The Political Devil

Tony Fyler couldn’t possibly comment on the two incarnations of the House of Cards villain.

Frank Underwood.

Loyal party man. Gets things done. Delivers on his promises. A good guy, if a little limited.

Liar. Blackmailer. Cheat. Backstabber. Murderer –

President of these United States.

There are reasons why Frank Underwood, our chief confidante in House of Cards is so compelling to watch. It’s the rise of evil, and evil feels good – Shakespeare knew that in the 1500s when he had Macbeth and Iago, the villain of Othello, talk directly to us, tell us their plans, unravel their devil’s deeds to us and make us play along as they danced all the little people to their tune, to death, to power, to their rise and fall. Being party to the power and party to the evil feels good for an audience of we, the ordinary, who know we ourselves will never have that kind of power. It allows us to exorcise our tiny little Inner Psychopath. People have done this throughout history – exorcised their demons through a shared personification of malevolence in art – arguably, this is where the Devil myth comes from - but this is definitely an age where the Inner Psychopath is out to play – in a whole range of shows, from Dexter, through Hannibal, to The Following  and Fortitude. But Underwood’s a very particular moral for whom the time is arguably right – he’s the political Devil, the sweet-smiling slitherer through a matrix designed to bring out the best and the worst in people, where the prize is a power unique in the world. Again it’s a concept succinctly stated by one of Shakespeare’s prime villains, this time Richard III – ‘Since this world affords no joy to me but to command…I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown.’ But Shakespearean or not, the current level of political disillusionment in the States means Underwood appeals to both sides – those who believe the current administration is the ruination of America, and those who believe the other side are so hell bent on power they will do anything – to the nation and its people – to achieve it. Underwood embodies what both sides think about the other, and most people in the middle believe of both.

But wait a minute. Long before there was Frank Underwood, there was another pretender to the crown. Half the box set binging world probably has no idea that Frank Underwood began life thousands of miles away, as Francis Urquhart.

Geeks know better – they’ve done their homework.

House of Cards began life as a novel by British author Michael Dobbs, published in early 1989, when Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minister. It aimed to pose a simple question – what sort of politician would replace her? – but it also aimed to tell a Shakespearean story of a loyal man passed over, infuriated, and determined to show the true range of his abilities by rising to the top.

So far, so familiar.

When it came to televising the book though, Dobbs was assigned the help of the king of modern adaptation – Andrew ‘Pride and Prejudice’ Davies. Between them they turned a fairly dry novel into the fourth wall-breaking evil, smiling phenomenon that the UK took to the inner psychopath in its hearts, personified in a role that came to be unfairly career-defining for theatrical and televisual grandee Ian Richardson.

And if Underwood is a monster whose moment has come, he could still learn a thing or two from Urquhart, whose prediction of a weak, friendly, ‘ordinary’ man to follow Thatcher aired on screen just two days before the leadership challenge that saw Thatcher ousted in the real world by John ‘The Grey Man’ Major and his ideas of a classless society.

So who’s the better villain? Which incarnation of the same character would win in the real world?

Perhaps perversely, the contest would never be run – apart from operating in different countries, Urquhart was a Conservative, the British equivalent of a Republican, while Underwood is very definitively a Southern Democrat. Urquhart’s an aristocrat with old-fashioned ideas and somewhat Victorian political values, for all he’s willing to get down in the mud and wrestle with the real, modern world. Urquhart frequently seems to be having more fun on his road to power than Underwood does, joking with the viewer more distinctly. Richardson was a master of the sardonic eyebrow, and was characterised as a very much older man, so when he takes Mattie Storin – his own version of Underwood’s Zoe Barnes – to bed, there’s a really rather more creepy note to it, inasmuch as she won’t call him Francis.

‘Daddy,’ she says. ‘I want to call you Daddy.’

Similarly, when Urquhart kills Mattie, it’s a final test, and one on which his whole premiership depends. He’s already killed Roger O’Neil, the UK equivalent of Peter Russo, but that was a rather more remote and distant act. There’s a Godfather vibe to Mattie’s murder, a taking care of all family business before moving on. Underwood on the other hand appears to murder Zoe simply because it’s altogether easier than dealing with her any other way – though the Godfather vibe remains. He sends a message with her death to those who would pursue him – but then he returns to another day at the office.

Overall, the two versions of House of Cards are trying to achieve different things – the UK version ran for only three seasons, each much shorter than a US prime-time drama, and each saw Urquhart face a particular challenge: the rise to power, the challenge from a newly-crowned, bleeding hearted king, and ultimately his own legacy and the inevitability of his fall from power. The US version, with more time to fill and a much harder challenge – to take the House Majority Whip to the Oval Office without ever once being elected President – is also dealing with a much more complex modern world of smartphones and cyber-hackers. That being the case, we see much more of Underwood’s manoeuvring, his skills at manipulating public and personal opinion, his international scope, than we ever got the chance to see with Urquhart. With Dobbs and Davies on board the US version as Executive Producers, the essential core characteristics of Urquhart are alive and well in Underwood, but Urquhart, who was so very much of his moment when he hit our UK screens, already feels like a history lesson, a ‘how-to’ of British political chicanery from the 90s, where Underwood feels necessarily current, modern and of the now. As such, it is probably Underwood who will enjoy the greater longevity, because of the relatively unchanging structures of American power and democracy – the West Wing is over a decade old, but the political set-up, the arguments, the flavours of debate, are fairly current still, and so it still feels relevant and fresh. Urquhart’s map of British politics looks fairly dated just twenty years on, because the nature of politics in the UK is generally much more fluid, and has changed practically beyond recognition since the days in which he practiced. That means that ultimately, it will probably be Underwood, rather than Urquhart, who becomes the definitive political Devil of the century. Nevertheless, the UK original is always worth catching precisely because it works as social history, and because Ian Richardson is a positively hypnotic incarnation of the political will to power. So while he may not still be the best at what he does, Urquhart will always retain a place in the geek heart and give a frisson to the Inner Psychopath in each of us, while Underwood takes the legacy forward to new, delicious, diabolical heights.

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

This article was originally published March 16th, 2015.
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