Washington and Westminster – Comparing both “House of Cards”

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Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart.
Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.

Kansas City – It was funny to me that last night as I finished watching Season 1 of Netflix political drama House of Cards, one of its leading stars, Robin Wright, won the Golden Globe for Best Actress for her part in the hit series. I was first introduced to the Netflix series through its inspiration, it’s daddy so to speak: the BBC’s 1990 miniseries of the same name. The BBC’s version was based upon the novel by Michael Dobbs in a script adapted by Andrew Davies. It starred acclaimed Scottish Shakespearean Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart, MP a Machiavellian Tory chief whip and is set in the years following the fall of Thatcher’s government in the 1990s.

I was first attracted to Richardson’s House in large part by the leading actor’s grandfatherly charm, which prevailed over his on-screen persona for the majority of the original BBC miniseries (it had two sequels, To Play the King, and The Final Cut). Also I am a bit preferential to the parliamentary system over its presidential counterpart, which added into my interest in the British series. Richardson’s Urquhart is a charming aristocratic MP, who feels cheated by the Conservative Party when he was not chosen as her successor for the leadership. What follows is a reign of vengeance that easily rivals that of Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III. In fact, another area in which I was drawn to the series was in the subtle, though sometimes verbal, references to Shakespeare, with Urquhart being based upon Richard III whilst his wife rings more true of Lady Macbeth.

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Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood.
Courtesy of Salon Magazine.

In comparison Kevin Spacey’s Congressman Frank Underwood (D-SC) lacks the charm that Richardson so gracefully portrays. What the two characters do share is a dramatic penchant for ruthlessness and determination to do whatever it may be that is on their minds at any given moment. Thus far, considering that only half of the American version has been broadcast, I would say the character closest to their British original would have to be Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Underwood’s Chief of Staff. He shares many traits with Urquhart’s Junior Whip, Tim Stamper, MP (Colin Jeavons). Both are loyal at first to their superiors, but as time goes on Stamper, MP begins to see how truly evil Urquhart’s intentions are, a plot development which I will be sorry to see missing from the second season of Netflix’s rendition.

Likewise in the Netflix adaptation, I will say that thus far my favourite characters in the Netflix series are Congressman Peter Russo (D-PN), played by Corey Stoll, and his Chief of Staff and girlfriend, Christina Gallagher (Kristen Connolly). They seemed the most personable of the entire cast to me, and after all it’s nice after a while to find a love story that is very honest and quite beautiful in how human it really is. To counter this I was left rather confused by the relationship between Frank and Claire Underwood, the leading couple, who frankly (pun intended) seemed, perhaps more so than Francis and Elizabeth Urquhart (Diane Fletcher), like having Gen. Patton and Field Marshal Rommel living happily married together. Both characters are outwardly kind and considerate, but inwardly ruthless and willing to go to any lengths, yes any lengths, to see their goals achieved.

At the same time as Robin Wright was accepting her award in LA, I found myself mostly thankful that the first series of this all-too interesting show was at last over. One major complaint that I have about American television is that there can at times be too much of it. Consider that the average British season will run for about 6 to 8 episodes, whilst the average American one runs for about 10 to 20. After a while, especially in the context that I was watching it in, to review it in comparison to the BBC’s original, I found myself emotionally exhausted by the many bumps in the road that Netflix’s House of Cards has to offer. For a programme like this, 13 episodes per season is just too long to watch in as short a span of time as I did (in about half a week).

And yet, I am looking forward to seeing how Season 2 carries on the threads from Season 1, hopefully bringing them together for a good conclusion. In short, Netflix’s House of Cards is good in its own right, but I would still prefer to listen to Francis Urquhart’s asides mixed with a sense of laughter at the world than here Frank Underwood’s complaints and Machiavellian strategies on how he’ll make his next move.

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