Review: ‘Masterpiece Theatre to Play the King’

Host: Russell Baker.

Host: Russell Baker.

Insidious English Prime Minister Francis Urquhart, again superbly played to a fare-thee-well by Ian Richardson, returns (after PBS’ 1991 “House of Cards”) to carry out his fictional dirty tricks in contemporary England. This time he’s tilting at the newly crowned king, whose mother has stepped down; F.U., as he’s known, would be comfy among that “I, Claudius” bunch.

The king (Michael Kitchen), to F.U.’s horror, is a humanitarian lamenting the plight of the homeless and of environment failings. F.U. wants a return of aristocrats’ power and, as he tells viewers, means to have it.

His cold-blooded wife Elizabeth (Diane Fletcher), his mean, ambitious party chairman Stamper (Colin Jeavons, in a pip of a portrayal) and, above all, his newly discovered assistant, Sarah Harding (Kitty Aldridge), all have his number and admire it — at first.

F.U.’s haunted by the death of reporter Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker), whom he pushed off a building with her tape recorder at the conclusion of “House of Cards.” New four-hour sequel picks up with the royal crowning, F.U.’s followers and his continuing shenanigans (murder, adultery, blackmail, for instance). A mysterious, gloved figure picks up the tape recorder’s terrible secret, and it lurks through the four episodes like a time bomb.

As for the king, he gives a speech the P.M. disapproves of, and scripter Andrew Davies, following Michael Dobbs’ novel, sets up a few wobbly pegs in the royal board, like the deplorable Princess Charlotte (Bernice Stegers) and her memoirs. The king’s sole confidants are his chief of staff, David Mycroft (Nicholas Farrell), and Chloe Carmichael (Rowena King); he needs more.

Urquhart’s slick, amusing asides to the camera give the first-rate program an extra dimension. Performers are as agile and revealing as they were in “House of Cards,” which Davies also wrote (and which earned him an Emmy). Shrewd director Paul Seed, who helmed “House,” shows total command as he builds tension, uncovers Davies’ duplicitous characters.

Urquhart, devious and monstrous in his lust for power, is a charmingly deadly force. Richardson’s portrayal, soothing as he talks to viewers, otherwise majors in nastiness as he works his way through events and past obstacles. It isn’t pretty, but it’s irresistible, and it’s good to have reliably double-dealing F.U. back.

Ken Riddington’s production, as it was in “House,” is first class. Ian Punter’s and Keith Thomas’ camerawork, Dave King’s editing are superior, and Ken Ledsham’s design gives the classy program substance.

KCET is airing parts 3 and 4 back to back, 9-11 p.m. on Jan. 30.

Masterpiece Theatre to Play the King

(Sun. (16, 23, 30, Feb. 6), 9-10 p.m., PBS)


Filmed in England by BBC-TV. Exec producer, Michael Wearing; producer, Ken Riddington; director, Paul Seed; writer, Andrew Davies; based on novel by Michael Dobbs.


Camera, Ian Punter; editor, Dave King; production designer, Ken Ledsham; sound, Barry Tharby, Keith Silva; music, Jim Parker.


Cast: Ian Richardson, Michael Kitchen, Diane Fletcher, Kitty Aldridge, Colin Jeavons, Nicholas Farrell, Rowena King, David Ryall, Bernice Stegers, Frederick Treeves, Leonard Preston, Michael Howarth, Nick Brimble, Pip Torrens, Erika Hoffman, Tom Beasley, Merelina Kendall, Jack Fortune, Barry Linehan, Joanna Archer-Nicholls, Sonya Kearns, Alex Walkinshaw, Terry Woodfield, Paula Tilbrook, Don Warrington, Susannah Harker, George Raistrick, Kate Ricketts, Emma Bunton, Kenneth Gilbert, Christopher Owen, Elizabeth Chambers, Lucy Parker, Peter Terry, Anthony Smee, David Neville, John Paul Connolly, Soo Drouet, John Bird, Tacy Kneale, James Snell, John Bleasdale, Richard Trice, Jeremy Clyne, Tim Heath, William Chubb.
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