Anti-heroes have been a pervading feature of the literary landscape for centuries. Notably, some of Shakespeare’s most famous works surround the anti-hero and getting the audience to sympathise with him – Macbeth and Richard III are the most commonly referenced. Christopher Nolan founded his career on the anti-hero. Hell, Niccolo Machiavelli gave his name for an anti-hero. Most frequently, the anti-hero is someone the audience loves to hate, who they find sickeningly fascinating; but often they are also wrong place, right time kind of characters who change to reflect developing unsavoury circumstances (I’m looking at you, BatNolan).
A Machiavellian operator of the highest order who falls easily into the former category, The Right Honourable Francis Urquhart is fictional Chief Whip of the Conservative Party in the British Parliament and the focus of the BBC’s House of Cards trilogy. Based on a novel by Conservative MP Michael Dobbs, Urquhart’s story begins in 1990 in House of Cards, set after the leadership challenge that ousted Margaret Thatcher from Downing Street. Urquhart, having been a loyal and respected member of the Government for many years, expects to be given a senior position in the new Prime Minister’s Cabinet, having being promised one by the man who would become PM, Henry Collingridge, before the ballot. Presenting his proposal of a new Cabinet to Collingridge at a meeting soon after the leadership change, Urquhart is told that “things do change so very quickly in politics,” and, citing Harold Macmillan’s failure as PM after sacking a third of his Cabinet in the 1960s, Collingridge asks Urquhart to instead stay on as “the most respected Chief Whip since the war.” Acquiescing, Urquhart wrings his hands in anger, knuckles cracking under the pressure.
What follows is perhaps the most gripping political drama I’ve yet seen. The transformation of Urquhart from arrogant but congenial old party hack into a truly evil, conniving piece of work is incredibly engaging, and more so when he dares the audience to challenge the perceived righteousness in his actions. As he moves destructively through his potential Cabinet rivals for the Prime Ministership, there is no duplicity or manipulation Urquhart refuses to employ. From seducing a young but promising reporter into a very strange, Elektra-complex relationship, to blackmailing and eventually killing a man after he outlives his usefulness, Urquhart truly is the very epitome of Machiavellian.
Much of the strength of the production comes in Urquhart’s asides to camera during the run of the series. In the manner of Shakespeare’s soliloquys – especially those of Richard III – he updates the audience on his thoughts, as well as explaining what’s going on. As the series rolls on, these asides become more threatening, daring us to disagree with him. But the audience cannot – his devious deeds are so unpleasantly fascinating, you just want to watch find out where it ends.
Urquhart is driven by solid, Conservative values that stretch back through generations and it is this on which he founds his destruction of the Conservative cabinet. However, I don’t view the politics of House of Cards to be hugely important in this particular story (though it is more key to the sequels), rather the policies that Urquhart pushes are really used to move people out of the way. The manipulation that Urquhart undertakes is the key focus of House of Cards, and it could be argued that the story could play out on either side of the House of Commons.
Urquhart is brought to life on screen by Ian Richardson, CBE. A Scottish actor, this is the part that defined a very long career for Richardson, who had played a number of supporting roles on screen, as well as being an established stage actor. Urquhart is a Conservative of a very old sort, the sort of man who would have been Prime Minister in the twentieth century before an obsession with youth and charm in politics took over. Richardson really delivers in his performance, with charm and charisma where necessary, a cold, hard stare, and at times being the very personification of anger. He is thoroughly menacing throughout, and of all the characters in the series, his is the very best of a decent lot. So iconic was Richardson’s portrayal that a key answer-dodging line of Urquhart’s, “You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment,” has pervaded British politics in the twenty years since the programme’s release.
Supported by high production values – produced entirely on film with a large amount of location work (or very good sets), House of Cards has stood the test of time. Aside from the contemporary 1990s setting, it’s a story that could be set, and indeed has been set, so many times throughout history (including in what has been a very successful remake of House of Cards on American streaming site Netflix, starring Kevin Spacey). Along with its two sequels (which I’ll be reviewing soon), House of Cards is a must for anyone who enjoys a good TV drama.