Back in the dark ages of 1990, Margaret Thatcher’s government was drawing to a close. Into this changing world dropped a BBC series that was both shocking and revealing of the inner workings of government.
Part Machiavelli, part Richard III, Francis Urquhart sets out to destroy everyone standing in the way of his ambition. He is assisted by his wife, who more than a little resembles Lady Macbeth. To ensure that we do not miss the allusions, Francis frequently breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience. And, at the end, his wife receives a copy of The Prince as a present. Not very subtle.
What struck me almost as soon as the series began was how very English it is. Unsurprisingly, as this series was written by Andrew Davies who has adapted some of the most British novels ever written for television. Being versatile, however, he is also involved in writing the US version of this show.
Right from the start, we see the old boys network. Being so very English, these means the public school boys, men who speak as though they never left school. The majority of these men come from privilege and betray who they are by the way they interact with those who do not share their background -- polite, but scornful.
The series assumes a working knowledge of how the British government is set up, who the players are, and how the elections work. It would be possible to follow without this knowledge, but some of the subtleties, especially around the various elections, might be lost.
The differences between the US version and the UK version are interesting. Francis comes from wealth; Frank is a self-made man. Frank is a Democrat; Francis is a Conservative. Both hold similar positions in government in terms of power, but Francis is able to become Prime Minister while Frank only makes it to the number two spot -- at least in the first series.
Elizabeth, Francis’s wife, is more traditional that Claire, Frank’s wife. She does not work outside the home. Although there are strong hints that Elizabeth has an affair, it is never expressly stated until the very end of the third series. Elizabeth‘s affair is with one of her husband’s staff and, I get the impression, is in furtherance of Francis’s ambitions. Claire’s affair is all about her.
Both marriages, however, come across as being a means to an end, rather than anything romantic. Elizabeth’s actions, encouraging the various affairs and telling Francis who must live and die, appear much more cold blooded than Claire’s. Claire has her own agenda; Elizabeth does not.
Mattie begins the series much more naive than Zoe ever is. While throughout the affair, Zoe is wise enough to understand the game she is playing, Mattie does not and genuinely falls in love with Francis. She pays a much higher price than Zoe at the end of the first season.
In the second season, To Play the King, Francis’s arrogance and self-assurance make him a thoroughly dislikable character. While in the first I found myself rooting for him in spite of myself, during the second I wanted someone to take him down. His willingness to have his new assistant attacked so she would sleep with him was thoroughly creepy as was his willingness to have the king kidnapped and his two closest advisors taken out by car bombs.
I’m not sure how we are meant to react to Francis at the end of the second season. He appears almost mad, but he does keep winning. The final shot of the new king I found entirely disconcerting. especially as this one is too young to play the game.
Luckily, the new king does not feature in The Final Cut, the third and final installment. It was difficult enough for me to watch without Francis taking on a child. By the beginning of the final series, I so disliked Francis that I would probably not have watched the final four episodes if I had not been reviewing the trilogy.
Not only Francis. Simply everyone portrayed is ghastly, grasping, adulterous, and out for the main chance. For me to truly invest in a show, there has to be at least one person for whom I can root and for whom I care. By the third series of this show, I wanted them all to be thrown out on the street. I was tired of the sniping, tired of the veiled threats, tired of the constant backstabbing.
The other problem with the third series is that there is no antagonist. First the Prime Minister, then the King, now? I assume we are meant to see Francis is his own worst enemy; that his pride and his delusions of grandeur are what bring him down. But, finally, they don’t. It is his most trusted advisor and his wife, who have been sleeping together, who conspire to have him killed at the end.
There is an enormous amount of foreshadowing in the last series. Even the first time through, I knew that the Margaret Thatcher statue was going to play a part in the end. The constant reminders, both through soliloquies and dreams, of the people Francis has killed became fairly obvious as well. I am glad that Francis went out with a bullet. I would have hated the thought of his having a comfortable retirement.
This is an interesting series to watch. I found myself becoming less invested, less caring as the episodes went on. By the end, I just wanted it all to be over.
To be fair, the one thing this series has that the US version does not is brevity. It took the BBC four hours to get to the same point it took the Netlfix version thirteen. We have had a bit more character development and a greater number of stories in the US version, but it does have its filler episodes. As Netflix has promised us a third season, I will be interested in seeing how much of this story they carry over.
Although this review is relatively negative, I did not hate this series. I thought the writing was excellent and the acting was brilliant, especially Ian Richardson who brought a sense of malevolence to the screen I have rarely seen. I recommend the series, with the caveat that it can be difficult and unsettling to watch.