Political intrigue builds a clever 'House of Cards'

March 29, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Politics and dirty tricks are the business of this week's new "Masterpiece Theatre."

And it's great stuff, from the acting of Ian Richardson to screenwriter Andrew Davies' fictional vision of political life in England after Margaret Thatcher.

In the first hour of "House of Cards," which airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on MPT (Channels 22 and 67), Prime Minister Thatcher has just fallen from political power.

In this telling, there is not much of a scramble for power. The Conservatives come up with a replacement, Henry Collingridge.

Collingridge becomes prime minister on a narrow margin of victory and with a very narrow idea of whom he owes victory to. One of the characters he fails to reward is Francis Urquhart (Richardson).

That's a bad mistake for the prime minister. Urquhart calls in debts, calls on old friends and calls up an eager member of the press to start planting political land mines for Collingridge.

The plotting is Watergate-and-Tricky-Dick by way of Iago-betraying-Othello. It makes for an hour of television that is quick, clever, sarcastic and very, very naughty.

Urquhart is aided by his wife (Diane Fletcher), who seems to have studied atthe Lady Macbeth School of Political Science. As she massages his shoulders, she sows seeds of ambition in his brain.

It is the kind of ambition that involves the planting of vicious rumors with naive reporters, the ruthless manipulation of a cocaine addict and flat-out blackmail.

"House of Cards" may remind some viewers of last year's "A Very British Coup." The themes are similar. Both attempt to locate that point on the political landscape where ambition and corruption meet. Both cast a very cold eye on a disinterested public and a gullible press.

Both use the same fast-paced editing and quick cuts from one short scene to another. And both are of a broth brewed for the more politically sophisticated and, perhaps, cynical palate. There is a definite bite here. It might not be bitter, but it is certainly tart.

Tonight's installment of the four-part "House of Cards" is an hour of very little sentiment, lots of political intrigue and plots within plots within more plots. It's an hour of wicked and wise satire.

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