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 differed from the book, and hence allowed future series. Dobbs wrote two following books, To Play the King and The Final Cut, which were televised in 1993 and 1995 respectively.
House of Cards was said to draw from Shakespeare's Macbeth and Richard III, both of which examine issues of power, ambition and corruption. Richardson had a Shakespearean background, and said he based his performance of the scheming Francis Urquhart on the way Shakespeare portrayed Richard III. Urquhart frequently talks through the camera to the audience, breaking the fourth wall as in a Shakespearian soliloquy.
In the dramatisation, the camera frequently focuses on rats for the symbolic effect of filth and conspiracy.
After the resignation of Margaret Thatcher, the governing Conservative Party is about to elect a new leader. Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson), an MP and the Government Chief Whip in the House of Commons, introduces viewers to the contestants, from which the popular and decent Henry "Hal" Collingridge (David Lyon) emerges victorious. Urquhart is secretly contemptuous of Collingridge, but expects promotion to a senior position in the Cabinet. After the general election, which the party wins by a reduced majority, Urquhart makes his suggestions for a cabinet reshuffle. However, Collingridge – citing Harold Macmillan's political demise after sacking half his Cabinet – effects no changes at all. Urquhart resolves to oust Collingridge, with encouragement from his wife, Elizabeth (Diane Fletcher).
At the same time — with his wife's blessing — Urquhart begins an affair with the junior political reporter, Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker). It appears that the Urquharts believe that the affair will give him a power over Mattie that will enable him to manipulate her position at the main newspaper, The Chronicle, and subsequently skew her coverage of the Conservative Party's leadership contest. Mattie, while talented, is naïve and apparently somewhat unstable, for she has an apparent Electra complex and declares that she will only refer to Urquhart as 'Daddy', a word that later figures prominently in Urquhart's painful flashbacks of her.
Urquhart recruits the party's public relations consultant, Roger O'Neill (Miles Anderson), by blackmailing him about his cocaine addiction. The two subsequently undermine Collingridge, giving the opposition information concerning hospital cuts that make him look foolish at Prime Minister's Question Time. Later, Urquhart blames Party Chairman Lord "Teddy" Billsborough (Nicholas Selby) for the leak of an internal poll showing a drop in Tory numbers, leading Collingridge to sack him. Meanwhile, Urquhart encourages ultraconservative Foreign Secretary Patrick Woolton (Malcolm Tierney) and newspaper tycoon Benjamin Landless to support Collingridge's removal. Finally, Urquhart poses as Collingridge's alcoholic brother Charles "Charlie" Collingridge in order to trade in a chemical company about to benefit from the government. Collingridge becomes falsely accused of insider trading. This, combined with his eroding image and his bad showing at the party conference, forces him to resign.
After Collingridge's resignation, Urquhart — in imitation of William Shakespeare's Richard of Gloucester — at first feigns unwillingness to stand before announcing his candidacy. With the help of his underling, Tim Stamper (Colin Jeavons), Urquhart goes about making sure his competitors drop out of the race: Peter MacKenzie, secretary of health, accidentally runs his car over a protester at a demonstration staged by Urquhart and is forced to withdraw by the public outcry, while Harold Earle, secretary for education, is blackmailed into withdrawing when Urquhart anonymously sends pictures of him in the company of a rentboy whom he had paid for sex.
The first ballot leaves Urquhart to face Samuels and Woolton. He eliminates Woolton by a prolonged scheme: At the party conferences, Urquhart pressures O'Neill into persuading his personal assistant and lover, Penny Guy (Alphonsia Emmanuel), to have sex with Woolton in his suite, with the encounter recorded through a bugged ministerial red box. 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 it is revealed that he backed leftist causes as a student at Cambridge.
Stumbling across contradictions in the allegations against the Collingridge brothers, Mattie begins to dig deeper. On Urquhart's orders, O'Neill arranges for her car and flat to be vandalised in a show of intimidation. However, O'Neill becomes increasingly uneasy with what he is being asked to do, with his cocaine addiction adding to his instability. Urquhart mixes O'Neill's cocaine with rat poison, causing him to kill himself when taking the cocaine in a motorway lavatory.
Though initially blind to the truth of matters thanks to her relations with Urquhart, Mattie eventually deduces that Urquhart and his associates are behind the unfortunate downfalls of Collingridge and all of Urquhart's rivals. The story ends with Mattie Storin looking for Urquhart at the point when it seems his victory is certain. She eventually finds Urquhart on the roof garden of the Houses of Parliament, where she confronts him. He admits to what he has done, in particular, to Roger O'Neill's murder. He then asks whether he can trust her, and, though she answers in the affirmative, he says that he does not believe her any more and throws her off the roof, onto a van parked below. While there, an unseen person picks up Mattie's tape recorder, which she had been using to secretly record her conversations with Urquhart.
Here the ending of the TV series differs from the novel. In the novel, Urquhart throws himself from the roof, knowing that Mattie will not hide her information. In the TV series, it is Urquhart who throws Mattie off the roof, onto a van parked below. The book also did not contain a romance between Mattie and Urquhart, as the dramatization did.
Subsequently, the TV series has Urquhart defeating Samuels in the second leadership ballot and ends with him being driven to Buckingham Palace to be invited to form a government by the Queen.
During his career Richardson gave many memorable television performances. Though he was certainly not unknown before taking the part, his first major role was his appearance as Bill Haydon ("Tailor") in the BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979). In the 1980s he became well known as Major Neuheim in the award-winning Private Schulz, and more notably Sir Godber Evans in Channel 4's adaptation of Porterhouse Blue. He played Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1986 television serial, Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy, and in 1988 he played Edward Spencer, the eccentric and oblivious English landowner in 1920s' Ireland in Troubles, from J. G. Farrell's award-winning novel.
Richardson's most acclaimed television role was as Machiavellian politician Francis Urquhart in the BBC adaptation of Michael Dobbs's House of Cards trilogy. He won the BAFTA Best Television Actor Award for his portrayal in the first series, House of Cards (1990), and was nominated for both of the sequels To Play the King (1993) and The Final Cut (1995). He also received another BAFTA film nomination for his role as Falkland Islands governor Sir Rex Hunt in the 1992 film An Ungentlemanly Act, and played another corrupt politician, Michael Spearpoint, British Director of the European Economic Community in the ambitious satirical series The Gravy Train and The Gravy Train Goes East. He narrated the 1996 BBC docudrama A Royal Scandal.
Richardson's rule in House of Cards.
By Ian Youngs Entertainment reporter, BBC News / http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/6346897.stm
Late actor Ian Richardson will be remembered for his role in BBC political thriller House of Cards, widely regarded as one of the best British TV dramas of the last 20 years.
In November 1990, just as the drama of Margaret Thatcher's downfall was unfolding in Westminster, a parallel political epic was beginning on British TV screens.
In the opening scene of House of Cards, Conservative Chief Whip Francis Urquhart - played by Ian Richardson - is seen staring at a photograph of Mrs Thatcher.
"Nothing lasts forever," he says. "Even the longest and most glittering reign must come to an end some day." He then puts her picture face down on the desk with a smile.
The prescient timing helped stir interest in the show, but it was Richardson's compelling performance as the scheming, manipulating, devious - but still somehow loveable - politician that made it essential viewing.
His villainous character followed the timeless tradition of charming and seducing those he needed, but stopping at nothing behind closed doors to get what he wanted - power.
Richardson inhabited the role so fully that he was utterly convincing and Francis Urquhart gained a lease of life in the real world.
His motto - "You might think that, I couldn't possibly comment" - entered the political phrasebook and was quoted in the House of Commons.
House of Cards director Paul Seed says Richardson was the first actor he thought of when he read the script.
"From the very first day of shooting, I couldn't conceive of anybody else playing the part," he tells the BBC News website.
"You look back on the thing now and it is just beyond imagination that anybody else should play him."
Former Conservative Chief of Staff and Deputy Chairman Michael Dobbs wrote the original novel, upon which the series was based.
Making viewers embrace such a dark character required "a very, very special acting skill", Mr Dobbs says.
"Few actors would have been able to rise to that challenge. Indeed, not only did he rise to that challenge but the character became him.
"Everyone identified Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart, much to his annoyance at times, I must say."
The character was said to have been based on Richard III and Macbeth, with cunning asides to the camera an essential way to pull viewers into the story.
Richardson's Shakespearean background was a major factor in his performance, Mr Seed says.
"He had that ability to be outrageous. He really could push the envelope quite far because he was from a theatrical tradition.
"He never did it so it was too big for the screen, but it was just bloody cheeky - and that's wonderful.
"A pantomime baddie, that character. Saying pantomime diminishes it a bit - but it was that kind of wickedness that you just love to be part of."
The first episode was screened just two days before the Conservative leadership election.
"You could not have hoped for a better bit of pre-publicity or events going the way they did," Mr Seed adds.
"It was what everybody was waiting for. And it was cheeky political television - there wasn't a great deal of that around at that time."
Mr Dobbs says Richardson was mainly responsible for House of Cards passing into "folklore".
"It could not have happened without his skill and his integrity and his superb ability to display a wicked character like that and yet one who people could reach out and embrace," the author says.
And politicians as well as the public were glued to it, according to Mr Dobbs - who worked for both Mrs Thatcher and her successor John Major.
"Such was its impact that John Major's entire [leadership] campaign headquarters came to a standstill at 9 o'clock on a Sunday evening in order to find out what came next," he says.
"It was one of those extraordinary things that just captured the imagination of everybody.
"And that was Ian. That face, those eyes. He didn't even have to say anything. He managed to communicate simply with a gaze and he communicated so much."