The secret of the success of ‘House of Cards’ and its Machiavellian characters is because of the contrast it serves to real life with Barack Obama in the White House, according to its creator Michael Dobbs.
Lord Dobbs, who penned the original novel that inspired the UK series back in the 1990s, claims that “people like to escape from the real world and go home with something different”.
‘House of Cards’ - whose fourth season, the last with show runner Beau Willimon, is now available on home release - is distinctly un-Obama-esque. Far away from the mutual support system of Barack and Michelle, their small screen counterparts Frank and Claire Underwood have developed separate courts in Washington, from which they plot, network and battle for power. And viewers can’t get enough, with the show nominated for ten Emmy Awards this year, including for both its leads and the show itself.
Dobbs explains the appeal: “It’s all in the timing. While George Bush was in the White House, the political drama of the time was ‘West Wing’ - lovable, cuddly, really nice people to contrast with real life.
“’House of Cards’ has coincided with President Obama – decent, warm, cuddly and possibly not as effective as many people had hoped for, and here on screen we have a complete and utter bastard who is very effective at almost everything he does, and gets things done.
“Perhaps that’s the contrast. People like to escape from the real world and go home with something different.”
Lord Dobbs disputes the notion that all of this backstabbing, treachery and corruption depicted in the corridors of power on screen is contributing to the erosion of trust in real-life politicians.
“I happen to think the politicians themselves have contributed quite a lot,” he remarks. “There’s a huge part of me wants to lift up the reputation of politicians. Political drama is all about characters.
“Great drama is about characters, driven by characters much more so than plots. That’s one of the reasons political drama is so challenging to write. It’s about politicians, who they are, what they do to each other is what drives it.
“If it engages people in the sort of characters that run politics, if it finds some way of cutting through the antipathy, the resentment, the lack of interest that so many people have about politics, then in the long run it’s helpful. Obama tweets about the show, David Cameron ‘chillaxes’ to it. If I had a quid for every time a politician or journalist asked for a walk-on role, I’d make far more than I have out of the series. At the end of the day, it’s possible to take this stuff too seriously. It’s not documentary, it’s drama.”
Lord Dobbs points out that, after the last few weeks, the challenge screenwriters have is keeping up with the machinations of the real world.
“We’ve been extraordinarily fortunate that the themes outlined in fourth series – the threat of terrorism, Russia – have all proved remarkably prescient, but some things never change, it’s all about ambition, high principle, low cunning, not all in the same person, but it’s always a huge mixture and the tension between these conflicting values and instincts.”
There is one big difference between the rousing speeches of those characters he sees on screen, and the ones he knows in real life, however. Dobbs, formerly a close aide to Margaret Thatcher before taking on his duel role of working peer and novelist, fears the days of real-life political oratory might be behind us, even with those heady Brexit first days to provide a big audience on a big occasion.
“Great speeches are few and far between,” says Dobbs. “They require a moment, the moment wasn’t that (Friday) morning when everybody was exhausted. I’d love to see something like that again and fairly soon.”
Not even David Cameron’s catch-in-the-throat performance?
“Resignation speeches don’t go down as great speeches,” reflects Dobbs. “I thought it was terribly dignified and struck the right note. The tone is hugely important.”
It seems, for Dobbs, the bad atmosphere of the referendum debate pre-Brexit has left a sour taste in the mouth.
“ You can remember when eras were marked by great speeches, but not this one. The campaign as a whole was pretty reprehensible. I’m not a fan of what we as a political elite were able to produce.”
He blames the change on politicians becoming “managers” rather than people of strong belief…
“That I suspect is why we’re in this position now. We have forgotten about values, we’ve become short term. If you have no values, you have no root, you become like a sand dune in the desert where every passing wind pushes you into a different position, as a result of that, where do the great speeches come from?
“Great speeches are more than policy, they come from deep down from something that is inside the politician, and stretch out across barriers and divides.
Ever the storyteller, he brings his thoughts back to his favourite fictional characters…
“Perhaps real life politics can learn something from drama. Perhaps the day will come again when a politician says something as revelatory as Frank Underwood?”
‘House of Cards’ Complete season 4 is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.