House of Cards (UK TV series)

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For the 2013 US series of the same name, see House of Cards (US TV series).
House of Cards
Based on House of Cards 
by Michael Dobbs
Written by Andrew Davies
Michael Dobbs
Directed by Paul Seed
Starring Ian Richardson
Susannah Harker
David Lyon
Diane Fletcher
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original language(s) English
Producer(s) Ken Riddington
Running time 4 x 55 minutes
Distributor BBC
Original run 18 November 1990 – 9 December 1990
Followed by To Play the King

House of Cards is a 1990 British political thriller television drama serial by the BBC in four episodes, set after the end of Margaret Thatcher's tenure as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. It was televised from 18 November to 9 December 1990, to critical and popular acclaim.

The story was adapted by Andrew Davies from a novel written by Michael Dobbs, a former Chief of Staff at Conservative Party headquarters. Dobbs's novel was also dramatised for radio for BBC World Service in 1996, by Neville Teller, and had two television sequels (To Play the King and The Final Cut). The opening and closing theme music for those TV series is entitled "Francis Urquhart's March".[1]

House of Cards was ranked 84th in the British Film Institute list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes in 2000.[2] In 2013, the serial and the Dobbs novel were the basis for a US adaptation set in Washington, D.C., commissioned and released by Netflix.


The antihero of House of Cards is Francis Urquhart, a fictional Chief Whip of the Conservative Party, played by Ian Richardson. The plot follows his amoral and manipulative scheme to become leader of the governing party and, thus, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Michael Dobbs did not envisage writing the second and third books, as Urquhart dies at the end of the first novel. The screenplay of the BBC's dramatisation of House of Cards differed from the book, and hence allowed future series. Dobbs wrote two following books, To Play the King and The Final Cut, which were televised in 1993 and 1995 respectively.[3]

House of Cards was said to draw from Shakespeare's Macbeth and Richard III,[4] both of which feature main characters who are corrupted by power and ambition. Richardson had a Shakespearean background, and said he based his characterization of Urquhart on Shakespeare's portrayal of Richard III.[4] Urquhart frequently talks through the camera to the audience, breaking the fourth wall using the aside.[5]


After the resignation of Margaret Thatcher, the ruling Conservative Party is about to elect a new leader. Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson), an MP and the Government Chief Whip in the House of Commons, introduces viewers to the contestants, from which Henry "Hal" Collingridge (David Lyon) emerges victorious. Urquhart is secretly contemptuous of the well-meaning but weak Collingridge, but expects promotion to a senior position in the Cabinet. After the general election, which the party wins by a reduced majority, Urquhart makes his suggestions for a cabinet reshuffle that includes his desired promotion. However, Collingridge – citing Harold Macmillan's political demise after sacking half his Cabinet – effects no changes at all. Urquhart resolves to oust Collingridge, with encouragement from his wife, Elizabeth (Diane Fletcher).

At the same time, with Elizabeth's blessing, Urquhart begins an affair with Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker), a junior political reporter at a Conservative-leaning tabloid newspaper called The Chronicle. The affair allows Urquhart to manipulate Mattie and indirectly skew her coverage of the Conservative leadership contest in his favour. Mattie has an apparent Electra complex, referring to Urquhart as 'Daddy', a word that later figures prominently in Urquhart's painful flashbacks of her.

Another unwitting pawn in Urquhart's scheme is Roger O'Neill (Miles Anderson), the party's cocaine-addicted public relations consultant. Urquhart blackmails O'Neill into leaking information on budget cuts that humiliates Collingridge during the Prime Minister's Questions. Later, Urquhart blames Party chairman Lord "Teddy" Billsborough (Nicholas Selby) for the leak of an internal poll showing a drop in Tory numbers, leading Collingridge to sack him. Meanwhile, Urquhart encourages ultraconservative Foreign Secretary Patrick Woolton (Malcolm Tierney) and Chronicle owner Benjamin Landless to support Collingridge's removal. Finally, Urquhart poses as Collingridge's alcoholic brother, Charles, to trade shares in a chemical company about to benefit from the government. Collingridge becomes falsely accused of insider trading. This, combined with his eroding image and his bad showing at the party conference, forces him to resign.

In the ensuing leadership race, Urquhart – in imitation of William Shakespeare's Richard of Gloucester — at first feigns unwillingness to stand before announcing his candidacy. With the help of his underling, Tim Stamper (Colin Jeavons), Urquhart goes about making sure his competitors drop out of the race: Health Secretary Peter MacKenzie (Christopher Owen) accidentally runs his car over a disabled protester at a demonstration staged by Urquhart and is forced to withdraw by the public outcry, while Education Secretary Harold Earle (Kenneth Gilbert) is blackmailed into withdrawing when Urquhart anonymously sends pictures of him in the company of a rent boy whom he had paid for sex.

The first ballot leaves Urquhart to face Woolton and Michael Samuels, the moderate Environment Secretary supported by Billsborough. Urquhart eliminates Woolton by a prolonged scheme: at the party conference, he pressures O'Neill into persuading his personal assistant and lover, Penny Guy (Alphonsia Emmanuel), to have a one-night stand with Woolton in his suite, with the encounter recorded through a bugged ministerial red box. When the tape is sent to Woolton, he is led to assume that Samuels is behind the scheme and backs Urquhart in the contest. Urquhart also receives support from Collingridge, who is unaware of Urquhart's role in his own downfall. Samuels is forced out of the running when the tabloids reveal that he backed leftist causes as a student at Cambridge.

Stumbling across contradictions in the allegations against Collingridge and his brother, Mattie begins to dig deeper. On Urquhart's orders, O'Neill arranges for her car and flat to be vandalised in a show of intimidation. However, O'Neill becomes increasingly uneasy with what he is being asked to do, with his cocaine addiction adding to his instability. Urquhart mixes O'Neill's cocaine with rat poison, causing him to kill himself when taking the cocaine in a motorway lavatory. Though initially blind to the truth of matters thanks to her relations with Urquhart, Mattie eventually deduces that Urquhart is responsible for O'Neill's death and is behind the unfortunate downfalls of Collingridge and all of Urquhart's rivals.

Mattie Storin looks for Urquhart at the point when it seems his victory is certain. She eventually finds him on the roof garden of the Houses of Parliament, where she confronts him. He admits to O'Neill's murder and everything else he has done. He then asks whether he can trust Mattie, and, though she answers in the affirmative, he does not believe her and throws her off the roof onto a van parked below. An unseen person picks up Mattie's tape recorder, which she had been using to secretly record her conversations with Urquhart. The series ends with Urquhart defeating Samuels in the second leadership ballot and being driven to Buckingham Palace to be invited to form a government by the Queen.

Deviations from the novel in the series[edit]

In the novel, but not in the television series:

  • Urquhart never speaks directly to the reader; the character is written solely in a third-person perspective.
  • When alone, Urquhart is much less self-assured and decisive.
  • Mattie Storin worked for The Daily Telegraph. (In the television series she was a journalist with the fictional Chronicle newspaper.)
  • Mattie Storin does not have a relationship with Urquhart; she does not even talk with him frequently. She does, however, have a sexual relationship with John Krajewski.
  • Urquhart's wife is called 'Miranda' and is an extremely minor character, not sharing in his schemes. (In the later novels, To Play the King and The Final Cut, however, she is called 'Elizabeth' and plays a larger role, as in the television series.)
  • The Conservative party conference was held in Bournemouth. (In the television series it was in Brighton.)
  • Tim Stamper was introduced for the on-screen adaptation (although Dobbs introduced him in the novel To Play the King).
  • Earle's rent boy appears in person at an important speech of his, distracting him; subsequently, Earle is harassed by reporters who have been told of his indiscretion.
  • Urquhart threatens to kill Mattie Storin by hitting her with a chair, but refrains in a fit of cowardice, and jumps to his own death after she leaves the roof garden.[6]

When the series was reissued in 2013, to coincide with the release of the US version of House of Cards, Dobbs rewrote portions of the novel to bring the series in line with the television mini-series and restore continuity between the three novels. The 2013 version:

  • Urquart murders Mattie Storin per the TV series, throwing her off the roof after she confronts Urquart about his actions. The character does not scream "Daddy" when she dies. Urquhart covers up the crime by claiming she was an obsessed stalker who was mentally ill and vows to make mental health amongst the young a priority policy-wise.
  • Mattie Storin works for newspaper "The Chronicle", per the tv series.

Tim Stamper, though present in the tv mini-series does not appear in the revised version of the novel. Furthermore, the revised version of the novel retains Mortima as the name of Urquart's wife.


The first instalment of the TV series coincidentally aired two days before the Conservative Party leadership election.[4] Author Dobbs said that John Major's leadership headquarters "came to a halt" to view the show.[7] During a time of "disillusionment with politics", the series "caught the nation's mood".[8]

Ian Richardson won a Best Actor BAFTA in 1991 for his role as Urquhart, and Andrew Davies won an Emmy for outstanding writing in a miniseries.

It has been ranked 84th in the British Film Institute list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes.[9]

The drama also introduced and popularised[4] the phrase: "You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment." It was used by Urquhart whenever he could not be seen to agree with a question, with the emphasis on either the 'I' or the 'possibly' depending on the situation. The phrase was even quoted in the House of Commons following the series.[4][10] A variation on the phrase was written into the TV adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Hogfather for Death, as an in-joke on the fact that he was voiced by Richardson. A further variation was used by Nicola Murray, a fictional government minister, in the third series finale of The Thick of It. The phrase was also heard in the US adaptation of House of Cards, spoken by Congressman Francis J. "Frank" Underwood, portrayed by Kevin Spacey.


The Urquhart trilogy has been adapted in the United States as House of Cards. The show stars Kevin Spacey as Francis "Frank" Underwood, the Majority Whip of the Democratic Party, who schemes and murders his way to becoming President of the United States. It is produced by David Fincher and Spacey's Trigger Street Productions, with the initial episodes directed by Fincher. The series is produced and financed by independent studio Media Rights Capital. It is one of Netflix's first forays into original programming. Season one was made available online on 1 February 2013.[11] The series is filmed in Baltimore, Maryland.[12][13][14] The first season was critically acclaimed and earned four Golden Globe Nominations, including Best Drama, actor, actress and supporting actor, with Robin Wright winning best actress. It also earned nine Primetime Emmy Award nominations, winning three, and was the first show to earn nominations that was broadcast solely via an internet streaming service.

See also[edit]

  • Politics in fiction
  • A Very British Coup, a similar drama of fictional contemporary British politics from a left-wing perspective
  • Yes Minister (and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister), a satirical sitcom about a generic British government, described by some politicians as accurate


  1. ^ "Jim Parker: Francis Urquhart's March". 
  2. ^ "British Film Institute list of 100 Greatest British Television Programmes, No. 84". Retrieved 4 June 2008. 
  3. ^ BBC – BBC Four Drama – House of Cards
  4. ^ a b c d e "Richardson's rule in House of Cards". London: BBC. 9 February 2007. Retrieved 4 June 2008. 
  5. ^ Cartmell, Deborah (2007). The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen. Cambridge University Press. p. 244. ISBN 0521614864. 
  6. ^ Britain Undone, With Evil Delight, New York Times, 13 January 1994
  7. ^ "House of Cards actor Ian Richardson dies in his sleep". London: Daily Mail. 9 February 2007. Retrieved 16 July 2009. 
  8. ^ Kirby, Terry (10 February 2007). "Ian Richardson, the PM who couldn't possibly comment, dies aged 72". London: The Independent. Retrieved 16 July 2009. 
  9. ^ [1][dead link]
  10. ^ Example in Hansard
  11. ^ Itzkoff, Dave (4 October 2012). "Netflix Sets February Premiere for 'House of Cards'". The New York Times. Retrieved 13 November 2012. 
  12. ^ "House of Cards". 17 March 2011. Retrieved 7 August 2011. 
  13. ^ "Netflix To Enter Original Programming With Mega Deal For David Fincher-Kevin Spacey Series House of Cards". 15 March 2011. 
  14. ^ "Netflix Builds a 'House of Cards' That Could Knock Down the Networks". 18 March 2011. Retrieved 8 July 2011. 

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