Francis Urquhart

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Francis Ewan Urquhart
House of Cards character
Francis Urquhart.jpg
First appearance House of Cards
Created by Michael Dobbs
Portrayed by Ian Richardson
Information
Gender Male
Occupation Scots Guards (lieutenant)[citation needed]
Tutor (Oxford)[1]
Government Chief Whip
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
Title The Right Honourable Francis Urquhart MP
Family Ewan Urquhart (brother)[1]
Alistair Urquhart (brother)
Elizabeth McCullough Urquhart (wife)
Nationality British

Francis Ewan Urquhart is a fictional character created by Michael Dobbs. Known by his initials FU, Urquhart appeared in a trilogy of novels: House of Cards (1989), To Play the King (1992) and The Final Cut (1995). He was portrayed in the BBC TV adaptations by Ian Richardson, who won a BAFTA award for his performance.[2]

House of Cards follows Urquhart, a Conservative and the government chief whip, as he manoeuvres himself through blackmail and murder to the post of Prime Minister. To Play the King sees Prime Minister Urquhart clash with the newly crowned King of the United Kingdom over disagreements regarding social justice. By the time of The Final Cut, Urquhart has been in power for eleven years, and refuses to relinquish his position until he has beaten Margaret Thatcher's record as longest serving post-war Prime Minister.[3]

Thought to be based on Richard III and Macbeth,[4] and described as the "epitome of elegant evil",[5] Urquhart is characterised by his habitual breaking of the fourth wall, his quoting of Shakespeare, and his usage of the catchphrase, "You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment", or a variation thereon, as a deniable way of agreeing with people.[4]

Development and reception[edit]

Michael Dobbs stated that the inspiration behind Urquhart came during a drinking session at a swimming pool after a tense encounter with Margaret Thatcher, deliberately creating a character moulded around the initials "FU".[6] Ian Richardson was offered the role of Urquhart for the BBC TV adaptation of House of Cards in 1990, which he immediately accepted, noting:

From the moment I read the first scripts, I felt that not only was it the biggest acting opportunity to come my way since my Shakespeare days, but probably was going to be something rather special on the box.[3]

Richardson based his portrayal of the character on a British consul acquaintance in Japan.[7] While acknowledging that playing Urquhart brought him immediate public recognition, Richardson stated that as a Scottish Presbyterian, he found the character's "Machiavellian deviousness" and sex appeal "really rather revolting".[3] Nevertheless, despite finding him "an irritating bugger", Richardson found Urquhart "a joy to play".[7]

Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times praised Urquhart as making "Richard Nixon look like a guileless wimp."[8] Urquhart's motto - "You might think that, I couldn't possibly comment" - has entered the national lexicon, and has been quoted in the House of Commons.[4]

Depiction[edit]

Personality and background[edit]

Urquhart is portrayed as having few other interests outside politics, though he is an avid reader of Italian Renaissance poetry and Elizabethan/Jacobean drama, with Webster and Tourneur being among his favourite authors. He frequently quotes Shakespeare, particularly Macbeth.[1]

Urquhart was born in 1936, the youngest son of the Earl of Bruichcladdich. He was educated at Eton where, although not noted for brilliance, was recognized for his diligence and industriousness. He joined the British Army at age 18, and spent three years in Cyprus, where he was commended for bravery in his capture and interrogation of EOKA terrorists. Urquhart resigned his commission after a colleague was court-martialed for accidentally killing a suspect, and took up a place in Oxford University, where he taught Renaissance Italian History, becoming an authority on the Medici and Machiavelli. He married Elizabeth McCullough, eldest daughter of whiskey magnate William McCullough, in 1960. By the time of House of Cards, Urquhart has long abandoned academia in favour of politics, having steadily risen to the position of chief whip.[1]

Politics[edit]

Urqhuart is hard right-wing. His policies include abolishing the Arts Council, outlawing vagrancy, reintroducing conscription and banning pensioners from National Health Service treatment unless they have paid for Age Insurance. He describes himself to his wife, Elizabeth, in To Play the King as: "I'm not a brute, Elizabeth, just a plain, no-nonsense, old-fashioned Tory." He is contemptuous of the welfare state. One character remarks that he ignores Scotland and Wales. He appears to be at least sceptical of the European Union.

During an interview, Urquhart expounds his views of British society, by saying, "There is a deep division in society today between those who want to work and enjoy the fruits of their labours and abide by and uphold the laws of the land, and an increasing number of what it has become fashionable to call "the disaffected," "the disadvantaged," "the differently motivated," what we used to call lazy people, dishonest people, people who don't want to take responsibility for their actions or their lives." In the same interview, he lambastes youth culture for its depraved morality by saying: "It is not right that our people in the very prime and flower of youth should be spending half the day loafing in bed and the rest selling each other drugs and stealing from each other". In his view, conscription is the best solution to "give young people the chance to learn self discipline again, a chance to feel proud of themselves." Finally, his detestation of the welfare state can be gleaned from his "great belief of Britain [...], [...] not a nation of social workers or clients of social workers" and the fact that "Britain' is a fierce proud nation and [...] still - God willing - a nation to be reckoned."

His foreign policy takes after Margaret Thatcher's stance on world affairs. Urquhart thinks that Britain has more to teach the world, and Europe in particular, than the other way round. He would like to see the rest of the European Union speaking English - a position that would then completely alienate the Foreign Secretary Tom Makepeace. Besides, his strong belief in discipline and the rule of law shapes his foreign policy in Cyprus, where he authorizes the use of force against schoolgirls who were blocking military vehicles.

His economic policies are never clearly stated, but seem to favour the laissez-faire deregulatory approach of Margaret Thatcher and a relaxation of anti-trust laws.

Biography[edit]

House of Cards[edit]

Following the resignation of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the moderate but indecisive Henry Collingridge emerges as both Thatcher's successor and the leader of the Conservative Party; the party wins the next general election with a reduced majority. Shortly afterwards, Urquhart, the party's Chief Whip, submits a memorandum to Collingridge advocating a cabinet reshuffle that would contemplate a prominent ministerial position for Urquhart himself. However, Collingridge discards Urquhart's proposals on the basis that doing so would probably adversely affect the party's popularity, leading Urquhart to orchestrate a political revenge.

Urquhart exploits his position as Chief Whip to leak inside information to the press to undermine Collingridge, ultimately forcing him to resign. Most of his leaks are to Mattie Storin, a young reporter for a tabloid newspaper called The Chronicle. Urquhart then eliminates his enemies in the resulting leadership contest by means of fabricated scandals that he sets up himself or publicizes. These include threatening to publish photographs of Education Secretary Harold Earle in the company of a rent boy; causing Health Secretary Peter MacKenzie to accidentally run over a disabled man; and forcing Foreign Secretary Patrick Woolton to withdraw by blackmailing him with an audiotape of a one-night stand. His remaining rival, Environment Secretary Michael Samuels, is alleged by the press to have supported far-left politics as a university student. Urquhart thereby reaches the brink of victory.

Prior to the final ballot, Urquhart murders his drug-addicted and increasingly unstable right-hand-man, Roger O'Neill, whom he forced into helping him to remove Collingridge from office. Urquhart invites O'Neill to his country house near Southampton, gets him drunk, and mixes rat poison with his cocaine.

The ending of the novel and TV series differ significantly (indeed, only the ending and popularity of the TV series prompted the author Michael Dobbs to write the sequels). Mattie untangles Urquhart's web and confronts him in the deserted roof garden of the Houses of Parliament. In the novel, he commits suicide by jumping to his death. In the TV drama, he throws her off the roof, killing her, and claims she committed suicide. In the TV version, Urquhart had gained her ultimate trust by having a sexual relationship with her (with his wife's consent). This was strangely paternal; when Urquhart informed her "'Now that is absurd, Mattie. You don't expect me to fall for that. I'm old enough to be your father'", she seems to be further attracted to him, and called him 'daddy.' Shortly after murdering her, he is driven to Buckingham Palace to be invited by the Queen to form a government as Prime Minister. He does not know that Mattie was taping their final conversation and that someone would find the tape.

To Play the King[edit]

The second instalment starts with Francis Urquhart, in his second term as Prime Minister, feeling a sense of anti-climax. Having gained great power and influence, he wonders how to use them. His wife comments that he needs "'Something or someone to present you with a new challenge. Something to stimulate you intellectually. Bring out the best in you.'" This challenge is shortly provided in the form of the new King. The King has a strong social conscience, and is concerned about what he sees as the result of Urquhart's hard-line policies. He does not directly criticise Urquhart in public, but makes speeches about the direction he wishes the country to pursue, which contrasts with the Government's policies. Urquhart wins the confidence of the King's estranged wife and uses his influence in the press to reveal intimate and scandalous secrets concerning the Royal Family. The King is dragged into campaigning on behalf of the Opposition during a general election which Urquhart wins, creating a constitutional crisis and finally forcing the King to abdicate in favour of his teenage son, whom Urquhart expects to be a much less influential Monarch.

Urquhart also murders his former ally and Party Chairman, Tim Stamper after he learns of Mattie's tape, that Stamper acquired it and that, embittered by Urquhart's failure to reward his loyalty, Stamper plans to go to the police with the tape. He also eliminates his own aide (and lover) Sarah Harding, in whom Stamper had confided. Both perish in car explosions, made to appear as IRA terrorist attacks by Urquhart's bodyguard, Commander Corder.

With a tame monarch and no threat in sight, Urquhart is secure as Prime Minister.

The Final Cut[edit]

The last installment in the trilogy portrays the embattled and increasingly unpopular Urquhart determined to "'beat that bloody woman's record'" of longevity as Prime Minister. He is aware that, like all statesmen, he will not rule forever and he is determined to 'make my mark on the [world].' He sets about reuniting Cyprus, both to secure his legacy, and to gain substantial revenue for 'The Urquhart Trust' after a Turkish Cypriot businessman informs Urquhart of an international sea boundary deal which would give the exploitation rights for offshore oil to the British and the Turks. His past is catching up with him, however - a tenacious Cypriot girl and her father are determined to prove that he murdered her uncles while serving as a young officer in Cyprus during the unrest that preceded independence in 1956. He also fires his more liberal and pro-European Foreign Secretary, Tom Makepeace, who is fed up with not being allowed to do his job and having Urquhart take the credit for the Cyprus deal (and publicly dismisses Makepeace's role as having been "'loaded down with much of the donkey-work'"), leaving Makepeace free to challenge Urquhart for the party leadership.

After disastrous events in Cyprus, Urquhart is shot dead at the unveiling of the Margaret Thatcher memorial, having been Prime Minister for 4,228 days—one day longer than Thatcher. In the TV series Urquhart's bodyguard, Corder, arranges his assassination with the consent of his wife (who is implied to be Corder's lover—Urquhart knows this and does not object) to stop the dark secrets from his past being revealed. In the book, Urquhart allows himself to be killed by an assassin who is out for revenge, martyring himself in the process—by pushing his wife out of the way and saving her life, he secured himself a State funeral, the landslide re-election of his Party and the legacy he craved.

Other incarnations[edit]

In the 2013 U.S. remake of the House of Cards trilogy, Urquhart's place is filled by Francis "Frank" Underwood (Kevin Spacey),[9] a Democratic representative from South Carolina's 5th district and House Majority Whip. Series producer Beau Willimon explained that the last name Urquhart had been replaced with Underwood, which was both "Dickensian and more legitimately American" but maintained the initials F. U. Unlike Urquhart, who is of aristocratic birth, Underwood is a self-made man, which Willimon thought more consonant with "the American mythology."[10]

Critical reaction to the reimagined Urquhart has been mixed. Andrew Davies, the producer of the original UK TV series, stated that Underwood lacks the "charm" of Urquhart.[11] Conversely, The Independent praised Spacey's portrayal as a more "menacing" character, "hiding his rage behind Southern charm and old-fashioned courtesy,"[12] while The New Republic noted that "When Urquhart addressed the audience, it was partly in the spirit of conspiratorial fun. His asides sparked with wit. He wasn’t just ruthlessly striving, he was amusing himself, mocking the ridiculousness of his milieu. There is no impishness about Spacey’s Frank Underwood, just numb, machine-like ambition. Even his affection for his wife is a calculation."[13]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d Andrew Davies, Profile: An impeccable player: Francis Urquhart: Is this Prime Minister a Machiavelli or a Macbeth? Andrew Davies ponders his record, The Independent (Nov 28, 1993)
  2. ^ House of Cards' Richardson dies, BBC, (Feb 9, 2007)
  3. ^ a b c Mail, Sharon (2009). We Could Possibly Comment - Ian Richardson Remembered. Author Way Limited. ISBN 1476442738
  4. ^ a b c Youngs, Ian (9 February 2007). "Richardson's rule in House of Cards". BBC. Retrieved 4 June 2008. 
  5. ^ "House of Cards actor Ian Richardson dies in his sleep". London: Daily Mail. 9 February 2007. Retrieved 16 July 2009. 
  6. ^ "Some thoughts...". Retrieved 2 March 2013. 
  7. ^ a b James Rampton. Exposed: the man who would be king: House of Cards is back and this time Francis Urquhart has turned really nasty. James Rampton met the actor Ian Richardson on set, while the former Chief Whip Tim Renton compares the role with reality. The Independent (2 March 1993)
  8. ^ Howard Rosenberg, PBS Serves Up a Pair of Gems : Television: British TV has long excelled at political intrigue. 'Die Kinder' and 'House of Cards' continue the tradition--and share the cynicism, Los Angeles Times (28 March 1993)
  9. ^ BBC Breakfast News June 2013, interview with Michael Dobbs
  10. ^ Jace Lacob (30 January 2013). "David Fincher, Beau Willimon & Kate Mara on Netflix’s ‘House of Cards’". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 24 February 2014. 
  11. ^ Jace Lacob, David Fincher, Beau Willimon & Kate Mara On Netflix’s ‘House of Cards’, The Daily Beast (Jan 30, 2013)
  12. ^ Sarah Hughes, 'Urquhart is deliciously diabolical': Kevin Spacey is back in a remake of House of Cards, The Independent, (Jan 30, 2013)
  13. ^ Laura Bennet, Kevin Spacey's leading-man problem: the star of the 13-hour "House of Cards" is as impenetrable as ever, The New Republic (Feb 5, 2013)