Book review: Monty Python’s Hidden Treasures by Adrian Besley

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Published by: Carlton Books
It is a sad fact that the world today can be divided into two groups. Those who, like me, will always be amused by the likes of the Dirty Fork Sketch (punchline: “A good job I didn’t tell them about the dirty knife as well!”), the Upper Class Twit of the Year contest (“Nigel Incubator-Jones. His best friend is a tree. Works as a stockbroker in his spare time”), the quiz show Blackmail, the Ministry of Silly Walks, the Funniest Joke in the World and, of course, the Dead Parrot Sketch.

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Then there are those, perhaps a majority now sadly, for whom the humour of Monty Python’s Flying Circus will always be a mystery. Like The Goon Show which is now largely incomprehensible to anyone born after 1960, MPFC is increasingly dated.
Disparate members of the first group even those like me who were born after the series finished are thus forced to eternally roam the land muttering catchphrases (“nudge nudge, wink wink, likes photography? I bet she does! I bet she does!”) which are totally incomprehensible to the second group and trying to convince them it was funny.
In truth, although patchy as all TV sketch shows are, it really was often very funny. The cause was helped by the films too, particularly the Life of Brian, which have ,by and large, aged better than the series itself.
This book attempts to bridge the gap still further with (if I may quote from the press release) “22 removable facsimiles of rare memorabilia from their official archives, including hand-scribbled scripts, cue sheets, character lists, posters, and animation artwork”. If the aim is to introduce the uninitiated to the ways of Python, I’m not sure it succeeds. Would anyone who didn’t know the series well buy it anyway? I doubt it.
But for any Python fans out there, this is a lovely book and a beautifully crafted treat for them.
And let’s not forget the Spanish Inquisition. Nobody expects…oh bugger.

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Why there are no conservative comedians…anywhere.

Chris Hallam's World View

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Ooh! Naughty BBC Radio 4! Apparently they’ve been producing approximately five times as many jokes about the Tories as they have about Labour! It seems the Daily Mail were right about the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation all along! Go back to Moscow, commies! If you love China so much (or indeed anywhere that’s actually communist these days. Laos?) why don’t you go and live there? Why don’t you marry Raul Castro? Come on BBC! We know you want to.

Well, no. Actually the BBC have an excuse and to be honest it’s a pretty good one. It seems that there are not enough comedians of a conservative ilk around. Caroline Raphael, Radio 4’s comedy commissioner admits they have trouble recruiting comics from the Right. And before anyone splutters at this, think about it. It may well be true.

I’ve bored Chortle readers on the subject of the dearth of conservative comedy…

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Twenty five years of Have I Got News For You: A timeline

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A quarter of a century ago this month, Maggie still ruled Britain, the Soviet Union still existed and a new topical panel show came to BBC2. The host and team captains of Have I Got News For You were all in their earlier thirties back then and while not unknown were not exactly household names either.

Angus Deayton had been on Radio 4’s Radio Active, toured Australia with comedy band the HeeBeeGeeBees. He had worked with Alexei Sayle and Rowan Atkinson and was a familiar face from shows like BBC2’s satellite TV spoof KYTV and for a supporting role in new sitcom, One Foot In The Grave, though this had not yet taken off. Paul Merton was best known for his appearances on Channel 4 improvisation show Who’s Line Is It Anyway…? while Ian Hislop was best known as the “young fogey” editor of satirical magazine, Private Eye.

Twenty-five years and 49 series on, Angus is long gone from the show and Merton and Hislop (the latter still at Private Eye) are both now well into their fifties. But they are still there, indeed Hislop is the only person to have appeared in every one of the show’s 429 episodes to date, even discharging himself from hospital to appear once in 1994.

But what have been the high and low points of the last 25 years? Let’s take a look…

1990

The first ever series runs from September to November. Due to sheer bad luck, the show misses the one of the biggest British political stories of the century, the dramatic fall of Margaret Thatcher, by just one week. Early guests include Sandi Toksvig (who is in the first ever episode), future London Mayor Ken Livingstone (then a Labour backbencher), Tony Slattery and Clive Anderson.

1991

Appearances by Harry Enfield, Trevor McDonald and Scots comic and future US chat show star, Craig Ferguson.

1992

The first ever (and indeed only) General Election special features Rory Bremner and Alan Coren. Defeated Labour leader Neil Kinnock appears on the show later in the year, after retiring as leader following his second election defeat.

The show has two series a year from now on.

Rising Lib Dem star Charles Kennedy makes the first of a number of appearances. Author Douglas Adams appears (and flops), Frank Skinner and Stephen Fry appear for the first time.

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1993

Paul Merton’s wife comedy actress Caroline Quentin competes on Ian’s team, a running joke being that Angus is having an affair with her. Although this isn’t true, the couple do divorce in 1997.

Labour politician Roy Hattersley is famously replaced by a Tub of Lard after he cancels appearing on the show at short notice for the umpteenth time. Despite the considerable disadvantage of having an inanimate object as a team member, Paul’s team wins (as is usual).

1994

Appearances by self proclaimed Messiah David Icke, author Salman Rushdie (then still in hiding due to the Iranian fatwa) and veteran comic, Bob Monkhouse.

1995

An on-air row ensues between guest Paula Yates and Ian Hislop. Many see the episode as a class conflict with ex-public schoolboys Deayton and Hislop ganging up on Yates who is defended by the working-class Paul “I did woodwork” Merton.

Tory MP Teresa Gorman appears to be drunk on air and does a bizarre impression of her “alien” colleague, the recent Tory leadership candidate John Redwood. Her later autobiography puts a positive and inaccurate sheen on her appearance.

1996

Shock news as Paul Merton announces he is leaving the show. He appears only as a guest on Ian’s team in the first episode of Series 11 before missing the rest of it. He is replaced by Eddie Izzard, Alan Davis and other temporary guest captains for the rest of the series. Thereafter, he returns and has been in every series since.

In an early TV appearance, Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan embarrasses himself after losing his temper with fellow panellist Clive Anderson who mocks him for his success in making the paper “almost as good as The Sun”. He also crosses swords with rival Ian Hislop. He never appears again.

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1997

Disgraced Tories Neil and Christine Hamilton appear only a week after Neil is ejected from his previous ultra-safe Tory seat of Tatton in the General Election.

Ian Hislop coins the phrase “were you still up for Portillo?” with regard to election night, later used as the title of a book by Brian Cathcart.

1998

Boris Johnson guests for the first time in a series of appearances which greatly boosts his profile while re-enforcing the impression that he is a buffoon. He is yet to become an MP or the editor of the Spectator at this point, though is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph. He appears seven times in the next decade, four times as host, though not once since being elected Mayor of London in 2008.

John Sergeant, political correspondent (and onetime comedy performer) makes the first of several acclaimed appearances. He is later widely expected to replace Angus Deayton as permanent host, following Deayton’s departure in 2002. Although he guest hosts twice in 2002 and 2003, this doesn’t happen. He in fact proves less effective as a host than as a panellist. He has since been critical of the show’s decision not to have a permanent host.

1999

Charles Kennedy is elected Liberal Democrat leader and acknowledges his “chat show Charlie” beginning an early speech as leader with the words “Have I got news for you?” He continues to appear on the show during his time as leader and even after his resignation amidst revelations of alcoholism, clocking up nine appearances, once as host. The show paid tribute to him following his premature death in 2015.

Sir Jimmy Savile guests. Following his death and the subsequent allegations of his involvement in numerous sexual offences over a decade later, an internet rumour suggests Merton and Hislop confronted Savile about his crimes on the show at the time. In fact, this is untrue: like most people they knew nothing about them and the issue didn’t come up. Savile did make some comments on air which appear unsavoury in retrospect, however.

2000

The show moves from BBC 2 to BBC 1.

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2000-2001

Numerous guests including Peter Stringfellow, Nigella Lawson, M15 rebel David Shayler, who appears by video link in 2000 (Stephen Fry, at one point, switches him off) and Andrew Marr (later a regular target of the show).

2002

Angus Deayton quits as host mid-series following a second round of sex scandal allegations splashing across the tabloids. His last show proves extremely memorable with Paul and Ian both visibly annoyed with Angus, Paul at one point revealing that he is wearing a t-shirt with a tabloid version of the story emblazoned across it (a move which visibly rattles Angus). Deayton continues to work and has had acting roles in dark sitcom Nighty Night and drama Waterloo Road, but has never had the same profile he had as host of Have I Got News For You.

Paul hosts the next episode himself and a number of one week guest hosts take over initially Anne Robinson, John Sergeant, Boris Johnson (by now an MP), Liza Tarbuck, Charles Kennedy (by now party leader) and Jeremy Clarkson. It is assumed a new permanent host, perhaps Sergeant or Alexander Armstrong, will eventually take over permanently.

Stephen Fry criticises the decision to drop Angus and in protest never appears on the show again.

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2003

Alexander Armstrong appears as guest host for the first time (he has never been a panellist). He has since become easily the most prolific guest on the show ever, notching up 26 appearances to date. He claims he was offered a permanent guest hosting role at this time but the BBC changed their mind.

Other memorable guest hosts include Sir Bruce Forsyth and Charlotte Church (then 17) probably the youngest and oldest hosts (Forsyth was 82 by the time of his second time as host in 2010. Bill Deedes also has appeared as a panellist aged 88). Former Tory leader William Hague also hosts during this time.

2004-2006

David Mitchell, then best known for the sitcom, Peep Show, begins to appear frequently. Dara O’Briain guest hosts frequently until 2005 when he becomes host on similar-ish topical comedy news quiz Mock The Week.

2007

Ann Widdecombe refuses to host again after she is offended by guest Jimmy Carr.

Author Will Self who had appeared nine times, says he will not return soon after as he has gone off the show.

2009

In what now appears to be an unfortunate decision, Rolf Harris appears as guest host.

2011

Death of Big George, composer of the show’s memorable theme tune.

2013

Guest host Brian Blessed divides opinion with numerous jokes about Margaret Thatcher on the week of her death.

2015

Victoria Coren Mitchell hosts the show, appearing for the tenth time. Her husband David Mitchell has been on eleven times while her late father Alan appeared four times.

The show is scheduled to return for its 50th series next month.

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Book review: The Frood: The Authorised and Very Official History of Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Jem Roberts

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Frood, as in “There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is” is a word created by Douglas Adams himself. He would never have referred to himself as one of course and one wonders if the term which is defined as a “really amazing together guy” by no less an authority than The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy generally applied to Adams, a man who was, after all, notorious for missing deadlines. What’s not in dispute, thirty five years after his first novel first appeared and thirteen years after his absurdly premature death is that Adams was a genius and among the top set of the best British comic writers of the twentieth century.

Adams was at his least “froody” only a short while before his greatest success. Six foot five inches tall and prone to taking day long baths while his housemate rising comedy producer legend John Lloyd went to work at the BBC, Adams despaired of ever being successful himself. This is odd as we are only talking 1976 here when Adams was still only 24. It is also a little odd as he had already achieved quite a bit such as working alongside his heroes Monty Python (by a strange coincidence appearing in one episode of Python, number 42).

But the next few years would see a period of frantic overwork for Adams: scripting for his dream show Doctor Who, writing a children’s cartoon Doctor Snuggles to make ends meet and, of course, scripting the radio series, TV shows and books of The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy. The saga would make Adams a millionaire before he was thirty and would dominate the last twenty years of his life.

The Babel Fish. The number “42”. Marvin the paranoid android (a popular character, who, of course, was not actually especially paranoid, just depressed). Towels. Slartibartfast. Vogon poetry. The saga provided the perfect vehicle for Adam’s hugely inventive brain. Five novels were produced in total (though the fourth one So Long And Thanks For All The Fish was a bit of a dud) and Adams was behind numerous adaptations notably a memorable text based computer game and various attempts to launch Hitchhiker as a film. This was, of course, only finally realised after Adams’ death. The result by Garth Jennings in 2005 was a mixed bag as Roberts notes somewhere between a success and a failure. The closest Adams came to a film was a possible collaboration with future Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman. This foundered over Adam’s script which left any director little creative leeway and the saga’s previous tendency to resist any sort of narrative structure.

Like Jem Roberts’ brilliantly exhaustive previous book The True History of the Black Adder, this is a superb well researched book, especially detailed on all the many side projects Adams embarked upon with varying degrees of success. It is truly as essential a guide for any fan of the saga as the actual Hitchhiker’s Guide was for Ford Prefect as he travelled across the universe.

It is a shock to realise Douglas Adams would be barely into his sixties if he were alive even now. This is a fitting tribute to a giant of comic literature, taken from us far too early.

DVD review: W1A Series 1 and 2

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The problem with peopling a comedy series with annoying characters is that the series as a whole can end up being annoying rather than funny. This is a bit of an issue for W1A, John Morton’s follow up to his own Twenty Twelve. That dealt with the farcical goings on at the fictional Olympic Deliverance Commission in the run-up to the 2012 London Games. This follows the onetime Head of Deliverance Ian Fletcher (Bonneville) as he grapples with the frustrations and inertia of life at the BBC where he has been appointed to the meaningless position of Head of Values.

Fletcher is not especially annoying himself and along with Head of Inclusivity Lucy Freeman (Sosanya) is probably the closest thing we have to a hero or at least a sympathetic character in the whole thing. Fletcher is joined by the most memorable character from Twenty Twelve, the vacuous Siobhan Sharpe (Hynes, in her best role since Daisy in Spaced). A strong cast of supporting cast notably Rufus Jones, as a camp dim-witted ideas man and Hugh Skinner as a hopeless intern.

Numerous problems confront the hapless Fletcher in these seven half-hour (plus one-hour special) episodes. A Spotlight South West presenter complains about a perceived anti-Cornish bias at the Corporation towards her, though she does not actually come from the county herself. A row emerges when details of Fletcher’s salary are leaked and chaos ensues after it is revealed Newsnight presenter Evan Davies is to appear on Strictly Come Dancing. The show wears its celebrity cameos lightly and does not rely on them too heavily for humour.

John Morton was behind the earlier “mockumentary” People Like Us (which starred the now disgraced Chris Langham) and as on that there are moments of genius in the show’s deliberately inane voiceover, here delivered by David Tennant as in Twenty Twelve (“Sting has called up Alan Yentob personally and called him an actual prick”). There is much to commend here. Another brilliant touch is that the show’s offices have all been named after comedy giants of the past. Hence “inside Frankie Howerd,” there is a huge, rather alarming backdrop featuring the face of the Up Pompeii! star.

It is admirable that the BBC has produced something that is so critical of itself. However, in general, too many of the characters either speak in catchphrases (“I’m not being funny but…”) or obstructive cliches (responding to a question with an unhelpful “brilliant” rather than answering it) that it is sometimes as frustrating as the media world it depicts.

Otherwise, and I’m not being funny or anything but it’s all good.

Release date: May 18th 2015

Certificate: 15

Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Jessica Hynes, Rufus Jones, Sarah Parish, Nina Sosanya, Jason Watkins, Hugh Skinner, Ophelia Lovibond

BBC Worldwide

Programme Name: W1A 2 - TX: n/a - Episode: Generic (No. n/a) - Picture Shows:  Jack Patterson (JONATHAN BAILEY), Will Humphries (HUGH SKINNER), Izzy Gould (OPHELIA LOVIBOND), Lucy Freeman (NINA SOSANYA), Ian Fletcher (HUGH BONNEVILLE), Siobhan Sharpe (JESSICA HYNES), Neil Reid (DAVID WESTHEAD), David Wilkes (RUFUS JONES), Anna Rampton (SARAH PARISH), Simon Harwood (JASON WATKINS), Tracey Pritchard (MONICA DOLAN) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Jack Barnes

Book review: Dad’s Army The Story of a Classic Television Show by Graham McCann

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Few sitcoms have aged as well as Dad’s Army.

Whereas many of the comedy series of the seventies, now seem either inexcusably racist (Love Thy Neighbour) or just plain awful in their own right (On The Buses), forty years after its heyday, Dad’s Army looks better than ever. This is partly down to its period setting but not entirely. Laudatory though this 2002 history of the series is, author Graham McCann is absolutely right to praise the pitch perfect writing and casting of the series. And amazingly, despite running for nine years (1968-1977, much longer than the Second World War itself), Dad’s Army did not even run out of steam. Only Fawlty Towers and The Good Life have endured even half as well. And neither lasted as long as Dad’s Army.

It could have been so different. The series was originally to be called Fighting Tigers and co-creator Jimmy Perry originally conceived the series as a vehicle to get back into acting: he wrote the Private Walker spiv part eventually played by James Beck, specifically with himself in mind. He was hugely disappointed when the powers that be decided against casting him in the role. What’s more, future Doctor Who and Worzel Gummidge actor Jon Pertwee was seriously considered for the part of Captain Mainwaring while a young David Jason (already a dab hand at playing geriatrics) was offered Clive Dunn’s role of butcher cum Lance Corporal Jack Jones.

But the show was quick to enjoy success. Some actors were disarmingly similar to the characters they played, John Le Mesurier  consciously played the laidback Sgt Wilson essentially as himself while many thought, Arthur Lowe was too quick to deny any similarity between himself and the pompous bank manager George Mainwaring. The masterstroke here, of course, was to switch the two actors between the two more obvious ranks. The middle class Mainwaring is frequently fuming with class resentment towards his public school educated sergeant. Wilson, himself, meanwhile is totally at ease talking to serving maids as anyone else and seems largely untroubled by the potential whiff of scandal hanging over his relationship with Mrs. Pike.

Others bore less resemblance to their roles. Arnold Ridley, who played the genteel Godfrey wrote the successful play Ghost Train and had been wounded in both World Wars while John Laurie (Frazer) bore many similarities to his character, but had not lived in Scotland for fifty years. Clive Dunn and Ian Lavender had little in common with Jones or Pike, though Dunn, like most of the main cast had war experience.

Although strong to the end, the show lost something with the sudden premature death of actor James Beck in 1973 and wound its way to a natural conclusion a few years after that.

Graham McCann’s excellent book reproduces the famously eccentric radio interview Ian Lavender (who played mummy’s boy Private Pike) from 1987. Having established, not very tactfully, that nearly all of the principal cast had died in the ensuing decade, the interviewer then asks bizarrely: “will you be making any more?”

And here is the final irony. In the thirteen years since this book came out, inevitably still more of the remaining cast and crew have died, notably Clive Dunn, writer David Croft, Bill “Warden Hodges” Pertwee, Pamela “Mrs Fox” Cundell. Virtually only Ian Lavender and Frank Williams, who played the vicar are left. And yet a new version of the story is planned, in the form of a film version scheduled for release next year.

Extreme foolishness or a good idea? Only time will tell if magic can strike twice.

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DVD review: Mapp & Lucia

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It’s 1930 and the peace of the village of Tilling is about to be unsettled by the arrival of two outsiders. The duo: Mrs. Emmeline Lucas (Anna Chancellor) and her male companion Georgie Pillson (Steve Pemberton) are an odd pair but, it soon becomes clear, nowhere near as unusual as the people of Tilling itself. For this is truly a world of eccentrics, peopled by drunken majors, vicars with fake accents, intriguing lifestyle choices and of posh women who though ostensibly polite, rarely say what they actually mean. Queen of them all is Miss Elizabeth Mapp (a toothsome Miranda Richardson): a social tyrant in the guise of a benign village spinster. It is only a matter of time before she and her new tenant Lucas (known as Lucia) become locked in a battle of wills.

Do not be fooled. This may have been filmed in genteel village surroundings and screened in three parts over the Christmas period, but this is not gentle stuff. A clue should be evident in the fact that it was written by the League of Gentlemen’s Steve Pemberton adapting it from E.F Benson’s classic series of inter-war novels. He and fellow Royston Vasey resident Mark Gatiss (he plays the Major), also make up a stellar cast. There is undeniably a dark underbelly to this village too.

Although Blackadder II fans will already know she can play a tyrant called Elizabeth (she played Queen Elizabeth I as a dangerously volatile spoilt brat in the 1985 classic TV comedy), here Miranda Richardson (plus added teeth) excels as the megalomaniac Elizabeth Mapp. Thirty years after the well-received Channel  4 version of the stories (featuring Geraldine McEwan, Prunella Scales and Nigel Hawthorne), this new version is a triumph too.

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BBC DVD

Programme Name: Mapp And Lucia – TX: n/a – Episode: Mapp And Lucia (No. 2) – Picture Shows: **STRICTLY NOT FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL 00;01HRS, SATURDAY 6TH DECEMBER, 2014** Irene Coles (GEMMA WHELAN), Major Benjy (MARK GATISS) – (C) BBC – Photographer: Nick Briggs

DVD review: The Honourable Woman

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DVD review: The Honourable Woman
BBC Worldwide
When not laying into any of our other more successful institutions such as the National Health Service or our history of successful gun control, the dimmer elements of the British right wing often like to attack the BBC. Why can’t be as impartial and balanced as something like The Sun or The Daily Mail they ask? Sometimes they attack it for declining standards.
And guess what? Just as they are generally wrong about everything from the brilliance of Michael Gove to their dislike of the working classes, they are wrong about this too. Just when you think they might be right (perhaps during the preamble to an episode of Strictly Come Dancing), something like The Honourable Woman comes along and reminds everyone how great TV can be on the BBC.
Make no mistake: The Honourable Woman is serious high quality stuff. A gripping eight part drama which aired in July and August on BBC 2, some of Hugo Blick’s edgy subject might in fact have made it unsuitable for normal scheduled viewing had it been aired a month later. For this is a story of the Middle East albeit one set mostly in the UK. US actress Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Nessa Stein, a Briton and a leading figure in the pro-Israel lobby awarded a peerage for her tireless work in the Middle East. But the Steins are a family with a dark past and plenty of secrets. As children, Nessa and her brother Ephra (Andrew Buchan) witnessed the brutal murder of their father by an assassin involved in the Palestinian cause.
But this is clearly only the beginning of the family’s problems. What exactly is the nature of the relationship between Nessa and Atika, the nanny of Ephra’s children? Indeed, what exactly us Atika’s relationship with Ephra himself? What happened to Atika and Nessa on a visit to the Middle East eight years ago? Why are the secret services (notably Sir Hugh Haden-Hoyle played by the ever brilliant Stephen Rea) so interested? What has the death of a Palestinian man got to do with anything? Is Nessa’s sister in law Rachel (Katherine Parkinson) right to feel the family are in danger?
This is exemplary stuff, expertly written, frequently harrowing and well served by a superb cast which includes The It Crowd’s Parkinson in a major straight dramatic role and sees Hollywood actress Gyllenhaal (Secretary, Donnie Darko, The Dark Knight) delivering a flawless British accent and performance. Along with Line of Duty this is one of the best British TV dramas of 2014 so far.

How not to win a TV quiz show

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One of the fun things about TV quiz shows (particularly those which offer a multiple choice of possible answers and which encourage the contestant to explain their reasoning at tortuous length) is seeing the same question answering technique return again and again.

Here is a typical question and answer, plus a selection of different (and mostly stupid) ways people tend to respond

Q: Which English monarch was responsible for the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century?

Is it:

a)      King John.

b)      King Richard III.

c)       King Henry VIII.

The correct answer is: c) King Henry VIII.

Method 1: Ruling out the correct answer for an irrelevant reason.

e.g. Hmmm. Well, Richard III was at the Battle of Bosworth. I know Henry VIII had six wives. So I’ll go for John!

Henry VIII did, indeed, have six wives. But he also dissolved the monasteries. He did both! However, this answer is still better than inexplicably ruling out the correct answer straight away for no reason at all which is also popular.

Method 2: Getting it right but for a stupid reason.

e.g. Well, King John was a fictional character in Robin Hood. And there has never been a King Richard of anything in England. So it must be Henry VIII!

This is equally irritating.

Method 3: The inexplicable loss of nerve.

e.g.  Well, I know the monasteries were a big issue under Henry VIII and he did act against them… But my instinct is telling me to go for b) King Richard III.

Method 4: Total guesswork.

e.g. I’ll go straight down the middle. B!

In fairness, this is understandable if the contestant really has no idea. And it sometimes works. But not this time…

And bear in mind, if it’s a History round, the question may well be based on subject matter which predates your own lifespan.

House of Cards Vs. House of Cards

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The new Netflix US version of 1990 BBC drama House of Cards has met with widespread and deserved critical acclaim. But how does it compare to the original series by Andrew Davies, itself adapted from a novel by Michael (now Baron) Dobbs? (Expect spoilers).

The essence of the story is the same. In the UK version, Tory Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (the late Ian Richardson) is denied a cabinet position after a broken promise by incoming Prime Minister Henry Collingridge. Using young journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) as a conduit, Urquhart plots revenge and begins a steady rise to power. In the US version, House Majority Whip Frank (or Francis) Underwood is angered after the new President Walker retreats from a pre-election promise to back him as his nominee for Secretary of State. Journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) plays a similar role to Mattie in the original.

The original series was set in what was then the near future. Collingridge succeeds in a leadership contest following the fall of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (in fact, Thatcher fell while the series was being broadcast, a fortunate stroke of timing as it made the series hugely topical). The US version is simply set in an alternative 2013 in which Walker is president instead of Obama.

The US version is about three times as long as the UK one and includes a number of new storylines. Blogging, instant messaging and other 21st century innovations also play their part.

Underwood is a southerner, perhaps making him feel like an outsider. The north/south divide has no real equivalent in UK politics at least not in the same way, largely due to the American Civil War.

Urquhart is from an extremely privileged background which in 1990 was reasonably unfashionable for a prospective Tory leader (Heath, Thatcher and Major all came from quite humble backgrounds while Douglas Hurd was harmed by a perception that he was “posh”). Class plays less of a role in US politics and Underwood is, in stark contrast, from a very poor background.

Underwood is a Democrat, not a Republican as one might expect (the US Republican Party is closer to Urquhart’s Tory Party than the Democrats are). Perhaps this is simply to give the show extra contemporary resonance as the US currently has a Democrat president.

Although Urquhart’s wife plays an important supportive role in the British series (and even more so in the follow ups To Play The King and The Final Cut), Frank’s wife Claire (Robin Wright) plays a far greater role in the Netflix series. There is a strong Shakespearian vein running through both versions. Both Ian Richardson and Kevin Spacey had backgrounds in Shakespearian theatre.

Frank Underwood is actually a very different character to Urquhart and much more obviously ruthless from the outset. Urquhart conceals his true aims behind a veil of false modesty. Underwood speaks more crudely than Urquhart too but with a sort of eloquence reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson.

The wry asides to the audience remain, however. Underwood even waves to the audience during President Walker’s inauguration ceremony.

The relationship between Underwood and Barnes has a more overt sexual undercurrent from the outset. This could be because of their use of instant messaging or simply because Barnes is a more flirtatious character than Mattie Storin was. It could also be because Underwood appears much younger than Urquhart did, making a relationship seem more credible from the start. In fact, in the actor Kevin Spacey was only three years younger than Ian Richardson was when he performed the role (Richardson was 56 in 1990, Spacey was 53 in 2013).

The president barely appears in early episodes of the US series. Underwood complains he is not present at the meeting in which he is denied promotion. In the British version, Urquhart meets Collingridge frequently.

The affair between Congressman Russo and his staffer no longer has an interracial dimension as that of his equivalent Roger O’Neill did in the UK series.

“You may very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.” This catchphrase remains. Essentially, as an answer to a direct question, it is a euphemism for “yes, you are right”.

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