To Play the King
|To Play the King|
|Written by||Andrew Davies (adaptation)
Michael Dobbs (novel)
|Directed by||Paul Seed|
|Country of origin||United Kingdom|
|Running time||4 x 50 minutes|
|Preceded by||House of Cards|
|Followed by||The Final Cut|
To Play the King is a 1993 BBC television serial, the second part of the House of Cards trilogy. Directed by Paul Seed, the serial was based on the Michael Dobbs novel of the same name and adapted for television by Andrew Davies. The opening and closing theme music for the TV series is entitled "Francis Urquhart's March, by composer Jim Parker." The series details the conflict between British Prime Minister Francis Urquhart and a newly crowned king.
The book and TV serialisation follow on from the TV version of the first part of the trilogy. To Play the King (and the final part The Final Cut) reflect upon the end of the first series, which differed somewhat from the plot of the original novel.
The newly crowned King of the United Kingdom (Michael Kitchen) is displeased with the Conservative government led by Prime Minister Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) and becomes involved in politics in a way that Urquhart finds unacceptable for a constitutional monarch. At their first meeting, the King expresses concern about Urquhart's social policies, which he argues have led to greater problems for urban areas. Tensions escalate when Urquhart moves his progressive Environment Secretary to a job in Strasbourg after rejecting his proposals to regenerate inner cities. The King's Assistant Press Secretary, Chloe Carmichael, leaks the outcome of the meeting to the press, which rankles Urquhart.
Corder, Urquhart's sinister bodyguard and security advisor, puts the King and other enemies under surveillance. Fearing the King will weaken his position, Urquhart obtains 'Regal Insurance' from Princess Charlotte, the former wife of a member of the royal family. Urquhart's underling, Tim Stamper, persuades her to divulge lurid details about the Monarchy to Sir Bruce Bullerby, the editor of the Daily Clarion tabloid, on condition the information is published after her death. Urquhart also begins regularly meeting with the King's wife, repeatedly assuring her that whatever his differences with the King, that he has no intention of disturbing the Monarchy.
The King and his staff produce a public service announcement implicitly denouncing how Urquhart's policies have affected Britain, and covertly rally Opposition leaders to join forces against him. Irked by this intransigence, Urquhart calls an early election. His wife, Elizabeth, introduces him to a pollster named Sarah Harding and persuades him to choose her as a political advisor. Urquhart is impressed with Harding's intelligence and starts to favour her over Stamper, who becomes increasingly bitter over Urquhart's reluctance to promote him to a senior position. Urquhart eventually begins an affair with Harding, which puts a strain on her own marriage. Through all this, Urquhart continues to be haunted by his murder of Mattie Storin; unknown to him, someone possesses Mattie's tape recording of her own death.
After a brief abduction by some homeless thugs, Harding is told to, 'Ask 'im about Mattie Storin.' Despite her feelings for Urquhart, Harding begins to question his version of events about the tragedy. She meets John Krajewski, a former colleague of Mattie's who is now a paranoid freelance journalist. Corder and his staff execute Krajewski and blame it on Irish republican terrorists. Meanwhile, Urquhart threatens the King with Charlotte's memoirs, saying that he will be forced to publish them if the King continues to publicly oppose him. The King, however, refuses to be blackmailed. Urquhart engages in secret meetings with the King's ex-wife, who urges him not to back down. He also blackmails Bullerby into publishing Charlotte's memoirs in the Daily Clarion, threatening to release images of his sexual relationship with the princess.
While the royal scandal succeeds in hurting the King's popularity, the polls reverse when Conservative MP John Staines is arrested for child molestation. A furious Urquhart blames Stamper for the fallout, having put Staines in the public arena before his arrest. Mycroft, the King's closeted advisor, begins feeling guilty about his sexual orientation, having seen Staines in a gay bar with an underage boy before his arrest; he eventually decides to accept himself and come out to the King's press corps, and at the same time announcing his resignation.
The deadly explosion of a tower block, as a result of a tenant tapping into the gas supply, puts the King's arguments about social problems back into the public domain. The King organizes a bus tour visiting disadvantaged council estates in Britain to show his concern, arranging for Opposition leaders to follow him. He refuses to include a security detail. Urquhart arranges for Corder to have the King abducted by thugs during his tour of an estate in Manchester. The Parachute Regiment, secretly shadowing the King's tour on Urquhart's orders, rescues him from possible harm. The King is seen as foolish for his negligence towards security, and is not helped when Mycroft resigns after coming out.
Urquhart announces his intention of having unemployed youth from the estates conscripted into the military, re-enacting a form of national service. The Conservatives subsequently win the general election with a twenty-two seat overall majority. With his policies vindicated by the electorate despite the King's public opposition, Urquhart demands the king's abdication in favour of his son. Meanwhile, Corder realises that Stamper has been passing information on Mattie's murder to Harding as insurance. Urquhart orders Corder to assassinate them. Harding's car explodes when she is en route to meet Chloe, while Stamper's car explodes outside New Scotland Yard. The car bombings are interpreted by the media as being Provisional IRA attacks.
Breaking the fourth wall
As in House of Cards, Urquhart occasionally speaks directly to the audience. He takes the viewer into his confidence, and at the end of the series, as at the end of the first, he challenges the viewer to condemn him.
In the novel, but not in the television series:
- The storyline follows on directly from those of House of Cards, in that Urquhart has just taken over as Leader of the Conservative Party. (In the television series Urquhart is well-established as prime minister.)
- Tim Stamper takes over as Party Chairman at the beginning of the novel rather than as the plot unfolds as it is Urquhart's plan to call a snap election to increase his party's parliamentary majority.
- After Urquhart stops his business interests expanding, Ben Landless becomes an opponent of Urquhart and an ally of the king. (Landless does not appear in the television series.)
- Chloe Carmichael was created for the television adaptation.
- The character of Sarah Harding does not appear. Her character is represented by Sally Quinn, an American who also feeds information about Urquhart to Ben Landless.
- Stamper does not betray Urquhart and therefore is not murdered.
- Mattie Storin's and Roger O'Neil's murders are not directly mentioned nor used as a plot device.
- It is implied that Urquhart is responsible for his and his wife's childlessness. Indeed their relationship is less close than in the television series. When Landless threatens to expose Mrs Urquhart's affair, FU implies that he will divorce her to gain sympathy and to cling to power.
- The King willingly abdicates ahead of the general election, indicating that he will stand against Urquhart. In fact, he insists on his abdication being handled before Urquhart can call the election. Rather than feeling confident that the King has been politically neutered, Urquhart is left feeling that the ground is slipping beneath him.