Before You Watch the New House of Cards, Do Yourself a Favor and See the Original

In which I (reluctantly) acknowledge the superiority of the British style of satire.
Ian Richardson, the one person Kevin Spacey should fear in head-to-head matchups. ( From British Cinema Greats )

I'll watch anything Kevin Spacey is in, so I'll be among the early downloaders of the second installment of House of Cards, which will be out via Netflix touchingly on Valentine's Day. 

But now I've done something I should have done earlier, and that will put Spacey-style House of Cards 2, 3, any others in a completely different light. Recently I watched the four-episode original BBC House of Cards series from 1990. It's on Netflix too, and, seriously, if you are interested in either  politics or satire, this is not to be missed.

June Thomas of Slate, originally a Brit, made this point a year ago, and our own nonpareil Christopher Orr plans to write about it at length some time soon. But let me make the point right now: Kevin Spacey is great, but the late Ian Richardson, as Parliamentary Chief Whip Francis Urquhart, is doing something else altogether. It's like a Judd Apatow movie vs. the bottomless bleakness of Evelyn Waugh (eg A Handful of Dust). Here's how the whole saga of revenge and plotting begins:

The comparison between the U.S. and U.K. versions of this program shows something about why I feel so profoundly American (rather than British), but also why the Brits excel at just this kind of thing. There are lots of tough breaks in Kevin Spacey's House of Cards, but in the end there is a jauntiness to it. People kill themselves; politicians lie and traduce; no one can be trusted -- and still, somewhere deep it has a kind of American optimism. That's us (and me). USA! USA!

It's different in the UK version. Richardson's Francis Urquhart reminds us that his is the nation whose imagination produced Iago, and Uriah Heep, and Kingsley Amis's "Lucky Jim" Dixon. This comedy here is truly cruel -- and, one layer down, even bleaker and more squalid than it seems at first. It's like the contrast between Ricky Gervais in the original UK version of The Office and Steve Carell in the knock-off role. Steve Carell is ultimately lovable; Gervais, not. Michael Dobbs, whose novel was the inspiration for both the U.K. and the U.S. House of Cards series, has told the BBC that the U.S. version was "much darker" than the British original. He is wrong -- or cynically sarcastic, like Urquhart himself.

I could go on, but I will leave that to Chris Orr when he does the full-length version. For now, do yourself a favor and check this out.


Explanation for the sub-head on this item: I am not a subscriber to the "Oh, the Brits do it all so much more suavely" school. But in this case I tip my hat.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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