The end of term brings with it one last furious endeavour, where students once more stare at screens for hours on end – either perplexed, bored or too absorbed for their own good. I speak, of course, of the inevitable TV binge, which for me this term constituted of 8 hours of True Detective and the four episodes of House of Cards that I hadn’t had time to watch. I won’t give away the ending to anyone still embroiled in the show but suffice to say it did not disappoint.
That said, I re-emerged from the Netflix marathon to a distinct sense of disappointment, a need for more. Yes, there were other TV shows around, and sporadic cinema trips went a certain distance, but they were no replacement for Spacey’s Underwood in all his Machiavellian, monologue-prone mischief. That was when I decided to go ad fontes and, after a bit of searching (typing in ‘House of Cards UK’ on YouTube) discovered the original 1990 British House of Cards mini-series show based on the Michael Dobbs novel. In those four, uninterrupted hours I came to realise here was a show that matched if not going beyond that of its State-side successor.
What made this show so successful? First of all the setting is so much more gripping. A 1990s, post-Thatcherite Conservative Party makes for infinitely more political intrigue than that of the United States. There is a political realism here that could only have been heightened almost 24 years ago. Furthermore, the British parliamentary system, where the Prime Minister can be brutally shame-faced during his Questions rather than behind closed doors gives an extra dose of immediacy, and Francis Urquhart (Underwood’s equivalent, played by a fantastic Ian Richardson) sees his endeavours much more rapidly rewarded.
The show is also massively shorter than the Netflix series (in plot terms it takes the US show 26 episodes to reach the same point as the four hour miniseries) and though this gives Fincher and co much more time for Spacey to slink through the halls of the White House (making the large scale developments and shocks much more satisfying, perhaps), the speed of the action within the British version gives the whole premise a much greater brutality – Urquhart is ruthless in his ambitions and does not stop for anyone.
The American writers claim their remake is ‘darker’, and whilst this may be true in tone and texture, we still ultimately have a sense of affection for Spacey’s Underwood, we don’t mind him winning because he makes us laugh and thrills us along the way. The British show presents a far less appealing protagonist; Urquhart is a slimy, power-hungry estate-owning millionaire and in his first-person monologues demands the audience to judge him, rather than join him. It would be like treating Tywin Lannister as the man to root for in Game of Thrones. The British House of Cards may not be ‘darker’ per se but is far bleaker, it depicts an ageing, decaying political party scrambling to make itself relevant again after the fall-out of its previous leader. Yet even in this environment it stays captivating, haunting almost – Urquhart is seen loitering in the shadows, leering down from Westminster alcoves onto the baying MPs below.
It is not, of course, all perfect; female characters are normally two-dimensional and are patronised on a scene-ly basis, and many of the nuances that flesh out the US version’s world are simply absent or quickly forgotten. Pieces are picked up and dropped away with a reckless narrative drive, though perhaps this too makes it all the more enthralling. So if you too suffer from severe House of Cards withdrawal, why not give this old time British classic a whirl?