Writing Portfolio


House of Cards

When Allison and I get into a TV series on DVD, we really get into it; the sixth series of Mad Men was a Christmas present which we got through over the course of Boxing Day. Following on from that, our new-found access to Netflix (enabled by the purchase of a new television in the sales) has resulted in the American remake of House of Cards getting a similar treatment.

Now I happen to regard the original, British version of House of Cards as one of the finest TV drama series ever made. Based on the novel by Michael Dobbs (who prior to becoming an author had been an advisor to Mrs Thatcher), it was filmed for TV in 1990, and starred the late Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart, a Tory chief whip who, when passed over for promotion, plots to bring down the Prime Minister and undermine all other contenders in the subsequent leadership election. He will do anything (up to and including murder) to get to the top, and Richardson’s portrayal was magnificent. By coincidence, the programme was first aired at the time of the 1990 Tory leadership election and so caught the popular mood; Richardson, more of a stage man for much of his career, won a BAFTA for it, and its success prompted Dobbs to write two more novels featuring Urquhart (To Play the King and The Final Cut), both of which were later filmed.

For the American version, Urquhart has become Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey), the Democrat majority whip in the House of Representatives who is out for revenge after the newly-elected President reneges on a promise to appoint him to Secretary of State. Like Urquhart, he breaks the fourth wall to address the audience – in this, the character follows in the tradition of that Shakespearean arch-villain Richard III, and in this context it’s worth noting that Spacey, like Richardson, has in his time played said king on the stage. There’s none of Urquhart’s impish charm in these asides, though – Underwood is pure menace (perhaps these days we like our TV villains to have no redeeming features; Underwood and his equally scheming wife smoke, for example, and TV characters aren’t supposed to do that unless they’re bad, or in a show set several decades ago).

Watching it in 2013, the British version – depicting a male-dominated Westminster of smoke-filled pubs and gentlemen’s clubs – looks as dated as the TV version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which was first broadcast over a decade before. The American remake is modern in every sense of the word. The young female journalist (for Mattie Storin, read Zoe Barnes) writes for an online news-gathering organisation rather than a print newspaper, and everyone has either an iPhone or a BlackBerry. While we’re on that subject, I liked how text messages are shown as a speech-bubble on screen (just like in Sherlock) rather than as a close-up of a mobile phone. Its airing was also very modern, with all 13 episodes being released on Netflix on the same day so that viewers could watch it whenever they liked (even all in one go if they really wanted to).

Some things never change, though. Although there are of course exceptions, politicians as depicted on TV are invariably flawed, and if they’re not outwardly on the take then their weaknesses make it easy for them to be manipulated by ruthless schemers like Underwood. Or Urquhart.

How do the two compare? Well, it’s hard to say as they are the products of different times, and they were even made with different objectives in mind. The British version was a four-part drama which was not intended to spawn a sequel and so required all loose ends to be resolved (Dobbs hadn’t even written a follow-up novel when it was aired, and if you’ve ever read the book, which has a very different ending, you’ll realise that he did not intend to do so), while the remake is a much longer series which, if the somewhat anti-climactic ending is anything to go by, was done with a second series in mind. Here, perhaps, it’s worth noting that the opening credits say that it is based on the novels (plural) by Michael Dobbs.

Is the American remake good? Yes, very good. Better than the original? Well, you may think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.


Lamb curry, with sides

The other day I made a curry – but not just any curry. The photo, I have to say, doesn’t really do such a lovely meal justice.

The meat part of the dish is lamb with apricots (jardaloo boti), a dish that originates from Mumbai. Apricots aren’t really my thing, but they compliment the lamb well in this dish to give a hint of sweet and sour.

The veg side is cauliflower with shredded ginger (punjabi gobi). This is a northern Indian dish which is cooked without the addition of water, because cauliflower cooked with water can apparently cause wind. Who knew?

Both the lamb and the cauli recipes (and that last bit of information about cauliflower!) come from a fantastic book called 50 Great Curries of India by Camellia Panjabi. The founder of the Bombay Brasserie and the Masala Zone chain, she is credited, among other things, with changing the way Indian cuisine is perceived in this country by way of introducing regional dishes, and convincing us that there’s more to India food than meat in curry sauce (she’s on record, by the way, as having pointed out that there really is no such dish as curry, which if we’re going to be picky is the sauce, not the meal).

As for the rice, I relied (as I always do) on the principles laid down by Delia Smith: The volume of boiling water is double the volume of the rice, which gets simmered with the lid on, and no stirring allowed.


The stories behind the Union Jack

I have recently read Union Jack: The Story of the British Flag by Nick Groom – a wonderful read from which I have learned several things that I wasn’t aware of before regarding my country’s flag.

1. It was first devised in the early 17th century as a result of much work by English and Scottish heralds to come up with an acceptable merging of the English and Scottish flags following James VI of Scotland’s accession to the English throne as James I. It is, therefore, heraldically correct (as per the rules of heraldry, at no point do the red bits touch the blue bits) and predates the United Kingdom, which didn’t come into being until the 1707 Act of Union.

2. Despite what some people may think, the terms ‘Union Jack’ and ‘Union Flag’ are in fact interchangeable, partly due to their both being used to mean the same thing in a Parliamentary debate about the flag in 1908 (which was also the first time that it was officially referred to as the national flag).

3. There used to be a Scottish version in which the white saltire (diagonal cross) of St Andrew was superimposed over the red cross of St George. Groom is vague on when this stopped being used, but it was definitely before the 1801 Act of Union which added the red saltire of St Patrick (even so, it would’ve been nice to have seen a picture of said flag in the book – my one complaint was that some of the accompanying photos seem to have been chosen at random, and it could’ve done with a few more photos of the flags described therein).

4. There is no representation of Wales in the Union Jack because Wales was never a kingdom (England, Scotland and Ireland all were). This is also why the Welsh dragon doesn’t feature on the Royal coat-of-arms.

5. Naval uses aside, there are hardly any rules about exact sizes and proportions of the flag – which may help to explain why some manufacturers get the fimbriation (the proportion of the thickness of the white bits) wrong. This perhaps also explains the varying shades that have been used for the blue parts.

6. With the exception of the rules that concern flying it at sea, there are also hardly any rules governing what you can and can’t do with the Union Jack (in complete contrast to, say, the rules concerning the Stars and Stripes), which may help to explain why it became a style icon in the 1960s (see, for example, its use by The Who and in the movie The Italian Job – and this phenomenon probably explains why the Union Jack, not the Cross of St George, was used by England fans at the 1966 World Cup).

7. There are more verses to God Save the Queen than anyone thinks there are. Most of them, admittedly, are about what General Wade was going to do to Bonnie Prince Charlie when they met on the battlefield, the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 being the context in which the song was composed as an anthem of loyalty to the Hanoverian dynasty (in the event, the Government troops were outflanked by the Jacobites, who marched down to Derby via Carlisle rather than Newcastle, which was where Wade was waiting for them; Wade was subsequently replaced by the Duke of Cumberland, whose troops thrashed the Jacobite army at Culloden).