Political drama doesn't get more near the knuckle than Michael Dobbs' House of Cards trilogy, adapted for the screen by Andrew Davies and originally broadcast in the post-Thatcher years of the early 1990s. A splendid dissection of naked ambition, greed and rampant hypocrisy in the corridors of power, the original four-part series House of Cards documents in thrilling detail the rise of Tory Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (magnificent Ian Richardson), a man who likes to "put the stick about a bit" and has unwavering contempt for those with "no background, no bottom". With the downfall of Margaret Thatcher, a bitter internecine power struggle ensues within the Conservative Party. Urquhart schemes more devilishly than Iago to depose Thatcher's colourless John Major-style successor. And even Machiavelli would baulk at Urquhart's methods: any and every act--including murder--are legitimate as the end very much justifies the means. Idealistic journalist Matti Storin (Susannah Harker) becomes embroiled in Urquhart's nefarious plans (and ends up in his bed) as she attempts to question him about what's really going on: "You might think so, I couldn't possibly comment," is Urquhart's mantra of hypocrisy.
In To Play the King, the second part of the trilogy, we find our anti-hero comfortably installed as PM at No. 10 but facing a fresh challenge in the person of the newly crowned King (Michael Kitchen in a pitch-perfect Prince Charles impersonation), who wears his social conscience on his sleeve and publicly opposes Urquhart's hardline policies. With the help of political analyst and new mistress Sarah Harding (Kitty Aldridge), as well as that of his ambitious wife Elizabeth (Diane Fletcher), Urquhart is forced to resort to still more underhand plots. Then, in The Final Cut, we find Urquhart determined to last as long in office as Mrs Thatcher (whose statue, much to his chagrin, is about to be unveiled in front of his window). But ambitions to make a mark on the world stage, as well as his wife's desire to provide themselves a comfortable retirement nest egg, lead him into the choppy international waters of the Cyprus situation. The temptations of corrupt businessmen and his wife's goading might just have pushed Urquhart's luck too far this time.
Throughout, Richardson is a delight as the hypocritical, arrogant patrician who loathes the hoi polloi whose favour he must court at election time, and manipulates all his minions with a ruthless singlemindedness of purpose. However much a monster he seems, though, the viewer might just find themselves secretly admiring his determination and his lion-like strength of will: in contrast to many drab modern politicians, at least he knows what he wants, and makes sure he gets it. If it's strong leadership you want, Urquhart's your man.
On the DVD: The House of Cards trilogy has the three four-part series on three double-sided discs, with two hour-long episodes on each side of each disc. The first episodes come with a commentary from Andrew Davies and Ian Richardson, who share their memories and anecdotes. --Mark Walker