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Review: To Play the King (1993) and The Final Cut (1995)

December 21st, 2009

Much as with real life, the most exciting moments in British politics take place during Questions to the Prime Minister.

I was amused and entertained, but not wowed, by the 1990 BBC miniseries House of Cards, the first installment in the Ian Richardson-led the House of Cards Trilogy (House of Cards / To Play the King / The Final Cut).  After my enjoyment of the BBC political miniseries State of Play and the HBO-BBC miniseries Five Days, I was intrigued to see House of Cards, which was a widely regarded television event in the UK – even if it wasn’t terribly high brow.

It was a true political thriller, and I reflected as much in my review of it; however, where I appreciated the depth of character development and multiple, fully detailed plot arcs in State of Play (reviewed here) and the subtlety of Five Days (reviewed here), House of Cards really featured neither.  It seemed rushed and really focused solely on Richardson’s Francis Urquhart and his relationship with reporter Mattie Storen.

Unfortunately, the second and third segments of the series don’t really improve on things.  The best that can be said of them is that they took up only two discs in total on the Netflix queue, even though they pack in a combined seven hours of telly over eight episodes.  Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, as they are entertaining… just not great.

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In To Play the King, we focus on now established PM Urquhart (who intentionally has been initialed “F.U.” by the series author as an appropriate nickname) and his combative relationship with the newly minted King of England.  Author Michael Dobbs and Director Paul Seed apparently caused quite a stir with the creation of a pretty clear fictional surrogate for Prince Charles, who is brilliantly aped by Michael Kitchen.  The King is shown in an empathetic manner (both drawing empathy from the viewers and showing empathy for his subjects), but there is no question that there is scandal and tabloid fodder there.  There is the implication of infidelity, leading to his divorce from a quite clear parallel to Princess Diana, with whom he has a male heir.  And the rest of the royals are revealed in tabloids as sexual deviants… all thanks to F.U.’s machinations, of course.

In To Play the King, Urquhart takes on a crown that he doesn't believe knows its place.

The plot of the second miniseries focuses on their struggle with the backdrop of economic downturn, social discord across the UK and IRA terrorism.  F.U.’s hardline view toward conservative recovery is challenged by the King and the opposition, who call for a cuddlier, environmentally friendly and compassionate government policy.  The pace of the story doesn’t really favor either side ideologically, with criticism drawn for both sides as either heartless or unrealistic, respectively.

The sidekicks in this series switch from the druggie Roger O’Neill and the reporter Storen to Chief Whip Tim Stamper (Colin Jeavons) and political analyst Sarah Harding (Kitty Aldridge).  Stamper is F.U.’s successor in the Whip position and carries over a lapdog like role from House of Cards.  Harding, however, steps in for Storen both as a looking glass for the viewer and a love interest for Urquhart.  While in House of Cards Urquhart promised access to interviews and an understanding of politics to Storen in exchange for her love, Harding and F.U. begin with a purely professional relationship in which Harding is allowed to understand wielding power and Urquhart gets access to an outstanding political and PR asset.

F.U.’s relationship with Storen defined the manner in which he narrated by direct address to the camera in House of Cards – he speaks as if the camera were a reporter prodding for information on which he couldn’t possibly comment.  In To Play the King, his relationship with Harding defines his monologues.  He addresses the camera in a manner that reveals his inner thought process and political maneuvering.  It is one of the few ways in which the second miniseries improves upon the first.

On the whole, To Play the King feels tabloid-esque and a bit too tawdry.  The plot’s loose ends are wrapped up hastily, though with the type of F.U. deviousness we enjoy as an audience.  There’s enough uncertainty to keep things interesting, even though we know there is a third miniseries which indicates that F.U. will come out on top.  Yet the constant reminders of Storen and F.U.’s relationship become just flat out annoying as a cinematic tactic.  On the whole, I was satisfied with the story, but admittedly happier that I had finished watching it than when actually watching it.

In The Final Cut, author Michael Dobbs political thriller is kept somewhat true to the print version, with a few minor details adjusted.

The same is true with Final Cuts.  The third and mercifully final run of F.U. focuses more on his wife Elizabeth and their trusted personal security advisor and fixer, Commander Corder (Nick Brimble), as they deal with a PM who appears to be in his waning days of power.  Elizabeth and Corder were key characters throughout the trilogy; however, it is only this miniseries in which they take a true role of prominence.

Elizabeth, in particular, steps up her role as the key woman behind the man, arranging for backroom deals and scheming with an international arbitration.  In the past, she had served more as just a confidant.  Also flashing the different view of the political wife is the better half of MP Tom Makepeace (Paul Freeman), F.U.’s Foreign Secretary.  The usually hidden half of an open political marriage, Mrs. Makepeace is quite empowered carrying on an affair of her own in full view of her husband, and much to his chagrin.

Makepeace’s name is the most annoying element of his character.  He quite clearly offsets F.U.’s authoritarian hand with a more diplomatic tone.  International politics plays a key role as Urquhart is obsessed with Margaret Thatcher, whom he is on the cusp of passing as the longest serving PM.  Multiple comparisons are made between Thatcher and her “hero of the Falklands” status and F.U. and what he attempts to accomplish in the focal peace process in Cyprus.

Joining Makepeace as a key addition is MP Claire Carlsen (Isla Blair), a sultry member of the Conservative Party who is both having an affair with Makepeace and the potential star who F.U. promotes to Party Secretary.  Unlike with Storen and Harding, there is no Urquhart romance here, and the narrative of the series is similarly altered.

Instead of an interview or apprenticeship, the overarching nature of the PM’s commentary is one of fending off dementia and paranoia, it seems.  Not that F.U. has lost it all, but this is clearly a more aged Urquhart and he is obsessed with his legacy and a pension.  The third segment is a bit disturbing in that element.  For all the evil that F.U. represents, he is still our protagonist and we want to see his evil machinations – even if we root sometimes for them to fail.

The highlight of the entire series is the interplay between Richardson's Prime Minister and Michael Kitchen's King; which is ironic given the fact that the royal lampooning is the weakest element of the series.

It is appropriate, in the end, that in the final episode of the series, Elizabeth Urquhart is presented with a copy of The Prince, by Machiavelli.  There is little doubt that F.U. is a quintessential schemer and accumulator of power.  And he truly survives by knowing that he is more ready to do that which a prince or noble could not for fear of violating piety – much as Machiavelli discussed.  But one wonders in this last leg if Urquhart could not have used the tome earlier.

All in all, the performances throughout the series are quite good and the cast continues to represent a stable of solid Brit TV actors.  Ian Richardson really is brilliant despite being handed some limited material in The Final Cut.  There isn’t much too really bother about the series as a whole, and the third miniseries in particular.  In particular, as a half-breed Greek-American, I was pleased to see the vilification of the invading Turkish Cypriots.  The second miniseries tripped a bit by going tabloidy, but the trilogy mostly just suffers for being a bit stale.  We’re now almost two decades removed from Thatcher and this series’ launch.  For a political thriller – even one which relies on social and international issues that are not terribly outdated – the passage of time reflects the importance of remaining fresh.

To grade the second and third series, I would give To Play the King a 6.5 with a downgrade for being tawdry, while The Final Cut receives a 7.  I would recommend them for a rent if your Netflix queue is bare, but these are definitely not buys and I question whether they’d be watchable a second time through.

Urquhart on Political Strength and Terrorism in To Play the King

Urquhart on Political Relationships in The Final Cut

  1. July 3rd, 2010 at 20:30 | #1

    You tried to insult one of the greatest shows in British history in a typical americian arroganance. I don’t blame you thinking everything American is better because that your belief. But the house of cards was rated highly by Uk viewers at the time you can’t compare it with the west wing and co since shows in America have bigger budgets and since this show was filmed by the BBC it had to stay within a certain budget since the BBC is funded by yours truly the British tax-payer.

  2. admin
    July 6th, 2010 at 23:55 | #2

    @JAMES COPE
    James, I’m also reviewing a show two decades on. I think you’d actually find that I rather enjoy British television and, above all else, revere its aversion from trying to milk every penny from an idea. Too many US shows (including The West Wing, one of my favorites) continued on far too long.
    Nor do I think a big budget is the end all, be all. Heck, I’ve criticized LOST and its enormous budget for several times when their production quality slipped in its final season.
    I just, quite simply, did not engage with this miniseries as I have with so many others produced for British television. I know it’s a BBC classic, and that’s why I was really geared up for it. To me, it just didn’t connect and deliver.
    I note the following from the above:
    “The second miniseries tripped a bit by going tabloidy, but the trilogy mostly just suffers for being a bit stale. We’re now almost two decades removed from Thatcher and this series’ launch. For a political thriller – even one which relies on social and international issues that are not terribly outdated – the passage of time reflects the importance of remaining fresh.”

    In any respect, thanks for stopping by.

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