House of Cards
Based onHouse of Cards
by Michael Dobbs
Written byAndrew Davies
Michael Dobbs
Directed byPaul Seed
StarringIan Richardson
Susannah Harker
Miles Anderson
Alphonsia Emmanuel
Malcolm Tierney
Diane Fletcher
Colin Jeavons
Damien Thomas
Kenneth Gilbert
David Lyon
Kenny Ireland
James Villiers
Isabelle Amyes
Music byJim Parker
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original languageEnglish
No. of episodes4
ProducerKen Riddington
Running time55 minutes
Production companyBBC
Original release
Release18 November (1990-11-18) –
9 December 1990 (1990-12-09)
To Play the King
The Final Cut

House of Cards is a 1990 British political thriller television serial in four episodes, set after the end of Margaret Thatcher's tenure as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. It was televised by the BBC from 18 November to 9 December 1990. Released to critical and popular acclaim for its writing, direction, and performances, it is considered one of the greatest British television shows ever made.

The story is centred on the sudden and manipulative rise to power of the machiavellian Chief Whip of the Conservative Party, Francis Urquhart. Urquhart, on the party's right wing, is frustrated over his lack of promotion in the wake of Margaret Thatcher's resignation and the moderate government which succeeds it. He conceives a calculated and meticulous plan to bring down the new Prime Minister and replace him, on the same lines as Shakespeare's Richard III (which he often quotes). During this drawn-out and ruthless coup, his life is complicated by his relationship with young female reporter Mattie Storin, whom he uses to leak sensitive information in confidence. The question of whether the serial's ending is a tragedy (in the same vein as plays such as Macbeth) is left to the viewer.

Andrew Davies adapted the story from the 1989 novel of the same name by Michael Dobbs, a former chief of staff at Conservative Party headquarters. Neville Teller also dramatised Dobbs's novel for the BBC World Service in 1996, and it had two television sequels (To Play the King and The Final Cut). The opening and closing theme music for this TV series is entitled "Francis Urquhart's March", by Jim Parker.[1]

House of Cards was ranked 84th in the British Film Institute list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes in 2000.[2] In 2013, the serial and the Dobbs novel were the basis for a US adaptation set in Washington, D.C., commissioned and released by Netflix as the first ever major streaming service television show. This version was also entitled House of Cards, and starred Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.


The antihero of House of Cards is Francis Urquhart, a fictional Chief Whip of the Conservative Party, played by Ian Richardson. The plot follows his amoral and manipulative scheme to become leader of the governing party and, thus, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Michael Dobbs did not envisage writing the second and third books, as Urquhart dies at the end of the first novel. The screenplay of the BBC's dramatisation of House of Cards differs from the book, and hence allows future series. Dobbs wrote two following books, To Play the King and The Final Cut, which were televised in 1993 and 1995, respectively.[3]

House of Cards was said to draw from Shakespeare's plays Macbeth and Richard III,[4] both of which feature main characters who are corrupted by power and ambition. Richardson has a Shakespearean background and said he based his characterisation of Urquhart on Shakespeare's portrayal of Richard III.[4]

Urquhart frequently talks through the camera to the audience, breaking the fourth wall.[5]


The ruling Conservative Party is about to elect a new leader. Francis Urquhart, the Government Chief Whip in the House of Commons, introduces viewers to the contestants, before Henry Collingridge, the Secretary of State for the Environment, emerges victorious. Urquhart is contemptuous of Collingridge, who embodies the Thatcher-era rise of the lower-middle classes. Urquhart feigns respect, and expects promotion to a senior position in the Cabinet. After the general election, the party narrowly retains power. Urquhart makes suggestions for a hard-right reshuffle, including his own desired promotion to Home Secretary. However, Collingridge effects no changes at all, relying entirely on the advice of his party chairman, Lord "Teddy" Billsborough. Urquhart resolves to oust Collingridge.

Urquhart begins an affair with Mattie Storin, a junior political reporter at a Conservative-leaning tabloid, The Chronicle. This allows Urquhart to manipulate Mattie and skew her coverage of events in his favour. Another pawn is Roger O'Neill, the party's cocaine-addicted public relations consultant, whom Urquhart blackmails into leaking planned budget cuts, thereby humiliating Collingridge during Prime Minister's Questions. Later, Urquhart blames Billsborough for leaking a poll showing reduced Tory numbers, leading Collingridge to sack Billsborough.

As Collingridge's image suffers, Urquhart encourages Patrick Woolton, the boorish and lecherous Foreign Secretary, and the equally unpleasant Chronicle owner Benjamin Landless to support his removal. He also impersonates Collingridge's alcoholic brother to trade shares and benefit from advance information confidential to the government. Collingridge becomes falsely accused of insider trading and is forced to resign.

In the ensuing leadership race, Urquhart feigns unwillingness to stand before announcing his candidacy. Urquhart makes sure his competitors drop out of the race: Health Secretary Peter MacKenzie accidentally runs his car over a protester at a demonstration staged by Urquhart and withdraws, while Education Secretary Harold Earle is blackmailed into withdrawing when Urquhart anonymously sends pictures of him in the company of a rent boy whom Earle had paid for sex.

The first ballot leaves Urquhart to face Woolton and Michael Samuels, the moderate Environment Secretary. Urquhart eliminates Woolton by a prolonged scheme: at the party conference, he pressures O'Neill into persuading his lover, Penny Guy, to sleep with Woolton in his suite, which Urquhart records via a bugged ministerial red box. The recording reveals Woolton ignoring Guy's pleas to stop, with Woolton ostensibly raping her. When the tape is sent to Woolton, he is led to assume that Samuels is behind the scheme and backs Urquhart in the contest. Urquhart also receives support from Collingridge, who is unaware of Urquhart's role in his own downfall. Samuels is forced out of the running when the tabloids reveal that he backed leftist causes as a student.

Seeing contradictions in the allegations against Collingridge and his brother, Mattie begins to dig deeper, while falling in love with Urquhart and blinding herself to his possible role. On Urquhart's orders, O'Neill vandalises her car and throws a brick with a threatening letter through her window. O'Neill becomes increasingly uneasy with what he is being asked to do, and his addiction adds to his instability. When he threatens to go to the police, Urquhart invites him to his home in Hampshire, promising O'Neill a knighthood. There, O'Neill becomes completely inebriated before passing out. Urquhart mixes O'Neill's cocaine with rat poison, causing him to die after he takes the cocaine in a toilet at a nearby motorway service station.

Mattie's colleague, John Krajewski, insists that Urquhart was the only one with the means, motive and opportunity. Knowing that Urquhart as Chief Whip was adroit at gaining information sensitive enough to blackmail almost anyone, Mattie realises that he is responsible for O'Neill's death and the downfall of his rivals. She confronts Urquhart on the roof garden of the Houses of Parliament, demanding to know if he killed Roger O’Neill. He admits to everything, then throws her off the roof to her death. She lands on the roof of a van parked below. An unseen person picks up Mattie's tape recorder, which she had been using to record her conversations with Urquhart. The series ends with Urquhart defeating Samuels in the second leadership ballot and being driven to Buckingham Palace to be invited to form a government.

Deviations from the novel in the series

In the first novel, but not in the television series:

Before the series was reissued in 2013 to coincide with the release of the US version of House of Cards, Dobbs rewrote portions of the novel to bring the series in line with the television series and restore continuity among the three novels.[6] In the 2013 version:


The first instalment of the TV series coincidentally aired two days before the Conservative Party leadership election.[4] During a time of "disillusionment with politics", the series "caught the nation's mood".[7]

Ian Richardson won the British Academy Television Award for Best Actor in 1991 for his role as Urquhart, and Andrew Davies won an Emmy for outstanding writing in a miniseries.

The series ranked 84th in the British Film Institute list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes.[2]

American adaptation

Main article: House of Cards (American TV series)

The Urquhart trilogy has been adapted in the United States as House of Cards. The show stars Kevin Spacey as Francis "Frank" Underwood, the Majority Whip of the Democratic caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, who schemes and murders his way to becoming President of the United States. It is produced by David Fincher and Spacey's Trigger Street Productions, with the initial episodes directed by Fincher.

The series, produced and financed by independent studio Media Rights Capital, was one of Netflix's first forays into original programming. Series one was made available online on 1 February 2013.[8] The series was filmed in Baltimore, Maryland.[9][10][11] The first series was critically acclaimed and earned four Golden Globe Nominations, including Best Drama, actor, actress and supporting actor, with Robin Wright winning best actress. It also earned nine Primetime Emmy Award nominations, winning three, and was the first show to earn nominations that was broadcast solely via an internet streaming service.[12]

In popular culture

The drama introduced and popularised[4] the phrase: "You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment". It was a non-confirmation confirmative statement, used by Urquhart whenever he could not be seen to agree with a leading statement, with the emphasis on either the "I" or the "possibly", depending on the situation. The phrase was even used in the House of Commons, House of Lords and Parliamentary Committees following the series.[13][14][15] Prince Charles (as he was known at the time) himself said the phrase in response to a provocative question from a journalist in 2014.[16]

A variation on the phrase was written into the TV adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Hogfather for the character Death, as an in-joke on the fact that he was voiced by Richardson.

During the first Gulf War, a British reporter speaking from Baghdad, conscious of the possibility of censorship, used the code phrase "You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment" to answer a BBC presenter's question.

A further variation was used by Nicola Murray, a fictional government minister, in the third series finale of The Thick of It.

In the US adaptation, the phrase is used by Frank Underwood in the first episode during his initial meeting with Zoe Barnes, the US counterpart of Mattie Storin.

See also


  1. ^ "Jim Parker: Francis Urquhart's March".
  2. ^ a b "British Film Institute list of 100 Greatest British Television Programmes, No. 84". Archived from the original on 27 May 2008. Retrieved 4 June 2008.
  3. ^ "BBC Four Drama – House of Cards". BBC.
  4. ^ a b c d "Richardson's rule in House of Cards". London: BBC. 9 February 2007. Retrieved 4 June 2008.
  5. ^ Cartmell, Deborah (2007). The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen. Cambridge University Press. p. 244. ISBN 978-0521614863.
  6. ^ "Sourcebooks Releases 'House of Cards'". Retrieved 24 December 2018.
  7. ^ Kirby, Terry (10 February 2007). "Ian Richardson, the PM who couldn't possibly comment, dies aged 72". The Independent. London. Retrieved 16 July 2009.
  8. ^ Itzkoff, Dave (4 October 2012). "Netflix Sets February Premiere for 'House of Cards'". The New York Times. Retrieved 13 November 2012.
  9. ^ "House of Cards". 17 March 2011. Retrieved 7 August 2011.
  10. ^ "Netflix To Enter Original Programming With Mega Deal For David Fincher-Kevin Spacey Series House of Cards". 15 March 2011.
  11. ^ "Netflix Builds a 'House of Cards' That Could Knock Down the Networks". 18 March 2011. Retrieved 8 July 2011.
  12. ^ Holpuch, Amanda (18 July 2013). "Netflix makes history as House of Cards takes top Emmy nominations". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 8 March 2019.
  13. ^ "House of Commons Hansard Debates for 11 Mar 1998 (pt 46)".
  14. ^ "Lords Hansard text for 27 Nov 2000 (201127-04)".
  15. ^ "House of Commons - Treasury - Minutes of Evidence".
  16. ^ Kay, John (4 February 2014). "Prince Charles visits Somerset levels". BBC News. Retrieved 28 August 2023.