Cast: Ian Richardson, Diane Fletcher, Nick Brimble, Tom Beasley, Erika Hoffman, Nickolas Grace, Andrew Sccar, Glyn Grain, Alison Peebles, William Scott Masson, Paul Freeman, Peter Symonds, Dorothy Vernon, Ian Mercer, Isla Blair, Julian Fellowes, Michael Wardle, Duggie Brown, Cherith Mellor, Kevork Malikyan, John Rowe, Yolanda Vasquez, Leon Lissek, Joseph Long, Muriel Pavlov, Richard Bebb, Lynn Verrall, Gwendolyn Watts, Sue Edelson, Derek Lea, Ray Nicholas, Marc Cass, Trevor Stedman, Susannah Harker, Bunny May, Nicholas Blane, John Langford, Carole Copeland, Kate Ricketts, Brian Baines, Kenneth Alan Taylor, John Lambert, Roger Grainger, David Henry, Miles Richardson, Barry McCarthy, David Ashford, Maria Redmond.
Filmed in London by BBC and WGBH Boston. Executive producer, Michael Wearing, series executive producer, Rebecca Eaton; producer, Ken Riddington; director, Mike Vardy; writer, Andrew Davies; based on a novel by Michael Dobbs; British Prime Minister Francis Urquhart’s back for another sleek go at manipulating the government and peoples’ lives, no matter the cost. One of TV’s most superbly reptilian politicians, fictional or real, Ian Richardson’s urbane F.U. consolidates his position as he surveys the future. Thanks to scripter Andrew Davies, who penned both previous outings, “House of Cards” (’91) and “To Play the King” (’94), something wicked this way comes. Again.
With Diane Fletcher resuming her role as his calculating wife, Elizabeth, Urquhart finds his own pedestal being shaken by events and personalities. Other politicians have begun eyeing his top rung; the past rises up in the form of a pair of murders he committed 40 years ago. Meantime, there’s the malignant present to deal with — in four hours. Time zips by.
Dirty tricks infiltrate everything. Program kicks off with F.U. at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, a scene that Michael Dobbs, writer of the original novel and former Tory cabinet member under Thatcher, disliked so much he asked that his name he removed from the credits.
Having loathed Thatcher, F.U. insists on outstaying her 11 year regin. But he’s already verging on 65, and the younger, more vigorous secretary of foreign affairs, Tom Makepeace (Paul Freeman), stands in opposition.
Urquhart confronts the issues at hand. There’s that possibly silverlined problem with the Greeks, Turkey and Cypress. But relatives of his first victims — he’s managed other killings, of course — are edging in close. The dead, including gutsy newswoman Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker), whom he pushed to her death because she had evidence against him, begin assailing his mind like Ranquo’s issue.
F.U. brings in an iffy model as his new confidential secretary – sharp, attractive, ambitious Claire Carlsen (Isla Blair). The danger is that she’s having a hot affair with Makepeace, who has a yen for F.U.’s job. Claire’s smart and ambitious, and F.U. risks hiring her for his own reasons.
As for Fletcher’s Elizabeth, she has matched his Richard III with her Lady Macbeth of the two previous Urquhart experiences; in this outing, she’s sweeter on the surface, but there’s still the serpent under the innocent flower. A scene between Elizabeth and an incorruptible judge reaches a bit far. She’s working on a “personal pension plan” for her husband, and the judge seems to bite.
The first two hours move at a slack, less assured pace under Mike Vardy’s direction. He and scenarist Davies don’t fire up the angst until the second two hours. Machethian comparisons loom, as does Hamlet’s “Smile, and smile, and be a villain.”
Richardson’s suave strength as the sleek prime minister lies in his persuasive study of a constantly devious politician. His words spoken directly to the camera, like Shakespearean asides, are masterful character clarifications , and no matter how it turns out, it’s certain that he will triumph. And, in his lights, he does.
Fletcher’s Elizabeth assumes command in part two, while Blair’s high-reaching , game-playing Claire absolutely works. Freeman’s Makepeace is solid, and Cherith Mellor, as his wife, opens the vidpic another notch. Nickolas Grace, the slippery Anthony in “Brideshead Revisited,” adds his own dimension playing the oily Pitt; Yolanda Vasquez, as the niece of two murdered Cypriots, is good.
Ken Ledsham’s design is impressive. Ian Punter, whose rich camerawork showcased the earlier Urquhart programs, once more catches the grandeur and elegance of the milieu. Dave King’s resourceful editing helps build the story, and Jim Parker’s successful score echoes the earlier dramas.
Full-time sponsor Mobil Oil has added its name to the “Masterpiece Theatre” title, an acceptable enough ploy after 25 years, but has also added a “reminder” teleblurb following the start and again before the finish of both episodes despite “MT” tradition and taste. The nose of the camel’s in the tent.