Television Revision: The House of Cards

The House of Cards

By Andrew Williams
June 17, 2013

Television Revision is a weekly feature in which our tuned in TV critic trawls through the best the box has to offer, giving you a primer on some of history’s finest shows (and warning you away from the specific episodes – or even seasons! – that might have ruined their reputation).

Now, this is a story all about how… Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) is the majority whip for the newly elected government immediately following the Thatcher era. After being passed over for higher office, he begins exacting his revenge on the people who have wronged him.


Happy days? A political thriller with Shakespearean influences and a stunning lead performance, 1990 British series The House of Cards is more than worth your attention: it’s borderline essential. What begins as a relatively light-hearted story of political revenge takes a turn into the darkness, muck, and grime of professional politics and gleefully drags you down with it. Anchored by two fantastic performances from Richardson as Urquhart and Susannah Harker as journalist Mattie Storin, The House of Cards is superbly written (adapted by Andrew Davies from Michael Dobbs’ novel), well-directed (courtesy of Paul Seed), and packs an emotional punch.

Negatives are few and far between, but it’s a shame that so little time is spent on the relationship between Francis and his wife, especially considering that their partnership is crucial to the events of the series (on two fronts). I’m also not a fan of the occasional cuts to a rat skulking around London; it’s a decision completely out of step with the milieu of the rest of the series and when a metaphor is as obvious as that, you probably need to integrate it in a more subtle manner.

The final frontier? The House of Cards is a beautifully acted, superbly written mini-series with a jagged edge and a haunting finale. A must-watch, certainly ahead of the US remake‘s DVD release.


Best episode: After the initial shock of the lead character breaking the fourth wall wears off, it’s easy to settle into The House of Cards’ talky, two-faced energy. The first episode is a master class in how to set up a season: all the characters have effective introductions, the plot doesn’t take long to keep moving, and it manages to work as a standalone episode of television to boot. It’s a remarkable start.

Worst episode: Tough call in a four-episode season. However, the third ep definitely suffers from being a table-setter for the gut-punch of a finale. There’s a little bit more time wasting, particularly with characters we’re less enamoured with. Nonetheless, it’s still a fantastic episode of television all the same.

Season MVP: It’s impossible to go past the lead performance of Richardson as the Machiavellian Francis Urquhart. His most effective trick is how he’s able to remain likeable and interesting in the face of doing several horrible, manipulative things, and it’s a crucial element in the framing of the series and how the story unfolds. Plus: what a voice!


The House of Cards is available on Quickflix.

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