Rewind: BBC’s Iconic Political Thriller ‘House of Cards’ Still Captivates

Ahead of David Fincher’s American remake of House of Cards, which launches on Netflix in February, Jace Lacob revisits the original British potboiler and finds that it still thrusts a steely rapier under the viewer’s skin.

EMPICS, via Landov

In an ongoing and occasional series, Rewind will look back at a television show or film that has proven to resonate.

Netflix, the now-ubiquitous digital streaming service, will enter the original programming arena with its upcoming American remake of House of Cards, from writer Beau Willimon (Farragut North) and director/executive producer David Fincher (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). The series, which launches Feb. 1, stars Kevin Spacey, Kate Mara, and Robin Wright in roles that are now as iconic as the British miniseries itself.

In many ways Netflix picked a stellar property to adapt as their first nonacquired original. The American House of Cards is, of course, based on the 1990 BBC political thriller miniseries of the same name—itself adapted by writer Andrew Davies from Michael Dobbs’s novel—which revolved around the Conservative Party’s chief whip, the Machiavellian Francis Urquhart, played to icy perfection by the late Ian Richardson.

More than 20 years after its release, House of Cards still manages to thrust a steely rapier under the viewer’s skin, its view of the hostile British political maneuverings of Urquhart and his kind both riveting and shocking. The overarching plot is simple: Urquhart—who is part spymaster, part enforcer, and wholly unpredictable and dangerous—is passed over for a cabinet position when his candidate for prime minister rises to power. Frustrated and seething, he sets out to destroy everyone in his path as he launches a chesslike battle to ascend to the highest seat in Her Majesty’s Government. Along the way, Urquhart meets an ambitious young journalist, Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker), and together they help each other achieve their ends, their partnership tinged with a particularly creepy psychosexual tension.

In Britain, House of Cards premiered on Nov. 18, 1990, playing out against the backdrop of the final weeks of Margaret Thatcher’s downfall and the succession of fellow Tory John Major to the seat of prime minister. With a clear sense of premonition, Thatcher’s fall from grace is even dealt with in the narrative. “Nothing lasts forever,” Urquhart says to a framed picture of Maggie Thatcher. “Even the longest and most glittering reign must come to an end someday.” (Even more emphatically, Urquhart—with a roguish smile—turns her picture facedown on his desk.)

Like Thatcher and Major, Urquhart is a member of the Conservative Party, whose closest analog in the United States would perhaps be the Republican Party, particularly that under Ronald Reagan. Richardson’s chief whip represented the face of the dominant British political party at the time, with its aura of privilege and sense of moral superiority, coupled with a whiff of venality. In the real world, Major’s entire campaign headquarters came to a full stop so that they could watch House of Cards and find out just what old Urquhart—so deceptively placid, so teeming with rage—was up to now. (Dobbs, who wrote the original novel, worked for both Thatcher and Major.)

There is a sense that House of Cards reflects the infighting and abrasive atmosphere of the political sphere at the time. Yet the miniseries also sharply invokes Shakespearean dramas like Richard III and Macbeth—Urquhart’s super-supportive and eerily bloodthirsty wife, Elizabeth (Diane Fletcher), seems to have pulled more than a few pages from Lady Macbeth’s playbook—but the carnage unfolding within House of Cards, at least at first, is limited to careers rather than corpses. What is fantastic to see is how Richardson plays Urquhart—whose initials are most intentionally F.U.—as he transitions quickly from slighted victim to wrathful demon in a Savile Row suit. Likewise, the miniseries captures Mattie’s journey from innocent naïf, yet another of Urquhart’s pawns, into dangerous adversary in her own right.

Richardson and Harker’s chemistry is as palpable as it is troubling. The attraction that exists between Urquhart and Mattie reads as both opportunistic and terribly wicked, the very definition of “wrong.” And Mattie’s insistence that she call the childless Urquhart “Daddy” even as they careen toward the bedroom still manages to shock, a display of unexpected kink and the emergence, from Mattie, of an unforeseen Electra complex. As Mattie’s quest to unmask the puppet master pulling everyone’s strings leads her on a collision course with Urquhart himself, their father/daughter, mentor/student, source/journalist relationship splinters under the weight of the truth.

Mattie and Urquhart’s entire dynamic is based on shared manipulation and subtly raised eyebrows, particularly Urquhart’s. Urquhart’s frequent comment—"You might think that; I couldn't possibly comment"—is itself a masterful web of truths and deceits, the definition of spin incarnate. (In fact, the phrase proved so popular that it quickly entered the cultural dictionary, and was even used within the House of Commons.

It is Urquhart’s breaking of the fourth wall—by which he speaks directly to the audience—that provides House of Cards (and its two sequels, To Play the King and The Final Cut) with a live-wire jolt. Whereas many shows have suffered from this narrative device, it’s used wisely here, as the viewer is invited inside Urquhart’s mind. And, like Mattie, we too feel manipulated and taken in by the charismatic and ruthless chief whip. As an unwitting confidante to Urquhart, we cannot prevent him from acting, nor can we stop the inevitable from occurring, even as his instability becomes abundantly clear.

There’s a sense of moral decay at play within House of Cards that is fascinating to watch, how our aims are often ruined by ambition, and how proximity to the sources of power leads, almost naturally, to corruption. The rats that turn up throughout the miniseries serve as a leitmotif for the underhanded behavior that marks not just Urquhart, but everyone with whom he comes into contact. The juxtaposition of one such scavenger with the Houses of Parliament, is a strong visual reminder that the garbage isn’t limited to what is under that bridge but also emanates from inside the corridors of power.

But if House of Cards teaches us one thing, it’s that the names of those in charge and the countries might change, but under the surface the rats always remain.