Ned Simons Headshot

House Of Cards: 'It's The West Wing For Werewolves, It's MacBeth All Over Again'

Posted: Updated:
Print Article
'Welcome back'. House of Cards season 2 begins this Friday. The Netflix original series is based on the book by British author and politician Lord Michael Dobbs

Michael Dobbs gestures behind him, east, towards the House of Commons. "It was warfare down there. There were stretchers down there, people locked in rooms, there was a government that was teetering on the brink of collapse night after night after night."

Sitting in a House of Lords tearoom, Dobbs, a Tory peer, is recalling his early days as a political operative in Westminster in the 1970s and how it informed his first book - House of Cards. That book went on to become a three part BBC drama in the 1990s. And Friday sees its smooth, but no less disturbing, American remake return for a second series.

The location has moved from Westminster to the White House but the story is the essentially the same. A power hungry politician, who once denied the promotion he felt was his right, decides to seek revenge. It is, Lord Dobbs explains, "The West Wing for werewolves".

They key to the success of a good political drama, Dobbs insists, is that its creators have in some way experienced the world they are portraying. For Beau Willimon, the writer of American version, it was time spent on Howard Dean's failed bid for the White House in 2004. For Dobbs, it was working behind the scenes for the Conservative Party in the 1970s and 1980s. He rose to become Margaret Thatcher's chief of staff - and then fell.

"One of my first introductions to politics was when I first started working for the Conservative Party," he says. "I was made secretary to some very august-sounding body of backbenchers which met every week to support the leadership. We colloquially called ourselves the 'fuck up squad'. Because our job and our duty was to fuck up the government.

"The Callaghan government was on a knife edge because their majority was falling away. People risked and indeed gave up their lives for the battles that were going on down there. They came from their sickbeds knowing it would probably kill them in order to vote. They didn’t do it because it was a game, but because they fundamentally believed there were real issues of importance."

Dobbs was "very close" to Thatcher. He was the first person to tell her, in 1979, that she had been elected prime minister. But by 1987, when she was reelected with a huge majority, he found himself out of favour.

"She had come to the conclusion I was plotting against her," he sighs. "Absolute rubbish of course. It never even entered my mind, let alone to do anything about it. She happened to believe it. That’s why she turned against me."

Kevin Spacey's performance, Dobbs says, is pure Shakespeare. 'This is MacBeth all over again'.

It is not hard to see where Dobbs got the inspiration for his political thriller. He recalls after one "really appalling" meeting with Thatcher that Willie Whitelaw, the then deputy prime minister, predicted: "there is a woman who will never fight another election campaign".

"I suddenly realised what he was talking about. He had spotted she had changed and she was sowing the seeds of her own destruction, which is what great leaders do. She has gone into this period that all prime ministers go into when they lose contact with their roots."

Dobbs escaped from London on holiday. Sitting by a swimming pool his hurt was channelled into writing his first book. "At the time it was one of the most painful experiences I had ever been though," he says. "And I discovered that my writing pad simply had two initials on it. FU."

FU was Francis Urquhart, the lead character played expertly by Ian Richardson in the original British series. Dobbs thought at the time: "FU summed up the whole concept of it and the character and his name and he’s going to be a whip and we are going to get rid of a prime minister."

Richardson's Urquhart has become Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood - Americans had trouble pronouncing former - but the character remains much the same. Where Richardson brought a touch of darkly camp British humour to the role, Dobbs sees the theatre's influence over Spacey's depiction.

"This is MacBeth all over again," Dobbs says of Spacey's performance. "You could see those scenes on stage. It has that sort of crackle, that sparkle, that electricity that communicates usually only from stage."

"You can go back to Shakespeare, the roots of British drama, most of his characters were deeply flawed but that’s what makes the whole thing work. It's about the characters, it's not about the fact it happens to be Britain or Washington."

Is FU autobiographical? "I don’t think he is me. I hope not. I’m not the best person to judge," Dobbs laughs. But he is equally sure that FU is not Thatcher either. "She was driven, absolutely. All great leaders are driven. They are not nice people to be around. They are not comfortable people to be around."

"But Thatcher was driven by what she wanted to achieve not simply by power," he explains. "She was rough and tough but it was for a purpose. FU’s purpose has nothing to do with achieving great things. It's power, it's himself. He is devoid of any sort of ideology. It's all about what is going benefit me. Totally different from Maggie."

The American House of Cards is also at the vanguard of what could be a whole new way of producing TV. A Netflix original, the online streaming service will release all of the series two episodes in one go - just as it did with series one. Netflix agreed to produce all 26 episodes, the first two series, without first testing it with a pilot. A huge gamble. But one that appears to have paid off.

Dobbs, who is an executive producer on the show, says making it this way leads to far more realistic story arcs. "It allows you to be far more creative, for more natural. You don’t have to keep coming up with ridiculous climaxes at the end of each episode."

Michael Dobbs discovered the character of FU after being 'betrayed' by Margaret Thatcher. 'She had changed and she was sowing the seeds of her own destruction.'

Friday, February 14, also happens to be Valentines Day. Is that a a cruel joke? Dobbs insists it is a coincidence. But he proudly admits his creation is "the antidote to all that romantic mush".

The story is driven by the relationship between Frank and his wife Claire - much more so than the British programme was. "It goes to the heart of the American version of House of Cards," he says."She is as strong a character as he is. Claire is individual, she is not the wife of FU, she is her own person. And they happen to be married. Who is actually wearing the trousers in this relationship? You’re never quite sure. It’s brilliant."

Dobbs says that relationship is the creation of Willimon. One that he wishes he had been able to include in his original book. But the writing of a "strong female character" is something Dobbs is now pursuing with Adam Price, the creator of Danish cult hit Borgen.

The pair are working on a new British political drama. Dobbs is tight lipped about details. But confirms it is "going forward".

"Price clearly has a strong feel for that and he writes beautiful female characters," Dobbs says. "And one of the things I’d been wanting to do for a long time is to establish a really strong female character in politics. And not a Maggie Thatcher rip-off, but someone in her own right who can ring all the dramatic bells."

If he were to write a new House of Cards novel today, what issues would make an appearance? "It would be very difficult without having some villain from Brussels," he chuckles. "The European Union. Oh we'd have a lot of fun with that."

Just as The West Wing became the political programme in the early 2000s, House of Cards has captured the imagination of present day Washington DC. "Ten years ago it was Bush. And everybody wanted the antidote to Bush." Dobbs adopts a haughty president Bartlet voice: "So it was West Wing."

"Nowadays you’ve got Washington which is in a state of paralysis. It's like someone has injected them with a drug that stopped all sign of movement. They want a solution to that, and along comes FU."

House of Nerds. The programme has captured the imagination of real-world Washington DC in the way The West wing did a decade ago

Barack Obama is said to be a huge fan of the show. And while Dobbs has not spoken to the president about it, he sympathises with the escapism it must bring him. "Obama can’t get anything done," Dobbs says. "Well for god's sake bring back Stamper." Doug Stamper is FU's cold, calculating chief of staff. The fix it man.

Does David Cameron watch the programme? "DC enjoys it very much," Dobbs says. Given the rebellious nature of the current crop of Conservative MPs, maybe "DC" needs a Stamper as well. "Is it necessary? Probably. Are they there? Well that’s a matter of opinion." He couldn't possibly comment. "I am going to save myself the embarrassment of dealing with my present colleagues."

It is clear that Dobbs enjoys speaking about his book and his characters. They have, after all, upended his life. A British Lord who also gets to attend glitzy award shows. "Oh look, Lord Downton!" Dobbs exclaims, laughing as Julian Fellows wanders in to get lunch. "Last time I saw him was in Hollywood at the Emmys."

"That’s what I love. 27 years ago I wrote a book, I never expected to get it published or finished. Here I am all these years later and it is still transforming my life, it has totally changed my life. Do I deserve it? Of course I deserve it. But you don’t get what you deserve in life normally. I do occasionally go sit in a quiet corner and say 'never take this for granted', and I don’t."

Dobbs surprisingly also reveals that since writing the book he had not, until this year, re-read it. "For the first time since I wrote it and typed the end, I went back and read House of Cards for the first time," he says. "I’ve always been nervous to. It was a mistake. I wasn’t a trained writer."

He adds: "It’s nowhere near as bad as I thought it was. It’s got a lot of really good stuff in it."

Also on HuffPost:

Suggest a correction

Around the Web

House of Cards - Watch House of Cards Online | Netflix

'House of Cards' in China: Surprisingly available and popular

What's Up With All the “Deep Web” Stuff on House of Cards?