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To Play the King (Review)

The wonderful folks at the BBC have given me access to their BBC Global iPlayer for a month to give the service a go and trawl through the archives. Read my thoughts on the service here, but I thought I’d also take the opportunity to enjoy some of the fantastic content.

You’ve got the King against the Prime Minister, the Lords against the Commons. The bishops are in now, you’ve got “don’t blame the royals”, and – in particular – you’ve got Urquhart’s plan to bring down the monarchy for good and all. And they’ve all played the personal morality card. Every one of them. Which means, in my book, that everybody’s private life is now up for grabs. And I mean everybody’s!

– Sir Bruce Bullerby sums it up

The second part of the House of Cards trilogy has some fairly interesting subject matter. While Francis Urquharts Machiavellian rise to power was enough to ground the first four-part serial, it does occasionally feel like To Play The King has just a bit too much going on. Of course, Andrew Davies’ tight scripting ensures that all the necessary subplots are tidied up before we reach the end credits of the final episode, but things do occasionally feel just a little bit too packed. Still, it’s hard to blame a television show for having too much substance, and there’s a compelling issue at the heart of To Play The King, as novelist Michael Dodds takes the opportunity to explore Britain’s constitutional monarchy, and the possibility of friction that a proactive King might present.

A crowning accomplishment for the BBC?

In a way, To Play The King feels like a counterpart to The Queen. Stephen Frears’ drama was about a British Prime Minister fighting to save a monarchy falling desperately out of touch with the people they were supposed to represent. In contrast, this serial sees a British Prime Minister in direct conflict with a monarch who is in touch the people inhabiting Great Britain.

The show never names the King in question, but it seems apparent that the character was at least inspired by Prince Charles. He is consciously modern, and has even gone through a divorce. His ex-wife is even presented as similar to Lady Diana, with her blonde hair and her denim jeans in marked contrast to the more official clothing of those surrounding her. Still, despite the media’s tendency to side against the real Prince Charles during the break-up, the show seems genuinely sympathetic to the King. He certainly makes a fascinating foil for Ian Richardson’s cynical and manipulative Francis Urquhart.

Urquhart in his Prime (Ministry)?

The basic plot sees the King trying to represent the people in Great Britain, and to propose a more social and caring version of Great Britain, in sharp contrast to the more conservative policies of Urquhart’s government. The King seems like a genuinely decent man, one trying to do his own little bit to make the country a better place to live, and to fight social inequality. It’s a rather sharp contrast from the general perception of the royal family as a bunch desperately disconnected from their subjects. Indeed, they live lives of absolutely luxury in their palaces and on their expenses.

It says a lot about the differences between the two men that Urquhart can’t seem to comprehend why the King is taking such an interest and why he’s jeopardising his position. “Why are you doing this?” Urquhart asks him as the feud between the two men reaches the point of no return. “What could possibly be in it for you?” In that moment, the King seems to recognise Urquhart can’t fathom genuine empathy, and responds, “You really don’t understand, do you?”

Somebody will be receiving a dressing down...

During the first of their meetings, the King is quick to recognise that Urquhart is quite a clever man. “I’d rather be remembered as a wise man than a clever man,” Urquhart muses in response, “though I think that sound man is the highest praise I could expect.” The King replies, “I’d want to be remembered a good man.” I think that encapsulates the difference between the two, and sets up the fundamental conflict at the hear of the miniseries.

The monarchy is a rather complex political issue in Great Britain, where the royal family are nominally heads of state. However, it’s left to the elected government to make the decisions – which is, of course, entirely reasonable given that they are mandated by the people rather than by their surname. This delicate balance between those nominal heads of state and the individuals holding the real power is a system that has existed in some sort of strange equilibrium. The royal family typically remains polite enough to divorce itself from politics.  “Kings aren’t supposed to think,”Urquhart rather bluntly observes, but he’s correct that they aren’t expected to hold political opinions.

Looking down on us...

And so, rather cleverly, To Play The King twists the concept around. The politically conscious King is juxtaposed against the remarkably apolitical Francis Urquhart. In the first serial, Urquhart was dismissed by a reporter as a “politician without any politics”, and this serial kind of confirms it. “He has no vision, no imagination,” the King protests of his Prime Minister. Urquhart defines himself as a product of “centuries of history”, not to be confused with the “New Right”, while claiming to value the ideal of the monarchy and to stand for traditional values, but it seems more believable – based on what we see here at least – that Urquhart is primarily concerned with power not as a means to an end, but as an end of itself.

What little we see and hear of his policies conform to the “hard right” of the Conservative Party. He adopts a hard-line on Northern Ireland (“Ireland is to do with honour, not with profit”), placing Great Britain under siege from terrorist bombs. “Government and social work are both very useful, but they’re not the same thing,”one of his Ministers observes, and it seems that Urquhart’s government firmly refuses to attack the wealthy or to engage with the disenfranchised.

King of the Hill?

Although he might couch his decisions in strong moral terms, it seems more than likely that he’s simply being pragmatic. The poor do not vote. The Irish do not vote. It risks nothing to target those groups while suring up his own political base. “You’ve got 46% of the people, so you can afford to ignore the rest,” pollster Sarah Harding explains to Urquhart. “You’ve practically destroyed the two-party system.” The King paints a somewhat bleaker picture, “And I don’t believe the people are still behind you. The nation is desperate for a change of heart, man. You practically abandoned Wales and Scotland; thousands of Englishmen are living in cardboard boxes under bridges. I cannot believe that people are still behind such brutally uncompromising hard right policies.”

In fact, Urquhart has more in common with a fascist dictator than a democratic politician, pandering to his base while ignoring wider social concerns. Urquhart has blood on his hands, and a bodyguard who seems to run his own secret police. Taking advantage of the political turmoil, Urquhart is even able to organise several false flag operations faking abductions and terrorist bombings to cover his own sinister agenda. He even introduces conscription towards the end of the serial. “Use the British fighting man to redress the balance of trade,” he suggests. When Sarah objects to his decision to sweep up the undesirable youths of countless housing estates, he insists, “We’re going to make them useful, Sarah, like factory farming.”

FU, indeed!

This is a Prime Minister who has no patience for any challenge to his authority. There’s a delicious contempt for “a Europe still fumbling towards unity.” A post in Strasberg is used by Urquhart as a form of political exile for a former minister. Urquhart remarks, “I do hope you’ll take the European job. It’ll look so much better than a straight sacking.” Of the same assignment, Stamper jokes, “Go to Strasberg. Do not pass go, do not collect £200 and bloody well don’t come back.”

And that’s what the conflict between Urquhart and the King breaks down to. It’s the final obstacle between Urquhart and complete domination of Great Britain. Urquhart has not time for his meetings with the King (dismissing it as “idle chatter”, though he does like the Sherry). When the King prepares a politically explosive speech, Urquhart responds with an attempted “surgical emasculation.” Discussing the role of the King, Stamper muses, “He can give garden parties and open things.” Urquhart’s problem is fundamental. “The trouble is that he has ideas.”

Will everybody get their just desserts?

And the battle of wits is a joy to watch. Michael Kitchen is a deliciously earnest King, even though we’re never under any illusion he’s going to be a proper match for Urquhart. His title and position do serve to give him a sporting handicap, though, and makes the whole thing suitably fascinating. Ian Richardson is great as Urquhart, perhaps the finest role in a long and distinguished career. There’s a tougher edge to Urquhart this time around, although he’s still the wry and manipulative politico who we so dearly love. The events of the last serial have taken their toll, and Urquhart is no longer required to wear the mask of a modest man, but he’s still a fascinatingly vile protagonist.

Ian Richardson has a knack for those almost Shakespearean asides, staring at the camera and directly addressing the audience. It serves to make us somewhat complicit in his dealings. We know that he’s a morally bankrupt individual, but there’s something so seductive and charming about Richardson’s performance that it’s hard to resist. This time around, he seems to directly challenge us, as if accusing us of feigning moral outrage when we actually fully understand his evil schemes.

P.M.'ed off...

“So why the rush, you ask?” as he hurries to the site of an explosion. “What’s all the fuss about? You know what it’s about. Every disaster is a photo opportunity in disguise, playing right into the hands of the King.” He sounds almost upset with the suggestion we don’t know. Even if we claim we don’t know, we can only pretend so much blissful ignorance. Later on, he coyly smiles at use, “What’s the matter? You do trust me, don’t you?” We don’t, of course, and yet we are transfixed.

As with the previous miniseries, Dodds and Davies connect this strange appeal to a perverse sexuality. There’s nothing quite as uncomfortable as Mattie Storin’s Elektra Complex on display here, but there’s no denying there’s a kinky theme of domination and submission to Urquhart’s leadership style. He invites Sarah Harding to be his “slave.” His wife remarks, “Secretly they all want to be dominated.” Urquhart even teases us with the idea that we’re gluttons for his own particular brand of sadism. “Oh come now,” he asserts after a brutal fire fight at a shopping centre, “they were terrorists. I thought you liked strong leadership?” Of course, the imagery isn’t too surprising. Urquhart did, after all, begin his career as the Chief Whip and liked to “put some stick about.”

A more than fitting successor? You might well think that, but I couldn't possibly comment...

That said, as compelling as the central story is, it can’t help but feel a little bit cluttered with far too many subplots. Of course, most of these are means to Urquhart’s ends, but I can’t help but feel that a more tightly-focused serial could have worked better. In particular, it feels strange for the Mattie Storin subplot to feature so strongly, especially with Sarah Harding as a surrogate, only to come to nothing. That said, I have to admit that I quite liked the subplot following Nicholas Farrell as David Mycroft, one of the King’s advisors. Farrell is great in the role of the conflicted friend, and actually carries a large amount of the serial’s dramatic weight.

To Play The King might not be quite as strong as House of Cards, but it’s a deserving sequel and still a fine piece of television in its own right. It has an absolutely excellent hook with a conflict between P.M. and H.M., and it allows its fantastic cast to really sink their teeth into the roles. I can only hope that the third instalment will be nearly as good.

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