Netflix TV review: The Queen’s Gambit

Beth Harmon loves chess.

She loves it from first sight, loving everything about it even before she knows what it is. Barely has she persuaded Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), the surly caretaker to teach her how to play it, than she is visualising alternative game scenarios on the ceiling of the bedroom at night. She doesn’t so much take to chess like a duck to water as like a fish to water. She is soon living and breathing chess. It has become part of her DNA and she lives for the opportunity to sneak down to the cellar for an illicit chess game with Mr. Shaibel, who effectively becomes her mentor. Soon Mr. Shaibel is actively teaching her basic chess openings such as the Queen’s Gambit and the Sicilian Defence: basically the techniques which mark professional chess players out from the multitude who never really think beyond their next move.

This is good news for Beth, as life isn’t going so well for her otherwise. The story begins in Kentucky in the 1950s and nine-year-old Beth (who is played as a young child by Isla Johnston) has been placed in an orphanage following the death of her mother in a car accident. The orphanage is not an overtly cruel environment but life there does seem very boring and all the children are starved of love and affection. Beth’s only real friend is Jolene (Moses Ingram) a free-spirited older girl.

Alarmingly, all the girls in the orphanage are routinely issued with tranquilisers, as was apparently standard practice at the time. These enhance Beth’s ability to visualise chess scenarios when she is not actually playing chess. On the downside, she soon becomes hopelessly addicted to the pills. As she grows into an adult (played brilliantly by Anya Taylor-Joy), we see her develop further addiction problems, notably to alcohol. Her adult sexual appetites do not seem unusual, however, and her personality as an adult does not stray too far from the conventional norms either, aside from her all-consuming obsession with chess.

In time, Beth is able to escape the orphanage, being adopted by the Wheatleys, a middle-aged and middle-class, mid-20th century, middle-American suburban couple. Although ostensibly a more stable environment, it soon emerges the Wheatleys’ marriage is in its death throes. Alma Wheatley (another excellent performance from Marjelle Heller) seems fragile, overeducated and frustrated. Her husband, Alston (Patrick Kennedy) is a selfish, unlikeable character who always acts as if he’s being distracted from something more important.

Happily, Beth’s burgeoning chess career ultimately provides an escape for both her and for her adopted mother. The stage is set for us to witness the birth of Beth Harmon’s career as a 1960s female chess legend.

Based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis (who also wrote the books which became the films, The Hustler, The Color of Money and The Man Who Fell To Earth), this is an endlessly watchable and compelling story of a fictional chess superstar, boosted enormously by a career-defining performance from Anya Taylor-Joy. Fidelity to the source material is not essential to a adaptation’s success. However, anyone turning to the original book after watching the series, will find the show follows the novel very closely with the exception of one major development early in the book, which was cut out of the series.

Following its October 2020 release, The Queen’s Gambit quickly became Netflix’s most watched scripted series to date. It is easy to see why.

The Crown. Episode guide: Season 3, Episode 5: Coup

It’s easy to forget that in the late 1960s, Britain was beset by many problems, one consequence being the devaluation of the pound in 1967. Many of these issues now seem unimportant and comparatively minor compared to some of the things we have seen since. They did, however, seem pretty important at the time.

At one point, indeed, things seemed so desperate that a cabal of powerful people including Cecil King (played here by Rupert Vansittart), head of Mirror Group Newspapers in the pre-Maxwell era, approached the ageing Lord Mountbatten of Burma to help out.

Mountbatten was, in fact, the second son of the eldest daughter of the second daughter of Queen Victoria, but what was viewed as a distinguished record of service had elevated him to the status of a high profile role in the post-war Royal Family. He was a famous and respected figure, particular admired by many of those who also happened to have right-wing tendencies.

Mountbatten was played by Greg Wise in the first two series of The Crown. He is now played by Charles Dance, an actor totally unlike Wise, yet at the same time, like Wise, very well suited to the role.

The group approach Mountbatten with a suggestion which appeals both to his patriotism and his vanity: why not depose the democratically elected Labour Government of Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) and rule Britain yourself until you’ve got the nation back on the ‘right’ track? A very British coup, in effect.

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And, yes, this is one conspiracy theory based on a conspiracy which did actually exist. Dance’s Mountbatten is sceptical about the chances of this particular game of thrones resulting in victory. But he does, at least, seem to entertain the possibility of going ahead with it.

Meanwhile, the Queen (Olivia Colman) perhaps taking her eye off the ball slightly, has gone on a tour of France and America. The tour sees the Queen indulging her love of horses at one point confiding her to her friend and colleague, Lord “Porchie” Porchester (John Hollingworth) that a life and career breeding horses is one which she might in an ideal world, have preferred to have lived, had not “the other thing” got in the way. ‘The other thing,’ of course, refers to her duty to serve the Crown, a burden she blames her uncle, the Duke of Windsor for offloading onto her late father and her.

It is an interesting idea. If she ever has thought this, the Queen is, of course, largely ignoring the fact that it is largely only down to an accident of birth (namely being a member of the aristocracy) that she was ever in a position to contemplate a career breeding horses in the first place. Many non-aristocrats have enjoyed such a career, of course. But, for most people, such a life, travelling around visiting stables and racetracks has never really been a realistic possibility.

And what of the Queen and ‘Porchie’? Travelling without Philip, the Queen often seems surprisingly intimate with her childhood friend on this tour. There is a bit of dramatic licence here: the trip did not occur at the same time as Mountbatten’s manoeuvrings. It was slightly later in 1969: a paranoid Wilson would not have called her about Mountbatten’s plotting during it. Indeed, for all we know, the two may never have ever discussed the subject. We wouldn’t know, either way.

However, the tour itself definitely did happen. The real Lord Porchester died in 2001.

But contrary to rumours about the programme, the writers of The Crown do not in any way suggest anything unseemly happened between the monarch and her fellow equestrian. The writers too, may have entertained the possibility, but at the end of the day, they are no keener on committing treason than Lord Mountbatten was.

TV review: The Politician – Season 2

Payton Hobart is back.

Having licked his wounds after the bruising San Sebastian High School presidential battle, the ruthlessly ambitious Hobart (Ben Platt) now sets his sights on one of New York’s State senate seats for what will be his first real grownup political campaign. Incumbent State senator Dede Standish (Judith Light) initially seems secure, but her re-election campaign is soon threatened by rumours of the middle-aged veteran politician’s “throuple” polyamorous relationship with both her husband and boyfriend.

Hobart, now supported by most of his allies and a few rivals from his earlier campaign, soon appears to be making headway, despite the potential risk of exposure over his own three-way relationship with his girlfriend, Alice (Julia Schlaepfer) and his former rival, Astrid Sloan (Lucy Boynton). Ruthlessly exploiting the environment issue in a bid to establish a foothold among younger voters, Hobart soon becomes engaged in a protracted dirty tricks campaign waged against and also by, his more experienced political opponent, Standish.

More sustained than the first season which began promising much, but imploded fairly quickly, The Politician – Season 2 is enlivened by an enjoyable turn by Bette Midler as Standish’s passionate campaign manager, Hadassah Gold. Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch), one of the most memorable characters in the first season is back too (although doesn’t do a lot), while Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Hobart’s mother, herself engaged in a somewhat far-fetched campaign to become Governor of California driven by a plan to lead the state out of the USA entirely.

While Season 1 was almost wrecked completely by the terrible sixth episode The Voter, the sixth episode here (The Voters) deploys similar tactics to look at a mother and daughter’s separate experiences of Election Day. Thankfully, this time, it works. While as its Season 1 equivalent was derailed by its determination to show the unusual vices of its drug, sex and violence-obsessed subject, this time the tensions between the two more rounded characters provide us with a more valuable insight into the generational battles surrounding the campaign.

Ben Platt is good as before as the charismatic, scheming Payton Hobart, a sort of younger, better looking Richard Nixon for the 21st century. No less self-serving and paranoid than the disgraced 37th US president, Pitch Perfect’s Platt’s potential president is certainly a better singer than Nixon ever was and slightly better on the piano.

A fine series then, if perhaps not a great one. Not quite a full Obama but better than a Ford, this is a welcome escape from the real life horrors of the Trump era.

And the title sequence is still great.

Top Ten Tigers From History


1. Tiger King: Netflix series. I’ve not seen this yet! But I must do soon as I hear about it everywhere I go (i,e. the kitchen, lounge and bathroom).

2. Tony the Tiger: Cartoon character used to advertise Frosties breakfast cereal (basically Corn Flakes with more sugar on). As Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell) on Peep Show says: “Frosties are just cornflakes for people who can’t face reality.”


3. Tiger Tiger: Popular nightclub. Immortalised in the William Blake poem: “Tyger tyger, burning bright. Get pissed, pull and have a fight…”

4. Tygra from Thundercats. The “boring one” of the Fab Four, a bit like George Harrison or Mike from The Young Ones.


5. Rod’s Tiger: Popular comic story about a boy and his pet tiger which ran in Buster comic between 1981 and 1983. A pun on the name of the actor, Rod Steiger. Not really! I made this one up.

6. Tigger: From Winnie the Pooh. Immortalised in the William Blake poem: “The wonderful thing about Tiggers…” (I think?)

7. Battle Cat: From He-Man. Transformed from a very anxious green tiger called Cringer into a gruffer (he could speak) more aggressive feline when his master became He-Man. Technically, as he was an alien he might not have actually been a tiger in the same way that the Ewoks from Star Wars are not really bears.

8. Tiger Woods. A golfer. Clemenceau, the French leader at the time of the Versailles Treaty in 1919 nicknamed, “The Tiger.” Neither in fact shared many attributes with tigers. Tigers cannot play golf and no tiger has ever attempted to impose reparations on 1920s Germany.

9. Tiger used to sell oil in the 1980s. “Put a tiger in your tank.” I seem to remember the adverts being much duller than this slogan would suggest with some slow music, some oil running along the ground and a real tiger appearing (the only real tiger on this list). My research suggests some of the adverts were more fun, however.

10. The Tiger Who Came To Tea. Popular children’s book by the late Judith Kerr.

11 (still ten overall as 5 was a cheat!) Tiger Tim: Very old comic character. The UK tennis player Tim Henman is sometimes nicknamed ‘Tiger Tim’ too. I remember nothing about Tiger Tim other than that he wore a blazer, as indeed does Tim Henman sometimes. Was the choice of a ‘blazer’ intended as some sort of clever pun on Blake’s ‘burning bright’ poem? Answer: probably not.

The Best Sitcoms of the 21st century so far: Friday Night Dinner (2011 – ?)

Despite a surprisingly funky theme tune and title sequence, Robert Popper’s long running sitcom works on a deceptively simple premise: a family of four, Martin, Jackie and their two unmarried grown-up sons, Adam and Jonny, meet up for their regular Friday evening meal.

Dad Martin (Paul Ritter) is the most eccentric of the four; endlessly taking off his shirt (“so bloody hot!”), recycling the same lame jokes (“a lovely bit of squirrel, love!”), reacting with confusion and terror if anyone attempts to ‘high five’ him (“Jesus Christ!”) or hiding from his wife, Jackie (Tamsin Greig). Although in their twenties, the sons (Inbetweeners’ star Simon Bird and Ton Rosenthal from Plebs) revert to their childhood selves whenever they visit, putting salt in each other’s drinks or feuding over such trifles as the possession of a childhood cuddly toy.

The meal is also reliably interrupted by oddball neighbour Jim (Greig’s old Green Wing co-star, Mark Heap) who has an ill-concealed crush on Jackie and until recent series, a pet dog, Wilson, who he is clearly terrified of. And then there’s Horrible Grandma. And Lovely Grandma (the late Frances Cuka). And the horrible Mr. Morris (“I will not be slandered!”)

Writer Robert Popper and an excellent cast have created a frequently hilarious world of their own.

Channel 4, All 4, Netflix.

TV review: The Stranger

2020. Available on Netflix.

Seemingly happily married with a nice house and two children, Adam Price (Richard Armitage) has a good life. Or at least, he thinks he does. That’s until ‘the stranger’ (Hannah John-Kamen) turns up.

One day, while he’s watching one of his kids play football, a young woman in a baseball cap approaches him and starts to make troubling and damaging accusations about his wife (Dervla Kirwan). Upsetting though this is, the stranger’s allegations cannot be easily dismissed. She clearly has insider knowledge and her claims seem to have the ring of truth about them. What should Adam do?

This is just the starting point for Netflix’s British-set crime drama, The Stranger which is based on US author Harlan Coben’s 2015 novel. And while never hard to follow, there’s a lot going on in this intensely plotted, incredibly gripping thriller.

Coben isn’t Albert Camus but his story certainly raises lots of interesting questions. Should Adam confront his wife or leave things be? Who is the stranger anyway? How does she know so much? Is she a force for good or evil? Does Adam have any skeletons in his own closet? Furthermore, what exactly happened at the wild teenage party Adam’s son attended? Why did a teenage boy end up running naked through the woods? Can Adam save ex-cop Stephen Rea’s house from destruction? And, most bizarre of all, why did someone decapitate an alpaca in the street?

Totally compelling from beginning to end, The Stranger also features a rare straight role for Jennifer Saunders.

TV review: The Crown. Season 3, Episode 3

On October 21st 1966, after a period of heavy rain, 30,000 cubic yards of coal sludge collapsed on 19 houses and a primary school in Aberfan with predictably devastating results. Episode 3 of The Crown focuses on he disaster and its aftermath. The Queen herself reacts slowly to the tragedy, forcing her to confront her own apparent tendency to react with the traditional stoicism and reserve to such events, rather than the public show of emotion which might be expected or even needed by the watching public in the media age. The monarch would, of course, fall foul of similar issues following the death of Diana, 31 years’ later.

TV review: Toast of London

Steven Toast (Matt Berry) is an actor. He is not a very good actor or, indeed, a very good person. He is arrogant, short-tempered and a womaniser. He has no real sense of humour and doesn’t even seem to fully understand what a joke is. He has odd gaps in his knowledge: for example, he has never heard of ten-pin-bowling or Benedict Cumberbatch. For these reasons and more, he sorely tries the patience of his agent, Jane Plough (rhymes with “fluff”), played by Doon Mackichan.

He is the creation of star Matt Berry and co-writer Arthur Mathews. Three series of the sitcom ran on Channel 4 between 2013 and 2015 and are now on Netflix. A fourth series is on its way.

Most episodes of Toast begin in the same way; with Toast in a studio where he reluctantly fulfils a range of voice over commitments. This is one thing the real life Berry and the fictional Toast have in common (aside from both having a surname which is also a type of foodstuff): Berry, previously a star of The IT Crowd and subsequently a regular in vampire-based TV mockumentary, What We Do In The Shadows, has a gift for projecting his voice in an unusual and comedic way. Although his voice is now very recognisable, he has been recording voice overs, both serious and funny, for years.

These studio scenes provide some of the funniest moments in the series. At one point, Toast is inexplicably required to say “YES!” over and over again into the microphone. This may not sound funny, but is: trust me, few people can infuse the word “yes” with as much fury and gutso than Matt Berry.

Toast’s other voice over assignments include recording orders for a submarine, (including the sinister, “fire the nuclear weapons” delivered in a variety of accents) and dubbing a gay porno film.

Toast’s world is peopled by many strange characters. He lives with Ed (Robert Bathurst), a retired actor, living off royalties and permanently in his dressing gown. Toast’s brother Blair Toast (Adrian Lukis) meanwhile, is extremely reactionary and has a military background. He always refers to Toast as “Toast” rather than “Steven,” even though he is called “Toast” himself.

Then there is Toast’s nemesis, Ray Purchase (Harry Peacock), also an actor who wears a white suit, in contrast to Toast, who always wears black. The two despise each other, no doubt in part, because Toast is openly sleeping with Purchase’s wife, always referred to as “Mrs. Purchase” (Tracy–Ann Oberman).

The cast is excellent. Berry’s House of Fools’ co-star Morgana Robinson appears at different times in three different roles and Vic and Bob make appearances. There are also an impressive range of cameos. Amanda Donohoe plays Toast’s faithless ex-wife while Brian Blessed, Timothy West, Jude Law, Jon Hamm, Peter Davison and Michael Ball all make appearances.

The series is not quite set in the real world: even the people sitting in the background in Toast’s pub are dressed bizarrely and the deaths of Bob Monkhouse and Francis Bacon, as well as the fact, the Globe Theatre burnt down in the 17th century, are deliberately ignored.

Personally, I could have done with fewer musical interludes from Berry. Although I enjoyed the theme tune (which he composed) and the version of Ghost Town by the Specials which he performs in one episode (now sadly removed), too many of his songs are too melancholy in tone for what is essentially a zany comedy series.

But this is essentially a class act from one of the leading British comedy acts to emerge this century. More please! Encore!

TV review: The Politician – Season 1

Payton Hobart really wants to be president. He really, really wants it, in fact. He seems to have planned out every detail of his two terms in the White House already. And he is only seventeen years old. He seems to the living example of why anyone who wants to be president enough to successfully go through the process of being successfully elected is probably precisely the wrong person to be doing the job.

Netflix’s new comedy drama begins with Peyton (Ben Platt) launching his campaign for election to the position of student body president of his Santa Barbara high school. This proves to be a surprisingly big deal fought with almost all of the intensity of the actual presidential elections, Hobart imagines one day fighting himself. Indeed, that’s the plan for the series too: future seasons of The Politician aim to focus on different political campaigns occurring throughout Peyton’s life. The brilliant opening title sequence (which uses the excellent 2005 song, Chicago, by Sufjan Stevens) depicts Peyton the politician being created by a Frankenstein-like process of alchemy, before offering his hand to greet the viewer.

The opening episodes of Ryan Murphy’s series are very twisty and bubble over with exciting story possibilities. Imagine Tracy Flick (Reece Witherspoon) in 1999’s film Election magnified by ten. Peyton is slick and like Kennedy, Bush and Trump before him has been born rich. He seems to inspire a phenomenal amount of loyalty in both his girlfriend Alice (Julia Schlaepfer) and his campaign team (played by Laura Dreyfuss and Theo Germaine). But he also seems erratic and clearly has skeletons in his cupboard. What is his exact relationship with his handsome rival, River (David Corenswet)? Are they gay or bisexual?  In fact, this probably isn’t a problem: everyone seems to be bisexual here. The whole thing is a bit like a 1980s Bret Easton Ellis novel at times.

There are other intriguing elements notably potential running mate, Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch: daughter of Back to the Future’s Lea Thompson), an apparently sweet-natured character dominated by her horrendous, gold-digging grandmother (an excellent Jessica Lange). Peyton himself is dominated by his own bohemian Lady MacBeth-like mother (Gwyneth Paltrow, another Oscar winner, like Lange and also great here). River’s girlfriend, Astrid Sloan (Lucy Boynton) also seems like a potentially interesting character, at least at first. The fine actor Bob Balaban also gets a high billing here as Peyton’s step-dad, but is barely in it.

Sadly, like a morally bankrupt politician, the series does not live up to its early promise. Perhaps that’s the problem with planning several seasons in advance like this: the creators seem to have lost interest in this story and started setting up the next series a few episodes before the end. The election story-line fizzles out. The mid-season episode, ‘The Voter’ depicts an apathetic student totally ignoring the election day events occurring around him. This is an interesting idea which might have provided a fresh new perspective on events: not everyone at Peyton’s school (or in society generally) is obsessed with politics, after all. But the voter (played by Russell Posner) is clearly anything but typical. He is far more drug-obsessed, girl-obsessed (a point over emphasised with far too many shots of him checking girls out) and violent than anyone around him. The episode is a complete dud.

Despite these flaws and too many irrelevant musical interludes from the talented Platt, however, The Politician is still well-acted and compelling enough to make it worth viewing. But as Peyton himself is once cruelly described, this is more Gerald Ford than Barack Obama.

The Politician is on Netflix now.

The Crown

Preview, gratefully reproduced from Bingebox magazine (2016).

The Crown Season 1

It is sometimes described as one great soap opera: the longest running drama in British history. So why not make a big TV drama based around the Royal family? Indeed, why not make one based in the life of Queen Elizabeth II herself, a person whose image adorns either a stamp, coin or banknote on the person of nearly everyone reading this? Well, Left Bank Pictures have produced just such a series, a ten-part epic available on Netflix since November 4th 2016. Indeed, they have big plans. The first series covers the period from the young Princess’s marriage in 1947 to the first few years of her reign following her ascension to the throne in 1952. But five more series are planned. If all goes well, in a few years’ time we should have sixty hours of drama covering the Queen’s sixty or seventy years on the throne.

REIGN OF THRONES

Dramas about the royals are, of course, nothing new – Victoria, Henry V, The Madness of King George are just three examples of historical monarchs who have seen their lives dramatised. But until Stephen Frears’ 2006 film The Queen, scripted by Peter Morgan, which focused on the potential public relations disaster which almost engulfed the monarchy following Princess Diana’s death in 1997, dramas about the current monarch were almost unheard of. The King’s Speech, which features the future Queen as a young girl, was another successful Oscar-winning stab at comparatively recent royal history. But it is Morgan – the author of The Queen as well as the play The Audience which also starred Helen Mirren as the Queen who has brought his formidable writing powers to The Crown. Stephen Daldry, famed for Billy Elliott and The Hours directs.

The Crown’s credentials are impeccable. The casting was always going to be controversial, however. Few are likely to gripe about Claire Foy in the role of HRH but as with Victoria which saw former Doctor Who companion Jenna-Louise Coleman cast in the main role, the producers have turned to the Tardis for the role of Prince Philip. Recent Doctor Who Matt Smith is not an obvious choice for the role, but then who is? James Cromwell and David Threlfall have both played the Duke of Edinburgh before but as a much older man. Smith is a fine actor and delivers a first-class performance. However, time will inevitably become an issue. Both he and Foy are in their thirties and are likely to be replaced at least once if the show is to cover the Queen’s entire reign.

The choice of American ‘Third Rock From The Sun’ actor, John Lithgow to play Churchill, the Queen’s first Prime Minister might also raise a few eyebrows in some quarters. Yet Lithgow is an accomplished actor experienced way beyond the realm of comedy and thanks in part to some due some modifications to alter his appearance (Lithgow is nearly a foot taller and slimmer than Winnie was) he is great in this. And Churchill was half-American anyway. What’s the problem?

MONARCHY IN THE UK

“I have seen three great monarchies brought down through their failure to separate personal indulgences from duty,” says Eileen Atkins’ Queen Mary at one point, warning her granddaughter Elizabeth, “you must not allow yourself to make similar mistakes. The Crown must win.”

Rather like Maggie Smith’s character in Downton Abbey, The Crown’s Queen Mary seems to specialise in saying controversial and sometimes prophetic things in this. Presumably, the three monarchies she means are Victoria (who arguably indulged herself by grieving over Prince Albert’s death excessively), Edward VII (who basically drank, ate and womanised his way to death) and her own son Edward VIII, who abdicated. Although as a heavy drinker and smoker, Elizabeth’s father George VI (also Mary’s son) was hardly free of personal indulgence either.

The excellent Alex Jennings incidentally crops up as the Duke of Windsor, whose abdication in 1936 (as Edward VIII) ensured Elizabeth would be Queen. Jennings also played Prince Charles in the film The Queen.

As with any good drama, there is the potential for controversy. Though the Queen no longer has the power to put people who annoy her in the Tower, there will still be a desire not to cause offence.

WINDSOR CHANGE

If The Crown proves a success, five more series could be in the offing. The opening episode which begins in 1947, clearly lays out the framework for what is to come. The King (Jared Harris, son of the late Richard Harris and perhaps best known for his role as the token Brit in Mad Men) has a bad cough and is clearly not long for this world. His daughter Princess Elizabeth is about to marry Prince Philip and though the couple are happy, there are hints of awkwardness to come. Philip is giving up a lot for “the greatest prize on Earth” including his love of smoking and Greek nationality. “Not a single person supported the match,” warns Queen Mary.

The action then jumps forward four years to 1951 during which time, the King’s health has deteriorated further and Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage has yielded two children, Charles and Anne. There are also allusions to trouble brewing with Elizabeth’s younger sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), notably the strong suggestion of an affair with dashing equerry Group Captain Peter Townsend (Ben Miles), a married man. With a title sequence, reminiscent of Game of Thrones, there are also political manoeuvrings afoot. Returning Prime Minister Winston Churchill soon knows more about the true state of the King’s health than the monarch does himself.  And Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) is already assessing the great war leader’s vulnerabilities: as Tory heir apparent in effect, he is clearly eyeing up the elderly Churchill’s job.

Ultimately The Crown is essential viewing. It is as much about how Britain has changed in the last seventy years as the monarchy has. There is certainly plenty of material.

The Crown

AND WHAT DO YOU DO…?
Three stars of The Crown…

Claire Foy as Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth II

Foy has played royalty before and was the ill-fated mother of the Queen’s Tudor namesake (Elizabeth I) Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall.  She sprung to fame in the title role in the BBC’s Little Dorrit in 2008.

Matt Smith as Prince Philip

Best known for playing the last Doctor Who but one, the thirty-four -year-old Smith plays the young Duke of Edinburgh, a man struggling in the traditionally feminine role of partner to the monarch.

John Lithgow as Winston Churchill

Although often associated with comedy roles such as Bigfoot and the Hendersons and Dick in the sitcom Third Rock From The Sun, veteran US star Lithgow is an acclaimed and prolific dramatic actor.

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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House of Cards Revisited

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“Nothing lasts forever,” muses Francis Urquhart as he looks at a picture of Margaret Thatcher. ”Even the longest, the most glittering reign must come to an end someday”. 

So begins House of Cards, one of the finest political dramas in British TV history. It has recently been remade for the US by Netflix.

Based on a book by Tory insider Michael Dobbs and brought to the screen by the more left wing British dramatist Andrew Davies in 1990, House of Cards centres on Francis Urquhart, the Tory Party Chef Whip superbly played by the late Ian Richardson. Taking the audience into his full confidence – Urquhart has a disarming and involving tendency to talk directly to the audience, often offering nothing more than a wry smile or a raised eyebrow in response to events – we become fully involved and even complicit in Urquhart’s activities as he skilfully manoeuvres his way to the top of the Tory tree an into Downing Street.

The action opens in the aftermath of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s apparent retirement (at that point, an event still in the future). Indeed, Thatcher is the only real life figure (other than the Queen) referred to at any point. Urquhart assesses the likely candidates for the succession:

“Plenty of contenders. Old warriors, young pretenders. Lord Bilsborough, say — party chairman, too old and too familiar, tainted by a thousand shabby deals. Michael Samuels — too young and too clever. Patrick Woolton — bit of a lout, bit of a bully-boy. Yes, it could well be Woolton. Henry Collingridge — the people’s favourite, a well-meaning fool, no background and no bottom.”

Urquhart with splendid false modesty rules himself out:

“What, me? Oh, no no no. I’m the Chief Whip, merely a functionary. I keep the troops in line. I put a bit of stick around. I make them jump. And I shall, of course, give my absolute loyalty to whoever emerges as my leader.”

In fact, when the new leader Henry “Hal” Collingridge reneges on a promise to appoint Urquhart to the Cabinet, Francis turns against him, constructing a bogus scandal involving the Prime Minister’s wayward brother and demolishing all other rivals to not only bring down Collingridge but to ensure that he, Francis Urquhart, shall succeed him.

In this the role of young journalist Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) proves crucial. It is to her that he leaks information answering her questions not n the affirmative but couched in the coded evasive standard political answer: “You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.”

 

Timing

The series was blessed by remarkable good timing. In real life, Michael Heseltine announced his intention to stand against Margaret Thatcher, just five days before the first episode went on on November 18th 1990. By the time of the fourth and final episode, Thatcher had been toppled and John Major had beaten both Heseltine and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd to become Prime Minister. House of Cards thus became very topical indeed. The series had the good fortune to go out during the first change of Tory leadership in fifteen years and one of the most dramatic ends to a Prime Ministerial reign ever.

 

Real life parallels?

House of Cards is obviously fiction but some have suggested similarities to real life figures. Make of them what you will. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Francis Urquhart: Urquhart does not obviously resemble any one real life person strongly. He is nothing like Edward Heath, another Chief Whip who went onto Downing Street. Urquhart’s upper class background was also distinctly unfashionable by 1990. Douglas Hurd, would in fact be embarrassed by his posh background in the leadership contest that took place while House of Cards went out and no Tory leaders emerged from upper class background between 1965 and 2005 (between Alec Douglas Home and David Cameron). Urquhart’s ideological position seems to be closest to Thatcher. Yet unlike any of these figures, he is a murderer and probably closer to Shakespeare’s Richard III than anyone in real life.

Henry Collingridge: Both Dobbs and Davies were right to predict domineering figure like Thatcher would be succeeded by a moderate more conciliatory figure. A harsh critic might say Urquhart’s summary of Collingridge: “a well-meaning fool, no background and no bottom,” applied equally well to Thatcher’s actual successor John Major (or indeed, David Cameron). Major also won the 1992 election with a majority of 21 (Collingridge manages about 30). Unlike in the series, there are few immediate problems resulting from the Tory majority dropping so dramatically. John Major’s Tories had anticipated defeat in 1992 and were happy just to win at all. Major’s premiership would prove similarly troubled although more enduring than Collingridge’s. If anyone fatally undermined Major’s leadership, other than Major himself, it was his predecessor Lady Thatcher.

Bob Landless: A crude American media magnate. Clearly a composite of and Robert Maxwell, then still alive (although unlike Landless, a Labour supporter) and Rupert Murdoch.

Lord Bilsborough: Seems similar to William Whitelaw, who ran against Thatcher in 1975 but ultimately became her most loyal servant. But Whitelaw was much nicer than Bilsborough and much less tainted by “shabby deals”.

Michael Samuels: In some ways similar to Michael Portillo, then a dashing rising star in the party and with a history of left wing support and some homosexuality (then not known about) in his past. Portillo, although half-Spanish, isn’t Jewish as Samuels is though. In this respect, Samuels is more like another rising Tory Michael of the time and future leader, Michael Howard.

Peter Mackenzie: Health Minister. Physically very like John Major (he is played by Christopher Owen) although unlike Major seems to be racist and accidentally runs over a disabled protester.

Afterwards

(SPOILER ALERT) Two TV sequels To Play The King and The Final Cut are worth seeing although neither quite scaled the heights of the original. Dobbs wrote two books which followed the first series. The first book ends differently with Urquhart, consumed by shame choosing to hurl himself to death rather than Mattie.

Michael Dobbs served as Deputy Tory Chairman under John Major and is now Baron Dobbs in the House of Lords. He has written many novels.

Already a prolific author Andrew Davies (A Very Peculiar Practice), Davies has become something of an adaptation-writing machine since the huge success of 1995’s Pride and Prejudice (which featured Mattie Storin from House of Cards as Jane). Incredibly, Davies has written over twenty series since including Mr Selfridge, Bleak House and Middlemarch.

Ian Richardson died in 2007.

A new US series of House of Cards (much altered) starring Kevin Spacey as House Majority Whip Frank Underwood is is available on Netflix.