You know how power works, Mrs Harding. Power tends to corrupt. And absolute power corrupts... absolutely.
Francis Urquhart, after Lord Acton
Francis Urquhart is the fictional British politician in Michael Dobbs's House of Cards trilogy, also played superbly by Ian Richardson in the BBC's acclaimed dramatisation of the books (the other two being To Play the King and The Final Cut). This writeup includes a brief autobiography and analysis of the character - do not read this writeup if you intend to watch the series unless you are happy to know some of the "surprises".
Glamis, and Cawdor, and King hereafter
Francis Urquhart, after Macbeth
What, me? Oh, no, no, no! I was far too busy as a young lieutenant in the Scots Guards for any of that sort of thing!
Francis Urquart's early years were dominated by his service in the Scots Guards, following a traditional, priveliged upbringing on his family's estates in Scotland and Hampshire. His family was of ancient stock, arriving in England to defend King James I - a fact he alludes to when attacking the erstwhile monarch in To Play the King ("We were defenders of the English throne before your family was ever heard of"). During his military service he experienced one of the defining moments of his life.
Serving in Cyprus in the 1950s, Urquhart was responsible for gathering intelligence on EOKA terrorists. On 5 Oct 1956 he submitted a report to his CO claiming that he had come under rifle fire in the rocks above Spilia Village. He returned fire and shot dead two terrorists, and buried their bodies. The bodies were identified by the Army as belonging to Georgios and Eurypides Passolides. In fact, he had caught the unarmed boys and demanded to know the location of an arms cache. When they refused to tell him, he shot one of them dead. The other still refused to tell him, so he shot him in the kneecap. The Passolides boy then told Urquhart the location, before being shot in the head. Both bodies were then burned and buried. Urquhart was posted out of Cyprus and managed to bury the memory of this double-murder until negotiating a peace settlement in Cyprus in the late 1990s.
Early political career
I'm the Chief Whip. I keep the troops in line - I put a bit of stick about. I watch 'em jump.
After leaving the Army, Urquhart swiftly took up politics, winning a seat in Hampshire as a Conservative very quickly. Through a mixture of guile and ruthlessness, he rose to become a member of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet as Chief Whip. He was regarded by many as the best Chief Whip the Conservative Party had ever seen. In fact, he was a ruthless bully, willing to divulge unsavoury facts about opponents within his own party, aided by his longest-serving and closest political friend, Tim Stamper, in order to boost his own career.
When Margaret Thatcher was ousted, Urquhart refused to stand for the leadership of the Party, despite being urged by his wife, Elizabeth, to do so. He chose instead to maintain his malevolent influence over the newly-selected incumbent, Henry Collingridge. Urquhart hated Collingridge for passing him over for promotion, and set about destroying him.
About this time, Urqhart befriended a young political journalist, Mattie Storin, with whom he engaged in an affair. She was, in fact, little more than a tool for him to leak embarrasing facts about the government to the media, in his ongoing attempts to bring Collingridge's weak government down.
Using the Party's PR advisor, Roger O'Neil, he started leaking secrets about hospital and defence spending to the Government's opponents. This eventually forced Colingridge to make a complete u-turn in the House of Commons over the Territorial Army establishment, further damaging his credibility. Urquhart also used O'Neil and his girlfriend Penny Guy to implicate Collingridge's drunken brother Charles in an insider dealing scandal.
Ultimately, Collingridge was forced to resign, and a leadership election was called. Urquart systematically destroyed the main cadidates, and gained the support of media mogul Ben Landless's huge media empire to stand for the leadership. The Health Secretary found himself in an unforseen riot at a wheelchair factory, and ran over one of the protestors. The Education Secretary received pictures through the post of him with a rent boy, forcing him to withdraw from the race. The most difficult opponent was the Foreign Secretary - whom Urquart had secretly taped having sex with Penny Guy (a liaison Urquhart had set up through O'Neil). Using this as blackmail, Urquhart anonymously forced the Foreign Secretary to step down, leaving only one opponent, the moderate Michael Samuels.
Roger O'Neil was breaking up under the stress of his crimes, so Urquhart decided to eliminate him by mixing rat poison into his cocaine. With O'Neil dead, victory in the leadership race was easy, and Urquhart was elected Prime Minister by a large majority.
Mattie Storin had found out about Urquhart's wrongdoings, and confronted him on the roof of the Commons. Unable to silence her any other way, Urquhart threw her from the roof garden, an incident that was to haunt him for the rest of his life.
Prime Ministerial Career
She trusts me absolutely, I believe. I trust she does. And I - I trust her absolutely. To be absolutely human.
Urquhart's government maintained the hard right-wing economic, home and foreign policies of Margaret Thatcher. Several bills, such as the Vagrancy Bill were introduced to conceal signs of poverty, while his economic policies were in fact causing immense problems with unemployment and poverty. Urqhuart was present at the coronation of the new King, a highly idealistic man who was determined to have an influence on His Majesty's government. Riled by his interference, Urquhart could barely tolerate the King, and decided to get rid of him.
For the first time in his career, Urquhart was becoming disliked by the electorate, and this was compounded when Buckingham Palace leaked details of an attempt by Urquhart's new policy advisor, Sarah Harding, to censor the King's first public speech. Enraged by this, Urquhart redoubled his attempts to destroy the King through his "Regal Insurance." Tim Stamper bribed Princess Charlotte, the King's disgraceful ex-sister-in-law, to tell newspaper editor Bruce Bullerby about the secrets and sex scandals of her family. At the same time, Urquhart was meeting with the King's estranged wife and son on a regular basis in order to solidify his influence on the monarchy in later years.
Urquhart was, however, becoming stressed by the problems caused by the King, and, in a repeat of what had happened to him many years previously, he passed over Tim Stamper for promotion. Stamper had retrieved a recording of the murder of Mattie Storin that she had secretly been making on a dictaphone, and decided to release this to the police should Urquhart continue to break the law. He revealed this to Harding, with whom Urquhart had started an affair.
Concerned at the monarchy's high support from the public, Tim Stamper asked Bruce Bullerby to release the secrets of Princess Charlotte, causing public outrage. In fact, many were concerend that the secrets were so damaging the monarchy could be brought down altogether. In a show of confidence, Urquhart refused to endorse this, even going to far as to call the King - his greatest enemy - "a rather nice man."
Urquhart called a General Election in order to wrongfoot the King, who had started meeting with Urquhart's principal political opponents in his own Party and the Labour Party. When the King decided to go on a national tour to promote the opposition's agenda, Urquhart made the shock announcement that he was reintroducing National Service. In order to justify this popular policy, he set up a kidnapping of the King, aided by his Special Branch police chief, Commander Nick Corder. The kidnapping was foiled by Paratroopers who, Urquhart said, had secretly been following the King on his tour out of concern over a lack of security. This solidified Urquhart's lead over the weak opposition, and he won the General Election by a decent majority.
Urquhart had learned of Tim Stamper's intention to release the secret tape to the police, and of his use of Sarah Harding as a backup. On the day following the election, Commander Corder's men bombed Stamper's and Harding's cars. This was blamed on the Provisional IRA. Urquhart was now in a position to demand the King's abdication, with overwhelming public support.
The Final Years
I feel... becalmed, Elizabeth. As if I have achieved all I set out to do.
After many, many years in power, Urquhart was ready to retire, but only after leaving his mark on history. In order to do this, his government, through the capable Foreign Secretary Tom Makepeace, negotiated a major peace settlement in Cyprus, although this triggered the stressul memories of 1956 in Urquhart. The only remaining factor was some disputed waters to the north of the Island, and a panel of five international judges - presided over by the British judge Sir Clive Watling - was appointed to decide where the border should fall. Enraged by Urquhart having claimed sole responsibility for the successful deal, Makepeace quit the Government and joined the Opposition benches in the House of Commons. Eventually he was able to force a leadership race.
A high profile Turkish businessman, Mr Nures, had secretly conducted an oil survey, revealing massive oil deposits in the disputed Watling Waters, and offered to share the profits from this oil with the Urquharts - about £11m per year - if it fell within Turkish waters following the peace deal. Eager to set up a retirement fund, Elizabeth Urquhart urged her husband to accept, and tricked the loftily impartial Sir Clive Watling into casting the deciding vote in Turkey's favour.
Evanghelos Passolides, the two boys' brother, had for many years been certain that Urquhart was responsible for their murder, and his young daughter Maria set about meeting Urquhart to discuss their deaths. He agreed to look into the issue, after releasing many other Army records about Cyprus. Unsatisfied, Maria started meeting with Makepeace, who was determined to destroy Urquhart, and he eventually managed to obtain a copy of Urquhart's report about the boys' deaths. A copy of Mattie Storin's cassette had also fallen into his hands.
Urquhart knew that unless drastic action was taken, he would lose support in the Commons and the country. He decided to leak details of the oil deposits to France and Greece, precipitating a crisis in Cyprus. The Greek Cypriot President Nicolau was abducted along with some British subjects, and held in the Presidential Lodge in a forest near Mount Troodos. Urquhart ordered the Army to set fire to the forest, which was prone to flash fires, and to retrieve the hostages. The mission - which included many national servicemen on their first active mission - was a runaway success. However, while returning to the British Sovereign Base at RAF Akrotiri, the Army convoy encountered a large crowd of schoolgirls blocking the road. Urquhart ordered the Army to clear the road "using any means necessary." As they advanced they came under fire from Cypriot terrorists, and, in the ensuing firefight, six schoolgirls were shot dead. The images of the bloodied girls lying on the road shocked Britain and the world, and the tide turned against Urquhart.
Urquhart realised that he was lost, and told his wife. She was desperate that his reputation come to no harm. Together with Commander Corder, she arranged for Urquhart to be assassinated by a lone gunman on Margaret Thatcher day - the day he had aimed for, when he would become the longest-serving Prime Minister in history. He died a respected yet despised PM, and a hero to many for his apparently masterful dealing with the Cyprus crisis, a demon to others for the deaths of schoolgirls. Apart from Makepeace, Elizabeth Urquhart and Commander Corder, no-one ever found out that Urquhart had murdered two cypriot boys, a young journalist, a successful PR guru, a political advisor and Urquhart's own best friend. His wife had succeeded in preserving his reputation for the history books - and in preserving her own retirement fund.
You might think that; I could not possibly comment.
While first and foremost a satirical play about the vileness of politicians, the House of Cards Trilogy was at the same time a fable about how bad deeds can haunt and destroy a man. Urquhart was seen by the public to be a strong, principled man, whereas in fact he was weak - in The Final Cut he was almost totally reliant upon his conniving wife for support - and his lack of principles were plain to see. Ian Richardson was the only real choice to play Urquhart, and did so tremendously well, mixing Urquhart's hardline lack of compassion with an almost tear-jerking wistfulness that he had to commit such dreadful crimes in order to achieve his aims. Urquhart could be seen as much a victim as a villain - a victim of ambition at the expense of morality, a victim of emotion (his affairs) before commonsense, and a victim of hatred (the King, Tom Makepeace) before forgiveness. One of the best features of the Trilogy is Urquhart's habit of speaking to the audience in occasional asides and "talking head" scenes. These do much to convey to the audience Urquhart's inner turmoil and guile, and provide some of the most chilling insights into his personality (the most chilling being his offhand attitude to the deaths of the schoolgirls in Cyprus - see below).
It is possible to track Urquhart's emotional development quite neatly throughout the series. In House of Cards he is no more than a slimy, malevolent politician, desperate for glory and power. Yet Richardson plays the role with such gleeful darkness that one cannot help but empathise with Urquhart - he is, after all, attempting to eliminate an extremely weak Prime Minister, in the belief that he can do better - is this not just acting in the country's best interests? Yet the sinister side to his nature is revealed in the two most breathtaking scenes in the series - the scene where he mixes rat poison into O'Neill's cocaine, the first time we realise he is a murderer, shocks us. Few people can watch the scene where Mattie Storin is thrown from the roof of the Commons without skipping a heartbeat. For a start the acting is superb - but the absolute, cold horror of seeing Urquhart, a character we have laughed at and respected, murder Storin, is a surprise (even after O'Neill).
In To Play the King Urquhart is at the height of his powers. He is determined to maintain power whatever the cost, showing that power does, indeed corrupt. Again, Richardson's portrayal is tremendous, again we sympathise with Urquhart as he tries to defeat an interfering monarch. The Monarch himself, played by Michael Kitchen, is based loosely upon the current Prince of Wales, and is played superbly as a weak but extremely principled man - the exact opposite of Urquhart's character. This series shows how Urquhart nearly falls prey to public opinion, but it also shows that ultimately politics can influence, or destroy, anyone.
Finally, The Final Cut completes Lord Acton's adage by showing that, indeed, "absolute power corrupts absolutely." Urquhart is in such a strong position, and he has gotten away with his crimes for so long, that he seems invincible. The series shows that at the height of anyone's powers, they have more to lose than before - truly, the mightier the man, the harder he falls. All of Urquhart's past crimes continue to haunt him, and we see a new side to his personality - regret and remorse. Most neatly indicated by his achingly wistful comment to Elizabeth about Mattie - "She was so long in the air, Elizabeth," this facet is reinforced when he reveals to Elizabeth, to her evident horror, his murder of the two boys in Cyprus - "They were young boys, Elizabeth. They had no reason to die. I can still see their hair, burning. Their clothes, burning. Their faces, burning. She sound of it - the smell of it." In this series we are forced to hate Urquhart, and to laugh at him, and, finally, to mourn his passing. I rate the assassination scene as one of the most moving scenes in any British TV series. Urquhart, the ultimate antihero, has been killed by his wife because of his own mistakes, naked ambition, and outrageous talent for the political art. More than anything else, the irony is not lost that Urquhart, who has killed repeatedly for his own ambitions, has been killed by his own wife for her own ambitions. The cycle goes on.
Who would be a leader, in this wicked world?
If you haven't seen this series, don't let this writeup spoil the story. I have included the bare bones of the story, there is so much more to it, and the acting is some of the best you will see. House of Cards has been acclaimed by many newspapers throughout the world, and is one of the most riveting political dramas in existence. Andrew Davies, who was responsible for the screenplay, regards the trilogy as his greatest work, and Ian Richardson makes constant reference to the character of Francis Urquhart in his roles today (you can see traces of Urquhart in Richardson's acting in From Hell). Elizabeth Urquhart, the dark influence behind her husband, is also played masterfully by Diane Fletcher. I strongly recommend reading the individual writeups on each series, and hope that, if you do watch them, you find them as superb and enjoyable as I do.
THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH CONTAINS A SIGNIFICANT ELEMENT OF PLOT FROM THE BOOK - DO NOT READ IF YOU DON'T WANT TO SPOIL THE ENDING! In Michael Dobbs's book, the ending is quite different - from a distance, Mattie Storin and her colleage John Krajevsky, see Urquhart commit suicide by jumping from the roof of the Commons. Dobbs felt forced to write a sequal due to the forcefulness of the BBC's first dramatisation, although, in the foreword to To Play the King, he expressed regret that his heroine ended up on the floor. Most people tend to prefer the TV series to the books. In Dobbs's version of House of Cards Urquhart is a rougher character who swears frequently and is a chain smoker. Richardson's character has been likened to how James Bond might be if he entered politics. To Play the King is significantly influenced by Ian Richardson's portrayal, and the books culminate in a superb version of The Final Cut, far superior and darker that Dobbs's other two books. My recommendation is that you read the books first; the TV series is so much better, you would lose the undoubted impact of Dobbs's original stories.
Other quotes from the series
- Nothing lasts for ever. Even the longest, the most glittering reign must come to an end - Urquhart's opening lines to the audience in House of Cards
- No. NO. Don't you see? I had to do it. How could I have trusted her? You might think that. I could not possibly comment. - Closing lines of House of Cards to the audeience.
- Remember that frightfully nice man who talked about the classless society? He had to go, of course. Everything changes. - Urquhart's opening lines to the audience in To Play the King (referring to a comment by John Major).
- Does he still send out for anyone? Would you do that? If you could send out for anyone, and they felt duty bound to come? - The King's ethnic minorities advisor, Chloe Carmichael, to his friend and advisor, David Mycroft. When this was broadcast it caused an outcry due to the perceived implication that Prince Charles - on whom the King was undoubtedly based - used ("sent out for") prostitutes, a totally baseless suggestion.
- We are not a nation of deserving cases. We are not, please God, a nation of social workers, or of clients of social workers. We are a fierce, proud nation, and we are still, God willing, a nation to be reckoned with. - Francis Urquhart on a political TV programme following his announcement of the reintroduction of National Service.
- King: You're a monster, Urquhart.
Urquhart:You might very well think that, Sir, but your opinion doesn't count for very much now, does it? Good day, Sir. - After Urquhart has demanded the King's abdication from the Throne.
- Well, what would you have? Britain must be governed - and you know who will do it best. If you will the end, you must will the means. These things happen all over the world. Believe me, it's all for the best. What's the matter? You do trust me, don't you? Of course you do. - Urquhart, following the murder of Tim Stamper and Sarah Harding (closing lines to the audience in To Play the King).
- The death of a child is a terrible thing. But these children were encouraged into illegal and riotous assembly by their own parents, and paid a terrible price. You want a strong leader. You chose me. Everything I do - everything that is done in my name - you partake of it. - Urquhart to the audience, following the death of six schoolgirls during a firefight between British troops and Cypriot terrorists.