A Very Peculiar Practice – A Very Long Way From Anywhere


AVPP was born out of necessity rather than inspiration. Andrew Davies had been commissioned to write a series about three mature women students but had lost inspiration after penning several episodes. The BBC, having already paid him upfront for the whole series, gave him two options – either return the money or write something else.

Davies decided that writing something else would be less painful, so the bizarre world of Lowlands University began to take shape. Drawing on his memories of his own past (Davies had been a lecturer at the Warwick Institute of Education) he set to work.

Receiving top billing, Peter Davison, as Stephen Daker, is the still point of the series. Surrounded by three grotesques – Jock, Bob and Rose Marie – Stephen’s function (especially in this opening episode) is to operate as their straight man. Although Davison possesses a sly and sharp sense of humour, he was quite relaxed at the prospect of being the “normal” one. “I was quite happy to be surrounded by lunatics. In effect, I was the one who the audience related to in the midst of these madmen – or madwomen”.

Miscommunication is at the heart of A Very Long Way From Anywhere. Stephen, having made the decision to make a clean break from the shattered detritus of his marriage, is determined to make a fresh start at Lowlands. But his problems start right from the moment he runs into the formidable practice receptionist – who needs some convincing that he’s a doctor and not a patient.

But that’s nothing compared to the confusion generated when he meets the senior member of the practice, Dr Jock McCannon (Graham Crowden). It won’t surprise you to hear that Crowden has a habit of stealing scenes, although when he’s placed opposite David Troughton then the honours are more even.

Jock: Would you care for a wee drop of something, Stephen?
Stephen: Oh, not for me! Bit early in the morning.
Jock: Oh! Very wise! I’m delighted to hear you say it. As a matter of fact, your predecessor gave us some cause for anxiety there. Ohhh, he gave the vodka bottle a most tremendous pummelling! [he pours himself a very generous tumbler full of scotch]
Jock: A total abstainer, eh? Very wise!

David Troughton’s Dr Bob Buzzard is gifted a whole tranche of sparkling dialogue. He begins by outlining to Stephen exactly how the University runs. “I’ll tell you what it’s like. It’s like a very, very inefficient sector of British industry. Top management are totally corrupt and idle, middle management are incompetent and idle, and the workforce are bolshy. And idle. And of course, there’s no bloody product!”

The moment when they compare notes, re their respective careers, is also wonderfully quotable. Davison underplays beautifully.

Bob: Now then. What’s your track record, old chap?
Stephen: Track record?
Bob: Absolutely right! Fair’s fair: Mine first. Classical tale of a promising career gone sour. Shrewsbury. Trinity. Guy’s. Royal Durham, ICI, Princeton. Spell in Saudi. Then, fatal mistake: Came here. What about you?
Stephen: Birmingham… Birmingham… Birmingham… Walsall.

Dr Rose Marie (Barbara Flynn) is a formidable feminist whose character seems to be just as relevant today as she was then (easy to imagine she’d be a hit on Twitter). Stephen’s introduction to her is short but not terribly sweet (I love the way that Davison’s face falls when Bob cheerily tells Stephen afterwards that she’ll now be his enemy for life!)

Rose Marie’s modus operandi is made clear when she later tells a patient, Antonia (Liz Crowther), that illness “is something that men do to women”. Flynn’s performance is a great deal more contained than the hyperactive Troughton, but it’s the contrast between the polar opposite characters of Rose Marie and Bob which helps to generate some lovely comic clashes in the upcoming episodes.

After reeling from these three encounters, Stephen then has a more pleasant meeting with ministering angel Lyn Turtle (Amanda Hillwood) at the pool (she eventually saves him from drowning). But Stephen’s continuing inability to express himself clearly leads to conflict later, after he runs into her at a drinks party organised by the Vice Chancellor Ernest Hemmingway (not that one). He’s surprised to see a pool attendant at such a party, a faux pas which he regrets straight away. And she twists the knife, just to drive the point home.

Hemmingway (John Bird) doesn’t have a great deal to do here, although he’ll play a major role later in the first series. Instead it’s his wife, Deirdre (Harriet Reynolds), who’s more to the fore during the rather excruciating (for Stephen, anyway) drinks party. Told it was very informal, Stephen’s choice of dress (a scruffy jumper) proved to be just a tad too informal. The way that Deirdre sweetly attempts to rationalise this breach of etiquette (possibly he’s just got off a flight and the airline has lost his luggage?) is another delight.

The final significant moment of the episode comes after Stephen dispatches a Chinese student (Sarah Lam) suffering from acute appendicitis to the hospital. Jock had examined her earlier, but decided that her symptoms were nothing more than home sickness. The fundamentally decent Stephen is appalled at the way that Jock let her down (made worse by the fact that she later displayed no malice towards Jock). But since Stephen can’t bring himself to publicly reproach his new boss, Jock’s little mistake is brushed under the carpet and life goes on.

Except, of course, this has served to bind Stephen just a little closer to Jock ….

The Diary of a Nobody – Second Sight DVD Review

Charles Pooter lives a perfectly ordinary, totally uninteresting life in late Victorian London.  However he doesn’t see why this humdrum existence should prevent him from sharing his thoughts with the world.  “Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I’ve never heard of and I fail to see, just because I don’t happen to be a ‘somebody’, why my diary should not be just as interesting in its way”.

Written by George and Weedon Grossmith,  The Diary of a Nobody was originally published in Punch magazine between 1888–89 with an expanded book edition appearing in 1892. Although it received only cursory attention at the time, it slowly began to be appreciated as a comic masterpiece as the decades rolled by (Evelyn Waugh once called it “the funniest book in the world”).

There had been several television productions prior to this 2007 adaptation by Andrew Davies.  In 1964, Ken Russell directed a forty minute film version for the BBC, shot in the style of a silent movie with the text delivered as a voice-over.  A more traditional production was mounted in 1979, with Terrence Hardiman as Pooter.

Given that the novel is written in the form of a diary, the obvious difficulty for any adapter is how you keep Pooter’s distinctive voice (which, after all, is the motor which drives the book).  Back in 1979 they went down the traditional full-cast route, but Davies elected to restrict Pooter’s world to just the man himself.

So this is a one-man show, with Hugh Bonneville our sole focus for the duration (four 30 minute episodes).  There is an inherent danger with this approach –  if Bonneville doesn’t engage then we’re in trouble – but he’s on sparking form right from the beginning.  Within the first few minutes Pooter’s character has been laid bare – he’s somewhat pompous and self-important, meaning that most of the minor traumas which constitute his daily life are caused by his own character defects (although he never seems to realise this).

Pooter sets the scene by giving the audience a tour of his house (although the diary is mentioned, he delivers his monologues direct to camera, thereby helping to draw the audience in).  “We have a nice little back garden which runs down to the railway.  We were rather afraid of the noise of the trains at first, but the landlord said we should not notice them after a bit, and took £2 off the rent.  He was certainly right; after a week we scarcely noticed them at all.  And apart from the cracking of the garden wall at the bottom, we have suffered no inconvenience”.

In the first episode Pooter sketches the cast of characters who make up his world – friends such as Cummings and Gowing and his wife Carrie.   She’s clearly a long suffering women, something which is made plain after Pooter begins to paint various items in the house red.  “Got some more red enamel paint (red, to my mind, is the best colour), and I painted the coal-scuttle and the backs of our edition of Shakespeare, the binding of which had almost worn out.  I then painted the bath red and was delighted with the result. Carrie, unfortunately, was not.  In fact we had a few words about it.  She said I ought to have consulted her, and she had never heard of such a thing as a bath being painted red.  I replied: ‘That’s merely a matter of taste.’  Unaccountably this seemed to annoy Carrie even more”.

There are further delights to come as the episodes progress.  His son Lupin is a problem, as is his wife-to-be Daisy.  “Coming home from church Carrie and I met Lupin, Daisy Mutlar, and her brother.  Daisy was introduced to us, and we walked home together.  We asked them in for a few minutes, and I had a good look at my future daughter-in-law.  My heart sank.  She is a very big young woman, and I should think at least eight years older than Lupin.  I did not even think her good-looking”.

Susannah White’s direction is naturally limited by the confines of the house, but thanks to numerous changes of costume from Bonneville we’re given the illusion that time is passing – otherwise the fragmentary nature of some of the diary entries would seem somewhat jarring.  Edmund Butt’s music (a solo piano) also helps to underscore the scene changes and like the best incidental music manages to compliment the on-screen action rather than dominate it.

Entirely dependant on a strong performance from the actor playing Pooter, Hugh Bonneville certainly doesn’t disappoint on this score.  Although the production has a restricted, theatrical, air, after a while his storytelling skill is such that it’s easy to visualise the people he’s talking about and they start to become real, breathing characters.

Originally released as a R2 DVD by 2Entertain in 2010, The Diary of a Nobody has now been brought back into print by Second Sight.  All four episodes are contained on a single disc and English subtitles are featured.  There are no issues with the sound or picture that I could see.

An evergreen comic classic, the world of Charles Pooter continues to entertain and this adaptation by Andrew Davies manages to capture the best elements from the original book.  Recommended.

The Diary of a Nobody is released by Second Sight on the 12th of June 2017.  RRP £19.99.

The Legend of King Arthur – Simply Media DVD Review

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Broadcast in eight 30 minute episodes during October and November 1979, The Legend of King Arthur contains all the familiar story-beats you’d expect, but Andrew Davies’ adaptation still manages to throw in a few twists along the way.

Merlin (Robert Eddison) and Arthur (Andrew Burt) have established a new enlightened age, thanks in part to the mighty sword Excalibur which is used by Arthur to subdue his rivals.  But this hard-won peace is short-lived as his vengeful half-sister Morgan le Fay (Maureen O’Brien) has vowed to avenge her father’s death and only Arthur’s demise will satisfy her.  Well versed in the dark arts of witchcraft, she uses her powers to convince Arthur that his bravest knight Lancelot (David Robb) and Queen Guinevere (Felicity Dean) are enjoying a passionate affair.  But Morgan isn’t the only danger that Arthur faces and the treacherous Mordred (Steve Hodson) proves to be the one who fatally halts Arthur’s reign.

Long regarded as one of the best adaptations of the Arthurian legend, once you can get past the rather low-key production values (the VT nature of the studio scenes gives everything a rather stagey feel) there’s much to enjoy.

The central performances of Andrew Burt, Maureen O’Brien, David Robb, Felicity Dean and Steve Hodson are all first-rate.  Burt (the original Jack Sugden in Emmerdale Farm) might not be the sort of actor that would instantly spring to mind when considering the perfect Arthur, but his rather stolid persona is just what the production needed.  Maureen O’Brien is compelling as Morgan, eschewing cackling villainy for something much more low-key.  David Robb and Felicity Dean are both strong players whilst Steve Hodson gives Mordred the sort of slowly increasing intensity which serves the character well.

And if the main cast are pretty faultless, there’s also strength in depth to be found with the supporting players.  Denis Carey, Kevin Stoney, Richard Beale, Geoffrey Beevers, Peter Guinness, Hilary Minster, Ivor Roberts and Margot van der Burgh are amongst those who help to enrich the production.  A young Patsy Kensit, playing Morgan le Fay as a child, is another actor worth looking out for.

The story opens with the King, Uther Pendragon (Brian Coburn), deciding that he wants a Queen to bear him a son. He declares that the wife of his trusted ally, Goloris (Morgan Sheppard), will fit the bill nicely. Both Goloris and his wife, the lady Igrayne (Anne Kidd), are horrified, but Uther is not a man for compromise and tells Goloris that if he doesn’t comply, “however strong you may make this castle, I will have you out of it and roast you like a badger!”

Goloris and Igrayne have a daughter, Morgan (Patsy Kensit), who calls on divine help to strike down Uther, but Merlin appears instead. He tells her that “you have the gift, but not the knowledge of the gift. You see a glimpse of the forbidden things, but only a glimpse.” Merlin may stand by Uther’s side, but he doesn’t serve him, not fully. Goloris’ death at the hands of Uther sets in motion Morgan’s life-long hate of her half-brother Arthur (born of the forced union between her mother and Uther).


Kensit might have only been eleven at the time, but she was already something of a television and film veteran (her first credit came when she was just four years old). She’s appealing as the innocent who finds herself consumed with loathing for the boorish Uther (a broad, but effective turn from Coburn) and Arthur. Morgan’s transformation from good to evil is sealed when she fails to aid the choking Uther. That he dies after a glutinous feast rather sums up his character.

Episode one then moves ahead some fifteen years, as we see the young Arthur (Richard Austin) pull the sword from the stone, the act which confirms he is the true King. Sadly it’s a rather flatly staged moment, lacking any sense of magic or wonder. Much better is the following scene where Arthur makes a decent impression with some of the nobles. Others are less convinced, so there will be war. But first there’s another key moment – Excalibur needs to be retrieved from the Lady in the Lake.

It’s a pity that we don’t spend more time in the company of young Arthur, as by the start of episode two Andrew Burt has assumed the mantle. It’s not too surprising that the long battles he had to fight in order to prove his legitimacy happened off-screen (budget considerations I’m sure played a part in this). Maureen O’Brien now takes over the role of Morgan. She claims to Merlin that now she serves only God ….

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It quickly becomes clear that Arthur is not the man his father was. Arthur is fair and conciliatory, but events prove this to be a weakness rather than a strength. After he pardons a bitter rival called Accolon (Anthony Dutton), it’s obvious that he’s simply delayed an inevitable confrontation. Arthur and Guinevere are married and Lancelot offers to be her champion, to stay constantly by her side and do whatever she bids.

Merlin disappears after the second episode, which is a shame as Robert Eddison had a teasing, impish presence. Merlin’s absence forces Arthur to take control of his own destiny, which you sense is not going to end well. And Morgan’s arrival at Arthur’s court, with Mordred in tow, sets in motion the long endgame that results in Arthur’s death.

The middle episodes develop the relationship between Guinevere and Lancelot. Whilst the arrival of the elderly King Pelles (Denis Carey) dispossed of his lands and with a daughter laying stricken under the curse of a powerful witch (who has to be, unknown to any at court, Morgan) adds another layer to the narrative. Carey, an actor of dignity and subtlety, always enhanced any programme he appeared in and this one is no exception. Pellas tells the court that only one man can save his daughter and that man is Lancelot.

As the serial progresses, both Morgan and Mordred continue to manipulate Arthur.  Amongst some of the riper turns, Steve Hodson offers something more nuanced. When we first meet him he appears to be Arthur’s man, but his alliance with his aunt Morgan and his own ambitions slowly rise to the surface to reveal his true nature.

Morgan suggests to Arthur that the love between Guinevere and Lancelot is the sort of love shared between a husband and wife, whilst Mordred spies an excellent opportunity to blacken Guinevere’s name even further.  Mordred and Morgan had intended to poison Guinevere with a piece of fruit, but the Queen innocently decided to offer this treat to someone else.  When Guido de la Porte (Tim Wylton) drops dead after a single bite, the Queen is suspected of murder.


Lancelot would be the man to defend her honour, but he lies injured and isolated from the court.  And Lancelot’s standing amongst his fellow Knights (already shaky due to the innuendo about his possible affair with the Queen) diminishes even further when the dead body of Eleanor (Amanda Wissler) comes drifting towards them.  Eleanor loved Lancelot, but he couldn’t return her love.  When Lancelot and the others realise that the spurned Eleanor has taken her own life, it’s amongst the most powerful moments in the serial.   By the time we reach the final episodes, Galahad (James Simmons) arrives, as does the Quest for the Holy Grail, Lancelot and Arthur become bitter rivals whilst Mordred, in Arthur’s absence, usurps his kingdom.

Even with eight episodes, given the amount of ground covered in The Legend of King Arthur there’s the sense that an even longer running time would have allowed some of the secondary characters to be fleshed out a little better, as well as allowing more time to linger on certain themes.  For example, when Lancelot heads off to avenge King Pellas, he’s able to do so with almost indecent haste.  He may be the bravest Knight in the land, but this still seems a little perfunctory!

Produced by Ken Riddington, directed by Rodney Bennett and with incidental music by Dudley Simpson, The Legend of King Arthur is a treat from start to finish.  Those used to the glossier production values of modern television may find it to be lacking in places, but Andrew Davies’ layered adaptation, an attention to detail and the quality cast all help to compensate for the fairly low budget.

There are some production missteps (for example, as the characters age unconvincing wigs and beards are pressed into service) but there are many positives as well.  Andrew Burt is entertaining as the thoroughly decent but doomed King, whilst Felicity Dean is terribly appealing as the winsome Guinevere.  Add in the smiling manipulative villainy of Maureen O’Brien’s Morgan and it all combines to produce a heady brew.

The Legend of King Arthur is released by Simply Media on the 10th of October 2016.  RRP £19.99.


House of Cards (BBC 1990) – Episode Four

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The first ballot for the Conservative leadership election is six days away and Francis Urquhart has finally thrown his hat into the ring.  Patrick Woolton and Michael Samuels are formidable opponents, but Urquhart and his faithful shadow, Tim Stamper, can certainly deal with some of the others, such as McKenzie and Earl.

Ian Richardson and Colin Jeavons make a deliciously entertaining team.  Both have immaculate timing and obviously relish the lines they’re given.  Urquhart begins by mentioning Samuels, the health minister and wonders if they can work something at his next public appearance.  Stamper acidly tells him that he “doesn’t go to hospitals anymore. Kept getting beaten up by the nurses  I think he has trouble getting insured now.”  But a visit to Cybertech (a wheelchair maker) serves just as well and a demonstration is engineered which culminates with Samuels mowing down a demonstrator in a wheelchair.  One down …..

Next up is Harold Earle.  He was tangled up with a rent-boy on a train some years ago (although it was all hushed up).  Urquhart wryly observes that it would be very bad form to bring it all up again but Stamper counters that “getting sucked off for sixpence in a second class compartment is hardly prime ministerial behaviour.”  A few pictures sent to Earle is enough to convince him that he should step down from the race.

After the first ballot, neither Urquhart, Woolton and Samuels have a clear majority – so a second ballot is called.  The sex tape from Brighton (with Penny and an enthusiastic Woolton) is now pressed into service and this is enough to force Woolton out of the running,  He proclaims his support for Urquhart (which should be enough to guarantee his victory).  Patrick Woolton later tells his wife the reason why he decided to support Urquhart  – and it wasn’t out of friendship.  He believes that Samuels and Lord Billsborough engineered his downfall, so whilst he may dislike Urquhart he detests Samuels.  Another small detail that feels very true to life is when he tells her that it’s also worth supporting Urquhart because he’s the older man.  Old men die sooner and the sooner Urquhart dies, the quicker Patrick Woolton will be back.

With the house of cards beginning to wobble, Urquhart has to go to even greater lengths to protect himself.  Roger O’Neill is clearly a liability, so Urquhart invites him down to his country house, gets him drunk and then laces his cocaine with rat poison.  Whilst he’s doing this, he makes the following speech to camera.  His soft, matter-of-fact delivery is truly chilling.  “This is an act of mercy. Truly. You know the man now. You can see he has nowhere to go. He’s begging to be set free. He’s had enough. And when he’s finally at rest, then we’ll be free to remember the real Roger. The burning boy in the green jersey. With that legendary, fabulous sidestep and the brave, terrified smile.”

But even this isn’t enough to stop Mattie’s investigations.  Thanks to a replay of her various audio tapes (and it’s remarkable how each tape she puts into her recorder plays at exactly the right point!) she begins to piece everything together and starts to believe the unbelievable.

She finds Urquhart at the House of Commons roof-garden and their final meeting (a complete reversal from Dobbs’ novel) is a justly memorable one.  And with an unseen hand picking up Mattie’s tape-recorder (which contains Urquhart’s confession) it’s clear that the story is far from over.

As I’ve previously said, this is a thoroughly modern drama that really doesn’t seem to be twenty-five years old (only the slightly clunky computers date it).  Ian Richardson and Susannah Harker, either together or apart, are incredibly watchable.  Richardson imbues Francis Urquhart with a mocking, attractive persona (except on the odd occasion when real anger shows through).  Harker’s Mattie Storin is, at different times, both manipulated and a manipulator.

It’s a memorable production and easily the strongest of the House of Cards trilogy.

House of Cards (BBC 1990) – Episode Three

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Henry Collingridge calls an emergency cabinet meeting and announces his immediate resignation.  He thanks all of his colleagues for their friendship and loyalty – at least those who feel that the words apply to them.  Later, he visits his brother in the private nursing home where he’s drying out and emotionally tells him that he’s glad it’s all over and he won’t have to fight the “bastards” anymore.  This is another scenario that has an eerie ring of truth (John Major, after shortly surviving a vote of confidence in 1993, was equally scathing about some of his cabinet colleagues).

Afterwards, Urquhart once again addresses the watching audience.  “Not feeling guilty, I hope. If you have pangs of pity, crush them now. Grind them under your heel like old cigar butts. I’ve done the country a favour. He didn’t have the brain or the heart or the stomach to rule a country like Great Britain. A nice enough man, but there was no bottom to him. His deepest need was that people should like him. An admirable trait, that. In a spaniel or a whore.  Not, I think in a Prime Minster.”  It’s even more impressive that he delivers this speech whilst standing at a urinal!

Urquhart is content to let others announce their desire to stand first, he’ll enter the race later in the day.  He can count on powerful friends when he does though, as he has the support of Ben Landless and his media empire.  Landless tells him that he’ll do everything he can to get him elected – and he’ll expect Urquhart to be grateful for evermore.  It’s another moment that feels horrifyingly like real life.

But there’s a subtle shift in this episode.  It’s less about Urquhart’s scheming and more about Mattie’s dogged investigations.  As the title suggests, a House of Cards may be a substantial structure, but it only takes one small movement to bring the whole edifice crashing down.  And the first stirrings happen when Mattie refuses to drop the investigation into the share scandal (even though she’s been moved off the political section of the Chronicle and onto Women’s Features).

It seems clear that Henry Collingridge couldn’t have bought the shares, since he convinces her that he’s not got a great deal in the old brain box.  So did somebody set him and his brother up?  Urquhart tries to warn Mattie off by sending Roger O’Neill round to her house (to throw a brick through the window and daub her car in paint).  This backfires when Penny confesses to Mattie that Roger was responsible, although she pleads with her not to go the police – in Roger’s current state he could easily commit suicide.

O’Neill is another link to Urquhart, but he convinces Mattie that he’s the best person to speak to O’Neill and find out exactly what he knows.  Poor, easily manipulated Roger O’Neill isn’t long for this world you’d fear ….

At present, there’s no doubt that Mattie believes everything that Francis Urquhart says.  But the problem is that she won’t stop digging.  He takes her to bed, which may be a way of earning her loyalty, but even here there’s the sense that Mattie is subtly (if unconsciously) maneuvering herself into a position of power.

Their meeting in the study is another spellbinding scene, played so well by both Richardson and Harker.  The scene alternates between tight one shots of both actors until Urquhart agrees to her request and they move into the frame together.  But what can she call him?  She doesn’t want to call him Francis and he says that calling him Chief Whip hardly seems appropriate.  After a few beats she says “I want to call you daddy.”  She has to repeat this to the (shocked?) Urquhart, but although he says nothing, the kiss seems to seal the agreement.

So can Francis Urquhart count on Mattie’s loyalty?  At present it seems so, but he isn’t aware that she’s been secretly tape-recording all of their meetings …..

House of Cards (BBC 1990) – Episode Two

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The beleaguered prime minster and his colleagues have decamped to Brighton for the party conference.  Urquhart acidly rates the performances of his colleagues, all of whom are subtly auditioning for the PM’s job.

Michel Samuels (“Intelligent, sensitive, caring – all in the same sentence, I bet you”). Peter McKenzie (“God, what an idiot that man is”). Harold Earle is dismissed with a shake of the head, which leaves Patrick Woolton (“The man’s a lout, of course. A lout. A lecher. An anti-Semite. A racist. And a bully. He is however more intelligent than he seems.”)

Woolton is a clear and present danger, so Urquhart once again seeks the help of Roger O’Neill or more specifically, O’Neill’s assistant Penny Guy (Alphonsia Emmanuel). Ian Richardson displays the steel that lies just below Urquhart’s surface when he requests her services, although not for himself. “Shut up. Did you really think I wanted her?”  Instead, Urquhart requests she resume her relationship with Woolton (for reasons which will become clearer later om).

Alphonsia Emmanuel seems to have dropped off the radar in recent years (only one film/television credit post 1998) which is a pity, as she was always a very watchable presence. And every time I see her, it reminds me that Rockliffe’s Babies still remains unavailable on DVD. Maybe one day ….

When Roger suggests that she might like to join Woolton for dinner, there’s a real spark of anger.  “Pimping now, is it? Don’t you care about me at all? Don’t you care what I do?”  The anger quickly fades though and she agrees – which means her energetic love-making with Woolton is recorded by Urquhart (in a lovely scene, where he’s sitting upright in his bed, wearing a pair of headphones).  It’s another piece of insurance, to be used at the appropriate time.

Urquhart’s schemes continue apace.  He convinces Woolton that should Henry Collingridge stand down, he’d be the best man for the job.  Later, he also convinces the boorish newspaper magnate Ben Landless (Kenny Ireland) that Collingridge is yesterday’s man – and the power of the press is a powerful weapon.  Like so much of the story, it’s possible to find real-life parallels (how often has the press been gulity of creating, rather than shaping, public opinion?)  Landless is a rather unsubtle amalgam of the two most famous newspaper and media magnates of the time, Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell.  I’m not quite sure exactly what accent Ireland was attempting, but he impresses nonetheless.

Mattie has an encounter in the bar with the PM’s frequently drunken brother Charles Collingridge.  It’s only a short scene, but James Villiers makes it a memorable one.  “Lord, you are a pretty girl.  Oh, no offence. I’ve got a daughter your age. Lovely girl. Lovely face. Never, never see her. Own fault. Water under the thingy.”

The full revelations of the fake financial scandal engineered by Urquhart seem to spell the end of Henry Collingridge’s career and the episode closes on the developing relationship between Urquhart and Mattie.  Elizabeth Urquhart suggested that there was one way to ensure Mattie’s total loyalty and we see the first steps taken here.

Once again, we see Urquhart standing over the seated Mattie, reinforcing his dominance over her.  He pretends to be surprised at the way the conversation has gone and tells her he’s old enough to be her father.  When she responds that maybe that has something to do with it, after a beat he sits down and tells her that “oddly enough, I always wanted a daughter.”

House of Cards (BBC 1990) – Episode One

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When the first episode of House of Cards was transmitted, on the 18th of November 1990, it was perfect timing since Margaret Thatcher had announced her resignation as Prime Minister earlier the same week.

Michael Dobbs’ novel House of Cards, published in 1989, tells the story of a completely unscrupulous politician, Francis Urquhart, who manages to lie, cheat and murder his way to the position of Prime Minister following Mrs Thatcher’s departure.

Dobbs had held a senior position in the Conservative Party, so there’s very much a ring of truth to his writing.  And although it was highly topical twenty-five years ago, it’s hardly dated at all – indeed, its theme of power-hungry and amoral politicians is probably just as relevant in 2015 as it was back then.

Andrew Davies adapted Dobbs novel and made several key changes.  One difference was the twisted relationship between Urquhart and Mattie (in the novel they only meet a few times and are never intimate).  Davies decided that “Mattie can have an affair with Urquhart, and let’s make it kinky, she can call him Daddy when they’re doing it.”

By far the greatest change was the ending.  In Dobbs’ novel, Urquhart commits suicide after being confronted with evidence of his crimes.  It’s a neat, moral ending but Davies decided to do something arguably more realistic, which led the way open for an intriguing sequel.

Dominating the four episodes was Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart.  Richardson had already many notable credits to his name (such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Porterhouse Blue) but the House of Cards trilogy would prove to be his signature role.  In another change from Dobbs’ novel, Davies chose to have Urquhart make numerous asides to the audience.  This breaking of the fourth wall (an unusual dramatic device in modern drama) was a masterstroke as it gave Richardson an incredible amount of scope to directly share his innermost thoughts and feelings.

Episode one opens with Urquhart mourning the departure of Mrs Thatcher (albeit with a faint ironical smile).  “Nothing lasts forever. Even the longest, most glittering reign must come to an end some day.”

But who could replace her?  As Urquhart says, there’s plenty of contenders and he gives us a brief summation of each of them.  Lord Bilsborough (“Too old and too familiar. Tainted by a thousand shabby deals”).  Michael Samuels (“Too young. And too clever).  Patrick Woolton (“Bit of a lout. Bit of a bully-boy”).  Henry Collingridge (“The people’s favourite. A well-meaning fool. No background and no bottom”).

What’s absolutely clear is that, at this time, Urquhart has no thoughts about the job himself.  He’s content to serve and after Collingridge wins both the election as party leader and the General Election (although with a greatly reduced majority) he looks forward to the senior cabinet position he was promised.

But Collingridge (David Lyon) tells him that he’s much more valuable to the party if he remains as Chief Whip.  This snub is the motivating factor in convincing Urquhart that Collingridge should go and that he would make a much better PM.  But he still requires a push from his wife, Elizabeth (Diane Fletcher), before he starts to scheme in earnest.

This is another change from the novel, as Mrs Urquhart is a much more central figure in Andrew Davies’ adaptation.  And just as Davies drew on Jacobean Theatre to craft Urquhart’s asides to the audience, it’s clear to see how Elizabeth acts as a Lady Macbeth figure, urging her initially unsure husband on the path to absolute power.

That same night, he’s visited by Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker), a young journalist working for the Chronicle.  She’s desperate to know the thinking behind Collingridge’s lack of cabinet reappointments following the election and hopes that Urquhart will explain the reason why.  Harker is perfect as the ingenuous Mattie who Urquhart instantly realises can be manipulated to serve his own ends.

The pupil/master feeling is enhanced thanks to the way Paul Seed shot their initial meeting in Urquhart’s study.  For part of the scene, Richardson is standing whilst Harker remains seated.  This means that Mattie has to constantly look up to Urquhart, placing her in a subservient position (this simple staging helps to instantly establish his dominance over her).

After he’s fed Mattie some misinformation, Urquhart begins to manipulate all those around him who may be useful.  They include the charming, but unstable cocaine addict Roger O’Neill (a lovely, twitchy performance by Miles Anderson) as well as the Prime Minister’s drunken brother Charles (a typically fine turn from James Villiers).

Other key characters who will figure in the story later on are also introduced, such as Urquhart’s number two, Tim Stamper (Colin Jeavons).  He’s got little to do in this one, but Jeavons is always so watchable (observe the slight hurt on his face when Urquhart asks him to step out of the office when Roger O’Neill enters.  It’s the smallest of moments, but it helps, even this early on, to sell the idea that his loyalty may be called into question one day).

Before this, they both enjoy dressing down a rather pathetic MP called Stoat (Raymond Mason).  After Urquhart tells Stoat that he’s been able to persuade the police not to proceed, he goes on to say that “if you must use whores, for God’s sake go to a decent knocking-shop where they understand the meaning of discretion. Stamper will give you a list if you don’t know any yourself.”  After the unfortunate Stoat has left, Stamper says that “if I had a dog like that, I’d shoot it.”

Thanks to a system of embarrassing leaks engineered by Urquhart, Collingridge begins to feel the pressure.  And all the time Urquhart continues to pretend to be his most loyal supporter.  He reckons that one more scandal should finish him off – maybe a nice, juicy financial one which involves his brother?