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.