To Play the King

Last updated

To Play the King
Written by Andrew Davies (adaptation)
Michael Dobbs (novel)
Directed by Paul Seed
Starring Ian Richardson
Michael Kitchen
Kitty Aldridge
Diane Fletcher
Nick Brimble
Nicholas Farrell
Music by Jim Parker
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original languageEnglish
No. of episodes4
Producer Ken Riddington
Running time50 minutes
Original release
Release21 November (1993-11-21) 
12 December 1993 (1993-12-12)

To Play the King is a 1993 BBC television serial and the second part of the House of Cards trilogy. Directed by Paul Seed, the serial was based on Michael Dobbs' 1993 novel of the same name and adapted for television by Andrew Davies. The opening and closing theme music for the TV series is entitled "Francis Urquhart's March", by composer Jim Parker. [1] The series details the conflict between British Prime Minister Francis Urquhart and a newly crowned king as well as the run-up to the general election.


The book and TV serialisation follow on from the TV version of the first part of the trilogy. To Play the King (and the final part The Final Cut ) reflect upon the end of the first series, which differed somewhat from the plot of the original novel.


The newly crowned King (Michael Kitchen) is displeased with the Conservative government led by Prime Minister Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) and becomes involved in politics in a way that Urquhart finds unacceptable for a constitutional monarch. At their first meeting, the King expresses concern about Urquhart's social policies, which he argues have led to greater problems for urban areas. Tensions escalate when Urquhart moves his moderate Environment Secretary to a job in Strasbourg after rejecting his proposals to regenerate inner cities. The King's Assistant Press Secretary, Chloe Carmichael, leaks the outcome of the meeting to the press, which rankles Urquhart.

Fearing the King will weaken his position, Urquhart obtains "regal insurance" from Princess Charlotte, a royal family member. His underling, party chairman Tim Stamper, persuades her to divulge lurid details about the Monarchy to Sir Bruce Bullerby, the editor of the Daily Clarion tabloid, on the condition that the information is published after her death. Urquhart also begins regularly meeting with the King's ex-wife, repeatedly assuring her that he has no intention of disturbing the Monarchy, implying he would support the early accession of her teenaged son as King.

The King and his staff produce a public service announcement implicitly denouncing Urquhart's policies and covertly rally Opposition leaders to join forces against the Prime Minister. Irked by this intransigence, Urquhart calls an early election. His wife, Elizabeth, introduces him to a pollster named Sarah Harding and persuades him to choose her as a political advisor. Urquhart is impressed with Harding's intelligence and starts to favour her over Stamper, who becomes increasingly bitter over his reluctance to promote him to a senior position. Urquhart eventually begins an affair with Harding, which puts a strain on her marriage. Through all this, he continues to be haunted by his murder of Mattie Storin; unbeknownst to him, someone possesses Mattie's tape recording of her own death. Corder, Urquhart's bodyguard and security advisor, puts the King and other enemies under surveillance.

After a brief abduction by some homeless thugs, Harding is told to "ask 'im about Mattie Storin". Despite her feelings for Urquhart, Harding begins to question his version of events about the tragedy. She meets John Krajewski, a former colleague of Mattie's who is now a paranoid freelance journalist. Corder and his staff execute Krajewski and blame it on Irish republican terrorists. Meanwhile, Urquhart threatens the King with Charlotte's memoirs, saying that he will be forced to publish them if the King continues publicly to oppose him. The King, however, refuses to be blackmailed. Urquhart engages in secret meetings with the King's ex-wife, who urges him not to back down. He also blackmails Bullerby into publishing Charlotte's memoirs in the Daily Clarion, threatening to release images of his sexual relationship with the princess.

While the royal scandal succeeds in hurting the King's popularity, the polls reverse when Conservative MP John Staines is arrested for sex with a minor. A furious Urquhart blames Stamper for the fallout, having put Staines in the public arena moments before his arrest. Mycroft, the King's closeted advisor, begins fearing his sexual orientation may damage the King's standing, having seen Staines in a gay bar with an underage boy before the arrest. Mycroft eventually decides to come out to the King's press corps, at the same time announcing his resignation.

The deadly explosion of a tower block, as a result of a tenant's tapping into the gas main, puts the King's arguments about social problems back into the public domain. Urquhart announces his intention of having unemployed youth from the estates conscripted into the Armed Forces, re-enacting a form of peacetime national service. The King organises a bus tour visiting disadvantaged estates to show his concern, refusing to include a security detail. Urquhart arranges for Corder to have the King abducted by thugs during his tour of an estate in Manchester. The Parachute Regiment, secretly shadowing the King's tour on Urquhart's orders, rescues him from possible harm. The King is seen as foolish for his negligence in the matter of security, and Urquhart seems like a hero for having protected him.

Meanwhile, Corder discovers that Stamper has passed information on Mattie's murder to Harding as insurance. With urging from Elizabeth, Urquhart orders Corder to assassinate them. The Conservatives subsequently win the general election with a 22-seat overall majority. With his policies vindicated by the electorate, despite the King's public opposition, Urquhart demands his abdication. Harding's car explodes when she is en route to meet Chloe, while Stamper's car explodes outside New Scotland Yard. The media interpret the car bombings as Provisional IRA attacks.

The end credits of the final episode roll with images of the crowning of the new teenaged King, showing that Urquhart had succeeded in obtaining the abdication of the previous King. At the end of the credits, Urquhart smirks at the camera and triumphantly says, "God Save the King", ending the series.

Breaking the fourth wall

As in House of Cards, Urquhart occasionally speaks directly to the audience. He takes the viewer into his confidence, and at the end of the series, as at the end of the first, he challenges the viewer to condemn him.

Novel differences

In the novel, but not in the television series:

In 2013, the novel was reissued along with the rest of the trilogy, to coincide with the launch of the American version of House of Cards , with Dobbs having rewritten portions of the novel in order to restore continuity between the three novels and to bring it more in line with the mini-series. Changes made include:

Related Research Articles

<i>House of Cards</i> (British TV series) 1990 British television serial

House of Cards is a 1990 British political thriller television serial in four episodes, set after the end of Margaret Thatcher's tenure as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. It was televised by the BBC from 18 November to 9 December 1990. Released to critical and popular acclaim for its writing, direction, and performances, it is considered one of the greatest British television shows ever made.

In political science, a constitutional crisis is a problem or conflict in the function of a government that the political constitution or other fundamental governing law is perceived to be unable to resolve. There are several variations to this definition. For instance, one describes it as the crisis that arises out of the failure, or at least a strong risk of failure, of a constitution to perform its central functions. The crisis may arise from a variety of possible causes. For example, a government may want to pass a law contrary to its constitution; the constitution may fail to provide a clear answer for a specific situation; the constitution may be clear but it may be politically infeasible to follow it; the government institutions themselves may falter or fail to live up to what the law prescribes them to be; or officials in the government may justify avoiding dealing with a serious problem based on narrow interpretations of the law. Specific examples include the South African Coloured vote constitutional crisis in the 1950s, the secession of the southern U.S. states in 1860 and 1861, the dismissal of the Australian federal government in 1975 and the 2007 Ukrainian crisis. While the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland does not have a codified constitution, it is deemed to have an uncodified one, and issues and crises in the UK and its constituent countries are described as constitutional crises.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tristan Garel-Jones</span> British politician (1941–2020)

William Armand Thomas Tristan Garel-Jones, Baron Garel-Jones, PC was a British politician. A member of the Conservative Party, he served as the Member of Parliament (MP) for Watford from 1979 to 1997, before being made a life peer in 1997.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ian Richardson</span> Scottish actor (1934–2007)

Ian William Richardson was a Scottish actor.

<i>First Among Equals</i> (novel) Novel by Jeffrey Archer

First Among Equals is a 1984 novel by British author Jeffrey Archer, which follows the careers and personal lives of four fictional British politicians from 1964 to 1991, with each vying to become Prime Minister. Several situations in the novel are drawn from Archer's own early political career in the British House of Commons, and the fictional characters interact with actual political figures from the UK and elsewhere including Winston Churchill, Alec Douglas-Home, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, Douglas Hurd, Muammar al-Gaddafi, Gary Hart and Queen Elizabeth II.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aunt Sally</span> Traditional English pub game

Aunt Sally is a traditional English game usually played in pub gardens and fairgrounds, in which players throw sticks or battens at a ball, known as a 'dolly', balanced on top of a stick; traditionally, a model of an old woman's head was sometimes used. Leagues of pub teams still play the game, throughout the spring and summer months, mainly in Oxfordshire and some bordering counties. In France, the game is called jeu de massacre.

<i>The Final Cut</i> (TV serial) 1995 BBC television serial

The Final Cut is a 1995 BBC television serial, the third part of the House of Cards trilogy. Directed by Mike Vardy, the serial, based on Michael Dobbs's 1995 novel of the same name, was adapted for television by Andrew Davies. It details the conclusion of Francis Urquhart's reign as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Francis Urquhart</span> Fictional prime minister of the United Kingdom in House of Cards

Francis Ewan Urquhart is a fictional character and the villainous main protagonist of Michael Dobbs's House of Cards trilogy of novels and television series, portrayed by Ian Richardson. A member of the Conservative Party, Urquhart is depicted as a ruthless politician who rises from Chief Whip of the Conservative Party to Prime Minister of the United Kingdom through treachery, deception and murder. He is married to Elizabeth Urquhart, who appears to have a great deal of power over her husband, and often identifies his powers and abilities, or persuades him to use a given situation to his advantage. The protagonist had a sexual relationship with Mattie Storin in the first serial and one with Sarah Harding in the second serial.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Praed Street</span> Street in Paddington, west central London

Events from the year 1936 in the United Kingdom.

Mattie is a given name and nickname, used for people with names such as Matthew, Matthea, Matilda, or Martha.

A political thriller is a thriller that is set against the backdrop of a political power struggle, high stakes and suspense is the core of the story. The genre often forces the audiences to consider and understand the importance of politics. The stakes in these stories are immense, and the fate of a country is often in the hands of one individual. Political corruption, organized crime, terrorism, and warfare are common themes.

<i>Queen Camilla</i> (novel) Novel by Sue Townsend

Queen Camilla is a satirical novel by the British author Sue Townsend.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cultural depictions of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson</span> Fictional and biographical depictions of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson in culture

Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson have been depicted in popular culture, both biographical and fictional, following his abdication in 1936 and their marriage the following year.

The Chief Whip of the Conservative Party oversees the whipping system in the party, which is responsible for ensuring that Conservative MPs or members of the House of Lords attend and vote in parliament in the desired way of the party leadership. Chief Whips, of which two are appointed in the party, a member of the House of Commons and a member of the House of Lords, also help to organise their party's contribution to parliamentary business.

<i>House of Cards</i> (novel) Book by Michael Dobbs

House of Cards is a political thriller novel by British author Michael Dobbs. Published in 1989, it tells the story of Francis Urquhart, a fictional Chief Whip of the Conservative Party, and his amoral and manipulative scheme to become leader of the governing party and, thus, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Frank Underwood (<i>House of Cards</i>) Fictional 46th president of the United States in House of Cards

Francis Joseph Underwood is a fictional character and the protagonist of the American adaptation of House of Cards, portrayed by Kevin Spacey. He is depicted as a ruthless politician who rises from United States House of Representatives majority whip to president of the United States through treachery, deception and murder. He is based on Francis Urquhart, the protagonist of the British novel and television series House of Cards, from which the American Netflix series is drawn. He is married to Claire Underwood, and also had a sexual relationship with Zoe Barnes in season 1. He made his first appearance in the series' pilot episode, "Chapter 1".

A Very British Coup is a 1988 British political serial adapted from Chris Mullin's 1982 novel A Very British Coup in 1988 by screenwriter Alan Plater and director Mick Jackson. Starring Ray McAnally, the series was first screened on Channel 4 and won Bafta and Emmy awards, and was screened in more than 30 countries.


  1. "Jim Parker: Francis Urquhart's March".