1990: When BBC's 'House of Cards' Premiered

House of Cards 1990 Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Everett Collection

House of Cards 1990 Still - H 2015

The four-part miniseries featured Ian Richardson in the Kevin Spacey role, was far bleaker than its American counterpart and won screenwriter Andrew Davies an Emmy in 1991.

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Netflix's ode to ambition-tinged moral decay, House of Cards, has its roots in a four-episode 1990 BBC miniseries set when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had just left office and the Conservative Party was scrambling to reform its leadership. The series won Andrew Davies an Emmy for his writing in 1991. But while the accents may be different, the Machiavellian backstabbing is eternal.

Ian Richardson, whose ruthless Francis Urquhart became Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood in the U.S. series, once said he had based his character on Shakespeare’s portrayal of evil incarnate, Richard III. (It’s no coincidence that Urquhart is referred to as F.U.) Many critics felt the British version had the edge in bleakness, the way Ricky Gervais’ David Brent in the U.K. original of The Office is bleaker than Steve Carell’s Michael Scott in the NBC iteration. But Michael Dobbs, who wrote the book upon which the series is based (and who, as a onetime Thatcher aide, himself was nicknamed "the baby-faced hitman" by the British press), says the similarities between the two shows run deeper than the differences.

"It happens to be about people and characters in politics," he says. "And that is not American or British. A lot of the show’s basis goes back to my childhood reading of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. There you have the most powerful man in the world hacked to death on the capitol steps by his best friends. What more do you want?"