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Last Updated: Friday, 9 February 2007, 14:35 GMT
Richardson's rule in House of Cards
By Ian Youngs
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Late actor Ian Richardson will be remembered for his role in BBC political thriller House of Cards, widely regarded as one of the best British TV dramas of the last 20 years.

Ian Richardson in House of Cards
Ian Richardson played a chief whip scheming to become leader
In November 1990, just as the drama of Margaret Thatcher's downfall was unfolding in Westminster, a parallel political epic was beginning on British TV screens.

In the opening scene of House of Cards, Conservative Chief Whip Francis Urquhart - played by Ian Richardson - is seen staring at a photograph of Mrs Thatcher.

"Nothing lasts forever," he says. "Even the longest and most glittering reign must come to an end some day." He then puts her picture face down on the desk with a smile.

The prescient timing helped stir interest in the show, but it was Richardson's compelling performance as the scheming, manipulating, devious - but still somehow loveable - politician that made it essential viewing.

His villainous character followed the timeless tradition of charming and seducing those he needed, but stopping at nothing behind closed doors to get what he wanted - power.

You look back on the thing now and it is just beyond imagination that anybody else should play him
Paul Seed
House of Cards director
Richardson inhabited the role so fully that he was utterly convincing and Francis Urquhart gained a lease of life in the real world.

His motto - "You might think that, I couldn't possibly comment" - entered the political phrasebook and was quoted in the House of Commons.

House of Cards director Paul Seed says Richardson was the first actor he thought of when he read the script.

"From the very first day of shooting, I couldn't conceive of anybody else playing the part," he tells the BBC News website.

"You look back on the thing now and it is just beyond imagination that anybody else should play him."

Ian Richardson in House of Cards
The four-part House of Cards was followed by two further series
Former Conservative Chief of Staff and Deputy Chairman Michael Dobbs wrote the original novel, upon which the series was based.

Making viewers embrace such a dark character required "a very, very special acting skill", Mr Dobbs says.

"Few actors would have been able to rise to that challenge. Indeed, not only did he rise to that challenge but the character became him.

"Everyone identified Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart, much to his annoyance at times, I must say."

The character was said to have been based on Richard III and Macbeth, with cunning asides to the camera an essential way to pull viewers into the story.

John Major's entire campaign headquarters came to a standstill at 9 o'clock on a Sunday evening in order to find out what came next
Michael Dobbs
House of Cards author
Richardson's Shakespearean background was a major factor in his performance, Mr Seed says.

"He had that ability to be outrageous. He really could push the envelope quite far because he was from a theatrical tradition.

"He never did it so it was too big for the screen, but it was just bloody cheeky - and that's wonderful.

"A pantomime baddie, that character. Saying pantomime diminishes it a bit - but it was that kind of wickedness that you just love to be part of."

The first episode was screened just two days before the Conservative leadership election.

Ian Richardson in House of Cards
Susannah Harker played a journalist opposite Richardson
"You could not have hoped for a better bit of pre-publicity or events going the way they did," Mr Seed adds.

"It was what everybody was waiting for. And it was cheeky political television - there wasn't a great deal of that around at that time."

Mr Dobbs says Richardson was mainly responsible for House of Cards passing into "folklore".

"It could not have happened without his skill and his integrity and his superb ability to display a wicked character like that and yet one who people could reach out and embrace," the author says.

And politicians as well as the public were glued to it, according to Mr Dobbs - who worked for both Mrs Thatcher and her successor John Major.

"Such was its impact that John Major's entire [leadership] campaign headquarters came to a standstill at 9 o'clock on a Sunday evening in order to find out what came next," he says.

"It was one of those extraordinary things that just captured the imagination of everybody.

"And that was Ian. That face, those eyes. He didn't even have to say anything. He managed to communicate simply with a gaze and he communicated so much."

A tribute to Ian Richardson's acting career

House of Cards' Richardson dies
09 Feb 07 |  Entertainment
Obituary: Ian Richardson
09 Feb 07 |  Entertainment
Ian Richardson: Your memories
09 Feb 07 |  Have Your Say


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