British Drama

House of Cards

Francis Urquhart - Wikipedia

After a gold-plated bollocking by Margaret Thatcher, political advisor Michael Dobbs had more than a few drinks and scribbled down two letters: F.U.. That experience planted the seeds of what became his acclaimed political novel about vile British politician Francis Urquhart, which was later adapted by BBC television: 1990’s House of Cards.

Andrew Davies’ scintillating script makes many changes to Dobb’s novel, but the structure of the plot is similar: Thatcher is gone and the resulting leadership fight is won by the well-meaning but ineffectual Henry Collingridge (David Lyon). Our guide to these events is Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson, who frequently speaks directly to the audience with seductive effect). Promised a cabinet post, F.U. is enraged when he is not promoted. He decides to destroy Collingridge by any means necessary, and “puts a bit of stick about” with a vengeance. His devious plan pays off, spurring a new leadership fight, but this time around, with the encouragement of his ambitious and equally ruthless wife, he realizes that the top job is within his own grasp.

BBC hit it for six on this series, with inspired casting, acting, direction and production. Despite a 3 1/2 hour running time it’s easy to gobble up House of Cards in one or two sittings.

Bina007 Movie Reviews: HOUSE OF CARDS (UK) - part three

Dobbs worked for Thatcher, and therefore clearly didn’t have a problem with strong women. That is reflected in multiple complex, powerful female characters in the story. Susannah Harker is very good as Mattie Storin, an ambitious journalist on a Telegraph-like newspaper (which is owned by a Murdoch parody well-played by Kenny Ireland). Storin is manipulated by Urquhart and manipulates him back, struggling with one hell of a father complex along the way. Diane Fletcher is even better as Urquhart’s wife Elizabeth, played less so as a Lady MacBeth than as an equal partner in crime. I also liked Alphonsia Emmanuel (known to American audiences mainly for another of my recommendations, Peter’s Friends) as the clever-in-work-but-foolish-in-love assistant to the cocaine-addicted ex-footballer who runs the political party’s publicity operation (Miles Anderson, in a believable and sympathetic performance).

But the heart of this movie is Ian Richardson, whose work I have praised many times (see for example here, here, here and here). You could almost call House of Cards “Dracula goes to Westminster” for he gives a vampiric performance mixing surface charm and urbanity with a bloodthirsty, remorseless drive for dominance. Many people who watched this mini-series on BBC wondered how they ended up rooting at times for such an awful person; that is the genius of Richardson at work.

British Comedy

Porterhouse Blue

If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, think how much harm a lot of it could do. That’s the animating spirit of the academically-challenged but gastronomically-unmatched Cambridge college of Porterhouse, as portrayed in 1987’s Porterhouse Blue.

Based on Tom Sharpe’s satirical novel of the same name, this television mini-series centers on the longest-serving employee of the college, Skullion (the beloved British actor Sir David Jason). He and the senior fellows must cope with an ambitious nincompoop, Sir Godber Evans (Ian Richardson), who has been cast off from politics and made the new master of the school. Godber’s motto is “Alteration without change”, but he is an uxorious man very much under the heel of his titled harridan of a wife (Barbara Jefford). She insists that — gasp — women be admitted to Porterhouse! In this and in a hundred other ways, the new arrivals war with the traditionalists, with both sides being played perfectly by the cast for self-puncturing guffaws.

Porterhouse Blue - what time is it on TV? Episode 1 Series 1 cast ...

Richardson and Jason sparkle as the leads, as does Charles Gray as a rich, perverted old boy and John Sessions as the one person at Porterhouse who seems keen to get an education. His character, Zipser (allegedly the author’s self-parody), is one of British film’s great comic schmucks. His thesis is on “Pumpernickel as a factor in the politics of 16th century Westphalia”. He is awkward, sexually frustrated and obsessed with the flirtatious older woman who serves as his bedder (Paula Jacobs). His misadventures trying first to obtain — and then to dispose of — several gross of johnnies is uproariously funny.

Fair warning about this movie. If you don’t know anything about Oxbridge life, British society more generally, and can’t make out dog Latin, I would bet that at first Porterhouse Blue could be slow going. But stick with it, because it gets funnier and more accessible as it moves along.

p.s. I have been looking for years for a full translation of the Flying Pickets’ spirited rendition of the ridiculous and delightful Porterhouse college theme song. I have found translations of the first verse, but never the full song. If anyone can point me to a full translation, I would be extraordinarily grateful.

Action/Adventure British

Charlie Muffin

Charlie Muffin is a terrific British spy movie scarcely remembered in the UK and even less so elsewhere, which is a rotten shame. After appearing on UK Television in 1979, it was barely released in the US under the title “A Deadly Game”. If you are among the many people who doesn’t know about this movie, let me try to persuade you to find this gem of an espionage thriller

The film is set at the twiilight of the cold war. Both the Soviet and British spy services are staffed by wily pros from the glory days who report to ineffectual careerists at the top. Among the old British hands is an insubordinate but brilliant agent named Charlie Muffin. In the title role, David Hemmings, well past his days of sleek beauty, gives us a character who is rumpled, raffish, boozy and extremely charming (Yes, perfect casting there). Working class Charlie is at war with his upper class twit superiors, but finds kinship with the equally clever General Berenkov (Clive Revill), a Soviet spy whom he helped capture.

Meanwhile, a Soviet General shows some interest in defecting to the West. As Charlie’s boss Sir Henry Cuthbertson (Ian Richardson, who assays cold-hearted bastards as well as anyone) and arrogant CIA Director Ruttgers (Sam Wanamaker, giving off just the right mix of parody and malice) struggle to respond, they realize they must reluctantly turn to Muffin for help. As the complex plot plays out, with double and triple crosses aplenty, the suspense mounts until the film comes to an extraordinarily satisfying conclusion.

charlie ntsc muffin - YouTube

The best thing about this movie is Jack Gold’s direction and the uniformly outstanding acting by the cast. The scenes between Bernekov and Charlie are emotionally complex, fascinating and perfectly played. Pinkas Braun, as the defecting Soviet General, has the right air of command leavened by moments of vulnerability and wit. And Ralph Richardson, as a great actor can do, makes a tremendous impression as Charlie’s former (and better) boss, despite being on screen for only a few minutes.

Based on a novel by Brian Freemantle, this intelligent and gripping movie richly merits the time it may take to dig up a copy that you can rent or buy. And in my opinion, it’s even better the second time through.

Action/Adventure British Mystery/Noir

The White Knight Stratagem

The White Knight Stratagem was the final episode of a handsomely produced 2000-2001 British television series that re-imagined the Sherlock Holmes stories. The protagonist of the Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes series was Arthur Conan Doyle (center of photo above) who learns the methods of Professor Joseph Bell (far right) as they solve monstrous crimes. Baker Street Irregulars will enjoy how many of the cases contain elements that ultimately appear in the Holmes canon. The White Knight Stratagem is to my mind the best of the series, which is truly saying something.

The plot centers on an unsolved murder in Edinburgh, upon which Bell and Doyle are called upon to consult. It is soon revealed that the case was preceded by another unsolved murder in which Bell clashed with Lt. Daniel Blaney, a once great police detective now on the skids. Blaney, still on the force, resents Bell’s involvement, and Doyle must try to negotiate the rivalry between these two powerful personalities while simultaneously solving a progressively more complex case.