Photo: Courtesy BBC.
The still-unwinding Netflix version of House of Cards — which returns for a second season next week — is a spectacular and sinister viewing pleasure. There is, though, one thing that makes its low-def, instantly available 1990 BBC predecessor even more delicious and wicked: Ian Richardson's performance as Frances Urquhart.
There is an exquisite malevolence of Richardson' British analog to Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood in the American production. Granted, Richardson's quietly vicious Conservative MP is far more of a pantomime than Spacey's character — a sort-of classical, pure-evil baddie, closer to a Simon Legree-type, Dickens' foil, or Satan himself. But, it's a brilliant pantomime.
Like Underwood, Urquhart begins House of Cards indignant and slighted by the those around him. He is not, however, compensating for some nagging, just-below-the-surface inferiority complex. He's the Devil taking his due and loving it. In constant asides to the audience, he luxuriates in his own evil the way a Persian cat might stretch on a square of sun-warmed floor. I really can't describe how wonderful it can be.
Now, be forewarned, the BBC's House of Cards lacks a few things the American production has — high, modern production values, a more global look at an entire cast of well-rounded characters, and Corey Stoll's career-making performance as Congressman Peter Russo (R.I.P.). But, in exchange, we have a script that is decidedly more perverse in its use of sex and power (you'll see what I mean), lighter, and a bit more fun. And, of course, we have Richardson's Urquhart, a posh, genteel portrait of Eton-educated malice. He makes Darth Vader look positively boorish.