Head to Head: House of Cards Vs The West Wing

Gratefully reproduced from Bingebox magazine (2016):

THE WEST WING

Welcome to the presidency of Josiah Bartlet. During the seven season run of Aaron Sorkin’s award-winning series, we see the fictional two- term administration take a rollercoaster ride through crises (a major assassination attempt and an attempt to kidnap the president’s daughter), scandal (is the president concealing something important from everyone?), disaster (a major nuclear accident in California), numerous triumphs and many other matters, some of global import, some, such as the president falling off a bike in public, more trivial.

In truth though, this is not just the story of a president but of the talented team behind him. In what may prove to be career-best role, onetime Brat Packer Rob Lowe excels in the first four seasons as razor-sharp speechwriter Sam Seaborn with Bradley Whitford, Alison Janney, Richard Schiff, John Spencer (the last of whom sadly died just as the final season was coming to an end) leading a stellar cast who make up the president’s White House west wing team.

Occasionally, things may get a little too bit earnest. Is everyone in US politics really so well-intentioned and decent as they are here? It’s actually something of a relief when Bartlet’s vice president John Hoynes (Tim Matheson) turns out to a scheming, malevolent toad.

Ultimately, however, for all of its high powered “walk and talk” conversations and highly-charged content, The West Wing was just as popular amongst those with little or no interest in current affairs at all as it was amongst battle-hardened political junkies.

Ten years after it finished, The West Wing, often funny, sometimes moving, has scarcely dated at all. If you’ve never seen it before, now is the perfect time to catch up with an all-time classic.

Box out: All The President’s Men (and Women)…

Three of Bartlet’s best and brightest…

Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford)

Idealistic, witty and argumentative, communications deputy Josh is devoted to Bartlet, having previously backed his opponent John Hoynes who is now the Veep.  Badly wounded in the attempt on the President’s life.

CJ Cregg (Alison Janney)

In a career-defining role, Janney is perfect as the sharp, sassy and on the ball press secretary CJ. And just as Josh secretly yearns for his assistant Donna, CJ loves beardy journo, Danny.

Josiah “Jed” Bartlett (Martin Sheen)

POTUS himself, the president is sort of an older wiser less promiscuous version of JFK (a role Sheen once played memorably on TV). Jed is ably supported by his First Lady Abby (Stockard Channing).

HOUSE OF CARDS

If The West Wing offers an optimistic view of the American political scene, House Of Cards represents its dark underbelly. In that respect, perhaps it is ideal viewing for the era of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?

For make no mistake, from a fairly early stage, it is clear that the main character Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is a very bad man indeed. We know because of how he speaks. We know because of the thigs he does. And finally, we know because he tells us so himself, confiding in us his every passing evil thought and deed.

It is this Shakespearian device which sees Underwood sharing his thoughts with the audience – sometimes just in the form of a wry smile to the audience (of course, always unseen by whoever Frank is talking to and presumably screwing over at the time) – which makes us feel complicit in his crimes. It was an appealing device when Ian Richardson (like Spacey, a Shakespearian actor) played the equivalent role of an upper class English Tory politician in the original version of House of Cards, 26 years ago. It works just as well now.

We watch Underwood climbing the greasy pole rising from party whip (being snubbed by being passed over for his promised position of Secretary of State) rising to Vice President and beyond. We watch him lie, cheat, have affairs and commit murder but we’re basically rooting for him. We want him to win.

For yes, Frank Underwood is a very bad man. But some of us do like bad guys. The problems begin when too many of us start electing them into positions of power.

Box out: Axis of Evil?

Three of the main players in this game of thrones…

Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey)

US Democratic Party politician. Likes include: cooked breakfasts, the South, exercise, sex with young female reporters, murder, blackmail, gradually accumulating political power over a period of time, breaking the Fourth Wall.

Claire Underwood (Robin Wright)

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A million miles away from her breakthrough role as the Princess Bride, Wright is brilliant as Frank’s wife and partner in crime, a character every bit as ruthlessly ambitious as her husband.

Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly)

Not to be confused with Thumper (the rabbit in Bambi), as the Underwood’s chief accomplice, Stamper’s sense of loyalty is the one thing that never seems in doubt. Or is it?

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Six of the best fictional UK TV politicians

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Jim Hacker

In: Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister (sitcom 1980-1984, 1986-1988)

Played by: Paul Eddington

Written by: Antony Jay, Jonathan Lynn

Indecisive, bumbling but ultimately well intentioned. Hacker is generally thwarted at every turn as Minister of Administrative Affairs by civil servant Sir Humphrey (Nigel Hawthorne) who sees his role as to block any attempt at change or reform. Despite this, Hacker (who unusually is never given any party affiliation by the show’s creators) succeeds in becoming Prime Minister, largely on the back of a plan to save the British sausage from European interference.

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Michael Murray

In: GBH (drama, 1991)

Played by: Robert Lindsay

Written by: Alan Bleasdale

The charismatic far left Labour leader of a far left unnamed northern city council (Derek Hatton suggested the show was about him, something creator Alan Bleasdale denied), Murray leads an unholy war of terror against Jim Nelson (Michael Palin) a special needs teacher who refuses to take part in Murray’s headline-grabbing “Day of Action”.  Although totally corrupt, a womaniser and prone to a nervous twitch, Murray grows more sympathetic as a character as we learn he is both the victim of a traumatic childhood prank and a modern day plot by the security services to brand him as a racist.

PIcture shows: Francis Urquhart (IAN RICHARDSON) WARNING: This image may only be used for publicity purposes in connection with the broadcast of the programme as licensed by BBC Worldwide Ltd & must carry the shown copyright legend. It may not be used for any commercial purpose without a licence from the BBC. © BBC 1990

Sir Francis Urquhart

In: House of Cards, To Play The King, The Final Cut (dramas 1990, 1993, 1995)

Played by: Ian Richardson

Written by: Andrew Davies (based on Michael Dobbs’ books)

A very different kettle of fish to Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood of the recent US House of Cards remake, Urquhart is an apparently charming old fashioned upper class Tory chief whip, who begins plotting a bloody path to Downing Street after moderate new post-Thatcherite Prime Minister Henry Collingridge (David Lyon) fails to honour a promise to promote him to cabinet. As PM himself, Urquhart continues to occasionally murder his opponents and overthrows the Prince Charles like new king after he gets left wing ideas.

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Harry Perkins

In: A Very British Coup (drama, 1988)

Played by: Ray McAnally

Written by: Alan Plater and Mick Jackson (based on Chris Mullin’s book)

When former Sheffield steelworker turned Labour leader Perkins leads his party to a dramatic surprise election victory, the establishment are thrown into a state of panic. Perkins is committed to re-nationalisation, nuclear disarmament and probable withdraw from NATO. The press barons, CIA and MI5 thus soon decide to ignore the people’s verdict and get rid of the new boy in Number 10.

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Alan B’Stard

In: The New Statesman (sitcom, 1987-1994)

Played by: Rik Mayall

Written by: Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran

A true Thatcherite to the core, Mayall’s flamboyant occasionally murderous backbench Tory MP easily lives up to his name whether engaged in blackmail, adultery or tormenting fellow backbencher Sir Piers Fletcher Dervish (Michael Troughton).

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Nicky Hutchinson

In: Our Friends In The North (drama, 1996)

Played by: Christopher Eccleston

Written by: Peter Flannery

Nicky encounters numerous politicians in this drama spanning the years 1964 to 1995 but his own bid for parliament on behalf of Labour in 1979 proves a woeful failure. Having initially been led astray in his youth by corrupt civic leader Austin Donohue (Alun Armstrong), a character based on the real life T Dan Smith, Nicky’s campaign is sunk by press hostility, internal divisions, a right wing smear campaign and an attractive female Tory opponent. The son of a disillusioned Jarrow marcher (Peter Vaughan), Nicky rejects politics in favour of a career in photography soon after.

President Evil? Fictional US presidents on screen

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Frank Underwood  (Kevin Spacey) is back, this time as US president in the third season of hit US TV drama House Of Cards. Scheming and manipulative, Underwood is definitely a bad sort. But which other fictional presidents, candidates and politicians both good and evil have graced our screens in the last fifty years or so? Here are some of the most memorable ones…

Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

A buffoonish take on the malevolent Senator Joe McCarthy, Iselin is a drunken idiot leading an anti-communist witch hunt effectively inspired by his scheming wife (Angela Lansbury).

 William Russell (Henry Fonda) in The Best Man (1964)

Gore Vidal’s screenplay essentially replays the 1960 Kennedy vs.  Nixon contest. There are a few odd twists, however.  Unlike the Democrat JFK and the Republican Nixon, both candidates are competing within the same party for the nomination. And here it is Cliff Robertson’s Nixon type who has the glamorous wife not Henry Fonda’s JFK.

President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March) in Seven Days In May (1964)

Lyman’s liberal president is ahead of his time by about a decade in seeking détente but unfortunately provokes an attempted right wing military coup by Burt Lancaster’s General Scott in the process. Can Kirk Douglas save the day?

President Merkin Muffley in Dr Strangelove (1964)

“You can’t fight in here: this is the War Room!” One of three characters played by Peter Sellers in the film, resembles twice defeated 1950s Democrat presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson.

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Unnamed President (Henry Fonda) in Fail Safe (1964)

Oops. After the US blows up a Soviet city by mistake, the US agrees to sacrifice New York to appease the Russians. Henry Fonda plays the president (Richard Dreyfuss reprised the role in the 2000 live TV version) and soon finds his decision will take on a tragic personal dimension.

Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate (1972)

Robert Redford’s candidate sacrifices so much in his campaign for the Senate that he doesn’t know what to do once he’s won.  Quite a tame film by modern standards.

Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) in Taxi Driver (1976)

Bland presidential candidate who narrowly escapes assassination by Travis Bickle. This unfortunately probably partly inspired the real life assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981.

President Richard Monckton (Jason Robards) in Washington: Behind Closed Doors (TV: 1977)

Basically it’s Richard Nixon, although Robards stops short of actually impersonating him.

President Barbara Adams (Loretta Swit) Whoops Apocalypse (1988)

The first woman president tries and fails to prevent Peter Cook’s mad British Prime Minister from starting World War III in this largely unfunny British satire.

Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins) (1992)

Director/star Tim Robbins plays the country western singer turned right wing 1990 Senate candidate in this winning mockumentary. His defeated liberal opponent is played by Gore Vidal.

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Dave Kovic/Bill Mitchell (Kevin Kline) in Dave (1995)

A professional presidential lookalike Dave stands in for the nasty US president temporarily. When the president has a stroke during a sex act, however, the job becomes more permanent.

President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) in The American President (1995)

One of many Nineties “like Clinton but a bit better” liberal dream presidents, Shepherd is a widower leaving him free to woo lobbyist (played by Annette Bening) much to nasty Republican opponent Richard Dreyfuss’s glee.

President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman in Independence Day (1996)

Hurrah! Bill Pullman’s heroic US president saves the world from alien invasion.

President James Dale (Jack Nicholson) in Mars Attacks! (1996)

Hurrah! Jack Nicholson’s over the top US president fails to save the world from alien invasion.

President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) Air Force One (1997)

There have been two presidents Harrison and one Ford, so why not President Harrison Ford? In a slightly bizarre premise, the president ends up machine gunning lots of terrorists who have invaded his plane while female Veep Glenn Close rules the roost on the ground. A spoof called Vatican One in which an ex-martial arts champion becomes Pope was sadly never made.

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President Beck (Morgan Freeman) in Deep Impact (1998)

It may be the end of the world as we know it but President Beck feels fine.

Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta) in Primary Colors (1998)

You remember Bill Clinton? Basically, it’s supposed to be him.

Senator Jay Billington Bulworth (Warren Beatty) in Bulworth (1998)

Beatty’s Senator basically has a crisis and arranges his own assassination. After snogging Halle Berry, however, he soon regrets this decision.

President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) in The West Wing (TV: 1999-2006)

Perhaps the most fully realised fictional US president, Bartlet is a hugely intellectual New England academic who serves two terms as president in the long running series, surviving MS, scandal, government shutdowns, assassination attempts, the kidnapping of his daughter and numerous political reversals along the way. Sheen had played JFK in a memorable mini -series nearly twenty years before and is no less brilliant in this.

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President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) in The Contender (2000)

Perhaps the most laidback president ever, there’s more than a hint of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski about Bridges’ Democratic incumbent in this West Wingy style drama. He even likes bowling.

President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) 24 (TV: 2001-2007)

Before there was “No Drama” Obama there was “Even Calmer” David Palmer. A black US president, Palmer’s presence on the series ended before Obama’s first presidential campaign got going.

President Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) in Commander In Chief (TV 2005)

Taller than Bartlet, Geena Davis is easily the best thing in this short lived drama about the first woman president. Like most fictional women presidents, Allen comes to power as a result of her predecessor’s death, rather than being elected herself.

Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) in The Ides of March (2011)

Anti-big business, anti-car, handsome and charismatic Morris seems to be the perfect presidential candidate for the Democrats in this drama. But lo and behold: campaign aide Ryan Gosling soon uncovers skeletons in his closet.

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Top 5 finest British political TV dramas

Political thriller Secret State has now come to an end. But what other series deserve a place amongst the best British TV political dramas of all time?

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The Deal

Year: 2003

The plot:  It’s 1983 and when a newly elected young Labour MP Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) finds himself sharing an office with a hardworking Scot, Gordon Brown (David Morrissey), he soon recognises his dour companion could one day be a future Prime Minister. But as the next decade rolls on it is Blair, not Brown whose populist instincts gradually put him ahead and by 1994, the two friends are forced to make a tough decision concerning their own, their party and their nation’s future.

The series: The first of Peter Morgan’s “Blair Trilogy” starring Sheen, before the film The Queen and the later (somewhat inferior) Special Relationship. At the time, critical attention focused more on David Morrissey’s uncanny portrayal of Brown than on Sheen’s Blair. Other interesting casting included Dexter Fletcher as Charlie Whelan and Frank Kelly (Father Ted’s drunken Father Jack) as Labour leader John Smith.

Remade?: No. Peter Morgan’s next project The Audience will focus on the different relationships the Queen has had with her various PMs during her long reign.

Basis in reality?: Clearly based on reality. Although Blair and Brown have both denied any deal (namely that Blair agree in advance to stand down in favour of Brown after an agreed time lapse) was ever made.

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A Very British Coup

Year: 1988

The plot: Former Sheffield steelworker Harry Perkins (Ray McAnally) has been elected Labour Prime Minister in a landslide. The Establishment (the Civil Service, media, MI5 as well as the CIA) do not like this one bit and soon conspire together in the hope of triggering Perkins’ downfall.

The series: Based on the novel by onetime Labour MP Chris Mullin and discussed more thoroughly in my recent blog entry. The excellent McNally tragically died soon after playing Perkins.

Remade?: In the UK as The Secret State starring Gabriel Byrne. Author Chris Mullin enjoyed a brief cameo as a vicar but the plot – which centred on the aftermath of the disappearance of a Prime Minister as his plane flew over the Atlantic – was very different.

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GBH

Year: 1991

The plot: Charismatic Trotskyite Labour politician Michael Murray (Robert Lindsay) has taken over the council of a northern city and soon calls for a “Day of Action”. This soon turns into a very personal battle with local schoolteacher Jim Nelson (Michael Palin) who resists. But Murray has more than a few skeletons in his closet, notably a traumatic childhood incident and various figures on the Right are soon seeking to frame him for a series of racial attacks.

The series: Alan Bleasdale’s series initially portrayed Murray as a clear villain, then a figure of fun (a sequence in which a twitchy, over-stressed Murray attempts to acquire condoms is hilarious) before ultimately becoming a very sympathetic and somewhat tragic figure. Julie Walters, who played Lindsay’s wife in their next Alan Bleasdale drama Jake’s Progress, here plays his elderly Irish mother. In reality, Walters is slightly younger than Lindsay.

Basis in reality?: Derek Hatton, the former Militant deputy leader of Liverpool  City Council criticised the series claiming it was based on him, a charge Bleasdale fiercely denied. Although ultimately an attack on the Right and the extreme Left, many critics at the time seemed to think (wrongly) that Bleasdale had turned his fire on the Kinnock Labour Party.

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House of Cards

Year: 1990

The plot: When scheming Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (the late Ian Richardson) is passed over for promotion by the lightweight new post-Thatcher Tory PM Henry Collingridge, he soon decides to use his own insider knowledge and an attractive young journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) to plot for the leadership himself. A gripping story which benefits hugely from Richardson’s brilliant performance and his character’s tendency to speak directly to the camera as well as elements of Shakespearian drama incorporated into the action.

The series: Adapted from Tory insider Michael Dobbs’ novel (which ends differently to the TV version) by Andrew Davies, this spawned two slightly inferior sequels, To Play The King, in which Urquhart clashes with a Prince Charles-like monarch (Michael Kitchen) and The Final Cut.

Remade?: A US TV remake starring Kevin Spacey will appear early in 2013.

Basis in reality?: The timing of the first series was uncanny, with Margaret Thatcher being challenged and overthrown by her old rival Michael Heseltine and being replaced by John Major almost exactly in parallel to the progress of events in the four-part series on TV. Later series got so popular that Urquhart’s evasive catchphrase, “You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment,” was soon being quoted in parliament. The last outing was criticised by some for featuring Lady Thatcher’s funeral, many years before she had actually died in reality.

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Our Friends In The North

Year: 1996

The plot: Four friends travel from youthful optimism to middle age over thirty years from the era of Harold Wilson’s first victory and the Beatles in 1964 to the advent of New Labour and Oasis in 1995.

Nicky (future Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston), a keen Labour supporter drops out of University to assist local politician Austin Donohue (Alun Armstrong), but becomes implicated in civic corruption, then later counterculture terrorism before enduring a horrendous stint as a Labour candidate in 1979.

Geordie (future James Bond Daniel Craig, then largely unknown), flees a broken home only to find an ill chosen surrogate father figure in East End gangland boss Benny (Malcolm McDowell).

Tosker (Mark Strong), seeks pop stardom, has an unhappy marriage before becoming, despite being in many ways the stupidest and least likeable of the four,  the most successful, establishing himself as a keen Freemason and Thatcherite.

Mary (Gina McKee, who is also in The Secret State), is caught up in an awkward love triangle between the unsuitable Tosker and true love Nicky. She later becomes a New Labour MP.

The series: A wonderful sprawling series this had a long gestation period, originally as a play with the action only going up to 1979.

Remade? No, although there has been talk of a US remake.

Basis in reality?: Although fictional, this drew heavily on real events. Austin Donohue’s character was based on real-life city developer T. Dan Smith, while a character played by future Downton Abbey author Julian Fellowes owed a lot to Tory Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling. Revelations concerning police corruption, 1970s anarchist movements and events during the Miner’s Strike of 1984 also played a major part in the story.