We’re 26 minutes in and here it is: “You might say that, I couldn’t possibly say that.” Er, hold on. Do you want another go?
House of Cards (Drama Saturday, 7pm) isn’t quite what it was. Andrew Davies’ 1990 Westminster melodrama is undoubtedly one of the big beasts of the genre, but something I remembered as resolutely razor sharp doesn’t seem nearly so cutting today. Twenty-four years is a long time in politics. Back then, it seems our lords and masters came and went to the accompaniment of an arm-swinging musical score. Rotund, clubbable chaps shuttling off to Pall Mall, or wherever, ruled over a land of shareholders. These were men, as Ian Richardson’s Francis Urquhart says, “who have been bred and educated in a tradition of public service and have proved their reliability over long years”. Some of that still holds true now, but although they come from the same stock, today’s political animals are sleeker, more aggressive. Where once FU was a lone predator at the watering hole, today he’d be scrapping with hyenas rather than feasting on ungulates.
This realisation of a different, tamer Westminster makes the character’s kills seem less impressive than they were back in the day. All it takes to alienate the PM from his allies is to whisper in his ear that the traitor “may be someone very close to you”. Nevertheless, the character of FU still sparkles – despite that odd interlude when he lacquers his hair black and pops on a false moustache to run a mission against the prime minister’s brother. In part we can thank Richardson’s interpretation, which is a morphine drip of charm. For almost all of episode one, there is a smile on his face and an avuncular tinge to his voice. As viewers, we long for those moments he addresses us directly. It’s kind of thrilling being wooed by the old assassin. Through this, we understand the potency of Urquhart’s powers. Davies’ script is also wise to instill a sense of propriety in FU. He is a well-mannered man. A man who sometimes wears a trilby but, nonetheless, has an acquaintance with whoring and heroin. That contrast, in fact, still cuts through.
It’s tempting and mischievous to imply that Netflix’s latter day remake of the concept now out-flanks this old dear, but I don’t honestly think that’s true. Mano-a-mano, Francis would have Frank’s arm twisted up against his back. And, anyway, in 24 years time, Underwood’s Washington will seem as quaint and understandable as Urquhart’s Westminster. Time will take from both of them. But even if a little aged, there’s still something about FU and at 28 minutes, he takes another run. “You may think think that, I couldn’t possibly comment”. He wasn’t as quick as we’d recalled. But still sharper than the rest.
I enjoy political drama, but I’ve recently discovered its close cousin, conspiracy thriller, now turns me off. I came to this realisation when I failed to watch the first series of Utopia (Channel 4 Monday, 10pm). I guess my prejudice boils down to this: In fiction, a conspiracy equates to no more than the script writer withholding information until that arbitrary time comes when they then choose to share it1. Now, that’s a stupid opinion to hold, because all fiction rests on arbitrary revelation. If I continue along this thought, I might turn against everything that doesn’t involve a fixed rig camera and real people going about their real lives. So… into the conspiracy then2.
Happily my scant knowledge about Utopia‘s back story – something about putting shit in someone’s eyeball and a mysterious graphic novel – didn’t impede my enjoyment. I’ll be straight with you, that it was set in the 1970s and presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio had me onside early. The shape of the story, too, felt very much of that decade – albeit subverted. How often did that era present one-off cautionary tales of an idealistic young couple preyed upon by sophisticates, who’d sap their innocence? Except in this case Milner on one side, and Carvel on the other, are the malevolent forces. I also appreciated the originality in having Tom Burke’s biologist passionately idealistic about something so bleak as genocide. And the bins! Litter, everywhere, 1970s London as it must always be remembered. All in all, it was a finely judged portrayal, to the point the scientists working on the Janus project were sufficiently hairy, but not hairy enough to look like an Open University parody.
Yes, I enjoyed Utopia very much indeed. But I think that’s all I’ll watch. I’ve still no time – no literal time, the hours in the day, the number of thoughts in my head – for fictional conspiracies.
Some other silly bias has also kept me away from The Mimic (Channel 4 Wednesday, 9pm)3 I’m assuming its own story-so-far is less involved… but in fact when I watched this second series opener, my main reaction was to wonder why the show existed at all? What is driving this series? A profound sense of listlessness seeps out of the understated performances, incidental music, direction, script. It was genuinely baffling. Who is the eponymous character Martin? Perhaps he’s supposed to be so resolutely anonymous because he’s always trying to morph into other people. “Imagine if Morgan Freeman was in The Hobbit, though,” he said, teeing up yet another party piece, like a man who’s learnt to juggle and now insists on raiding any fruit bowl he encounters. Oh dear.
The time-jump came. It was “12 hours later” in the final episode of 24: Live Another Day (Sky1 Wednesday, 9pm) and, as he always does, Jack was finishing up by being kidnapped by one of the many enemy states who have a beef with him. That was a long way from being the best thing about this final hour. The best thing was President Heller – until then a bland amalgam of everything conservative America would hope for in their leader – reflecting on the death of Audrey and his own slow demise to dementia. Two brilliant, devastatingly economic lines. “I won’t remember anything that happens today. I won’t remember anything, period”.
- I think it was that spate of high-concept US shows about six or seven years ago that tipped me over – with everyone expected to scurry around, digging up fictional clues to a fictional thing that could potentially change on the whim of a programme’s production team. ↩
- Albeit only because an unlikely named fellow tweeted OTT to suggest I try. ↩
- The same guy from the above footnote also suggested I look at it. ↩