrate the corrupting effect of power while appealing to sides of ourselves we would much rather not admit to. Both series are smart television drama at its best.