The second season of the US version of a House of Cards will premiere on Friday when Netflix makes available the 13 episodes for streaming. As good as the first season was, and it was quite excellent, if you haven’t watched the original UK version then I urge you to do so.

Broadcast by the BBC in 1990, the first season of the eventual trilogy, split into four 60-minute episodes, is set just after Margaret Thatcher has resigned as the British Prime Minister. There are a number of contenders to replace the Iron Lady and in the end the popular Henry Collingridge gets the nod leading the Conservative Party into a successful election, although ultimately with a reduced margin of victory. That reduction spooks Collingridge into not making some changes in his cabinet and Francis Urquhart, who had been promised a role in the new government, is not promoted.

Unbeknownst to Collingridge, the decision is political suicide as Urquhart plots to remove the Prime Minister with the ultimate goal of achieving said office for himself. As the ruling party’s Chief Whip – essentially the person who keeps the government MP’s in line – Urquhart is in a unique position of influence from which to strike.

Ian Richardson is wonderful as the scheming Urquhart. No, that’s not quite right. Richardson isn’t just wonderful, he’s magnificent in the role, breaking the fourth wall to talk to the audience and perfectly combining a sense of upper crust privilege with a delightful Machiavellian streak. A classically trained Shakespearian actor, Richardson was a main stay of the British stage for many years with occasional forays into film and television, most notably as Bill Haydon in the original BBC version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and as a senior MI5 officer in the Michael Caine, Pierce Brosnan thriller The Fourth Protocol.

Ultimately Urquhart is an evil character and yet Richardson is so skillful in his portrayal that the viewer is left rooting for him. Susannah Harker is journalist Mattie Storin with whom Urquhart begins an affair in order to manipulate her coverage. As mentioned in my blog about A Touch of Frost, I’m a huge fan of the Harker sisters and a House of Cards was the first time I had seen a performance from the elder sibling. Harker’s Storin is a beguiling combination of charm, sex appeal and naivety and her journey from essentially duped to discovering the machinations of Urquhart is a huge part of the appeal of the show.

The first series of the House of Cards trilogy culminates in a showdown between the two main characters. In the book by Michael Dodds, on which the show is based, Urquhart kills himself. As there is both a second and third series I’m not giving anything away by saying that’s not what happens here. And yet maybe it should have. The subsequent seasons, To Play the King and The Final Cut, each also four episodes long, are very, very good, but fail to reach the heights of shear brilliance of the first. Available, not surprisingly, on Netflix streaming, the House of Cards trilogy is also on Hulu Plus.

 

– Wallace Poulter