Year Released: 1990
Directed by: Paul Seed
Starring: Ian Richardson, Diane Fletcher
(Not Rated, 12 episodes, approximately 50 min. each)
“That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” William Shakespeare
If you are a fan of the American remake, you should definitely see the 1990 original British political thriller, a timeless ode to evil. The knife slides in ever so smoothly with Shakespearean diction greasing its way. Rarely has villainy been so eloquently evil, so fascinatingly diabolical, nor so brutal and swift.
Of course, much is due to the wonderful script, which imposes MacBeth’s ambition and Richard III's manipulative corruption on one Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson), a Member of Parliament and Chief Whip in the House of Commons. Piqued after the new Prime Minister fails to heed his advice or award him his presumed senior cabinet position, Urquhart plans the new PM's ouster.
But it’s getting there that is all the fun, if we can use such a word to describe the Machiavellian road Francis Urquhart takes. His initials are certainly no coincidence, although F.U. would be the first to issue a twinkling denial of any such connection: “You may very well think that. I cannot possibly comment.”
Abetting his plans is Elizabeth Urquhart (Diane Fletcher), a Lady MacBeth who sits quietly embroidering while she plots mayhem. With a bland smile, she is the perfect political wife, quiet and demure, always saying the right things in public. But never has the banality of evil been more real. The tea pours from her pot as easily as her schemes, one of which might raise the eyebrows of even jaded American viewers.
It is at her suggestion that Urquhart takes his friendship with Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker), a young journalist, to the next level. That Mattie is less than half his age presents no problem to the enamored girl, who insists on calling Urquhart “Daddy.” We are spared the details of their trysts, with the single exception of observing Urquhart’s very naked and sweaty back, but not the extent of the perversion, which appears to spread to him as well. If this speech, one of Urquhart’s several soliloquies, does not come from Shakespeare’s King Lear, it certainly could have.
Playing with the hopes and dreams of a daughter, now gentle, now hard, rebuking and rewarding, chastising and forgiving. The pleasures of a father. Of a father of daughters. What greater power is there than that? Why should a man want more? Why should I yearn to be everybody's daddy?
Ian Richardson, a trained Shakespearean actor, is completely at home in his role here. The actor and character become one, enjoying their amoral romp to the top with an infectious enthusiasm that almost draws us in as well. Urquhart pauses to speak directly to the camera at regular intervals, breaking down what dramatists call the fourth (imaginary) wall between the action of the play and the observing audience. He is at his mischievous best when he lets us in on the details of his plans, taunting us at times to accept his casual cruelty and violence.
We may not admire the manipulation of the Prime minister whose downfall Urquhart engineers, but one cannot help but enjoy the irony as Urquhart is able to paint himself the sympathetic loyalist as each aspect of his plot succeeds.
It is less enjoyable in some cases, though, especially Urquhart’s treatment of Roger O’Neill (Miles Anderson), the party’s public relations consultant. O’Neill is a self-destructive cocaine addict, a fact which Urquhart uses to blackmail him to do his bidding. But we cannot help but like O’Neill, his puppy dog eyes full of wordless appeal, like an undisciplined big St. Bernard, who cannot help from chewing the furniture and piddling on the carpet. Not only does Urquhart use him badly, but he humiliates O’Neill as well as the woman he loves before he becomes a liability to be disposed of without a thought.
Other opponents have a bit more fight in them. Michael Kitchen, so delightful in Foyle's War, plays the new king, presumably Charles taking over from his mother. The naïve idealist Urquhart intends to bowl over in short order proves a potent adversary.
Claire Carlsen (Isla Blair), an ambitious backbencher involved with a chief adversary of Urquhart’s, becomes his Parliamentary Private Secretary, and she is almost as devious and manipulative as her new boss. The way she plays one man against another is something Urquhart himself might admire if he were not one of the unsuspecting pawns himself.
No wonder Urquhart likes to spend some time alone atop the formidable House of Parliament looking down on the world. As it happens, though, Urquhart’s position, built on his own house of cards, is not nearly so durable. It is not a question of if, but when it will all come tumbling down.
The new king has great empathy for his subjects, particularly the poor ones. It is with their interest at heart that he convenes a dinner meeting at the palace with various members of Parliament. We listen in as they anticipate a delightful meal, knowing that they may order whatever they would like. Visions of Beef Wellington or Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding dance in their heads.
The king, however, notes that thinking of the hungry poor has taken away his appetite. He will dine on just soup and bread. Accordingly, one by one, his guests order the same simple fare.
Make your own choice. You can try either of the two recipes already mentioned, or put yourself in with the king and his soup. At least we have chosen a delightful one, creamy Devonshire Crab Soup.
Devonshire Crab Soup
“Whether made from freshly cooked or pre-packed crab meat, this richly flavoured soup brings the breezy tang of the English seaside to your table.”
1 oz butter
1 small onion, skinned and finely chopped
1 celery stick, cleaned and chopped
3 oz long grain rice
2 cups milk
meat of 1 cooked crab, 8 oz frozen or canned crab meat, drained and flaked
1 cupchicken stock
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tsp anchovy essence
2 tbsp brandy
5 fl oz fresh double cream (whipping cream will do)
chopped fresh parsley to garnish
1. Melt the butter in a large saucepan, add the onion and celery and cook for 10 minutes until soft. Add the rice and milk, cover and cook for 15 minutes until the rice is cooked. Cool slightly.
2. Pass the soup through a sieve or puree in a blender. Return to the pan together with the crab meat. Add the stock, seasoning, anchovy essence and reheat.
3. Add the brandy and fresh cream but do not boil. Transfer to a soup tureen, sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve very hot accompanied with melba toast and butter.