House of Cards returns this week for a fifth season, triggering its annual epidemic of binge-viewing and bleary-eyed mornings for millions around the world.
The Netflix series is based on a trilogy of novels and a BBC miniseries by Michael Dobbs, written 30 years ago at the height of Margaret Thatcher's ascendancy. Dobbs is an executive producer on the Netflix series, but when we met in London recently, he was tight-lipped about the new series.
“I can’t give anything away, otherwise I’d have to kill you. But in my view, I think it’s one of the most interesting seasons,” he says, sipping a cup of tea on the terrace of the Royal Automobile Club on Pall Mall.
“Season Five is as good as any because you get so involved in their characters. It’s not about politics. Who gives a monkey’s about what bill they’re working on? It doesn’t matter. What you get involved with and what you pay for is the passion you develop for these characters. No matter how awful they might be, you love them. You want them to carry on more.”
The last season ended with Frank Underwood and his wife, Claire, seeking re-election to the White House on a joint ticket, willing to start a war if necessary to get their way. But how can House of Cards come up with anything as dramatic as the reality in Washington, where Donald Trump as president is threatening to tear up the entire world order?
“I’m not sure that you can, or should,” Dobbs says. “In fiction, you know, you require your characters to act reasonably rationally and sanely and in their own best interest. In life, they never do. How can we possibly justify or understand some of the things that are going on. But it’s always been that way. These aren’t the first politicians to make fools of themselves, are they?”
“Your characters are often more engaging than some of the real-life characters, too. I always say that when you write fiction, what you do is that you take reality and then you water it down. You have to, to make it credible.”
The first season of the Netflix series paid homage to Dobbs's original, both in terms of plot and character, with Kevin Spacey playing Frank Underwood as an unmistakable descendent of Francis Urquhart, played in the BBC series by Ian Richardson. Since then, the American version has drifted away from the original, but Dobbs has no complaints.
“When I say I’ve effectively sold my house, I have,” he says. “I’m an executive producer, so they still invite me back to do all sorts of things. But first of all, there’s no way I could interfere and say, ‘You will not do it this way’. But even in terms of saying, ‘Why don’t you do it this way?’, we have a whole team of experts doing that. That’s what they’re paid to do. There’s no point in my trying to interfere with them. And why should I? I think they’re doing a brilliant job.”
Dobbs, a frequent visitor to Ireland, will be speaking at the West Cork History Festival in July. Usually he visits Abbeyleix, where his family (“they were southern Irish Protestants”) came from.
He was born in Hertfordshire in 1948. He was a bright grammar school boy who read philosophy, politics and economics at the University of Oxford, going on to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, where he graduated with a PhD in nuclear-defence studies.
When he moved back to London in 1977, Dobbs went to work for the Conservative Party as an adviser to Thatcher when she was leader of the opposition. He took on various roles during Thatcher’s years in government, as a speechwriter, policy adviser and finally Conservative Party chief of staff. It was in this role, during a wobble halfway through the 1987 election campaign, that Dobbs was made a scapegoat by Thatcher.
A few months later, out of politics and licking his wounds, Dobbs wrote the initials FU on a piece of paper, giving birth to Francis Urquhart and eventually Frank Underwood.
“I started with the initials. The first thought about all of this was the initials,” he said.
The plot and characters in House of Cards were not based on specific events or individuals but drawn from his decade of experience at Westminster from 1977.
“Politics in those days were rough and they were tough. We had been through the Callaghan experience, when the government was teetering on the brink for month after month after month. And all the bruising times under Margaret.
“The first book was a collection of different memories and experiences and things I’d either seen or done, not always at the same moment or with the same person. And I’ve never known any prime minister who had actually murdered a journalist, although most of the prime ministers I know rather wish they could have done.”
House of Cards is as successful in countries without a democratic political system as it is in Britain and the US. Dobbs puts this down to the fact that the show is not really about politics at all. It is, he says about people, and politics offers an environment in which their character is tested to an unusual degree.
“There is a small part of all of us, whatever it is that we do, that is a dark part,” he says. “We all have dark parts of us, and politicians do, too. We all like to think they’re nothing but darkness, but that’s nonsense. Most politicians go into politics because they actually want to make things better. Very few of them go in there thinking, Oh my God, I’m going to become a really, really wealthy man for doing very little.
“But it’s a rough and tough game. As a politician you have to end up doing some pretty dark things at times, and drama concentrates so often on the dark side because that’s when you really learn what a man or a woman is truly made of, when they’re under real pressure and confronting dilemmas where there’s no right and wrong, just two different types of wrong.”
Although Dobbs has been able to make his living from writing for the past couple of decades, he never gave up on politics, working for John Major during the 1990s and becoming a Conservative peer in 2010. Dobbs owes his place in the House of Lords to David Cameron, but the two men parted ways ahead of last year’s EU referendum, with Dobbs backing Brexit.
One thing I get terribly depressed about is all this pontificating about Britain turning in on itself. Absolutely not
He remains confident that he made the right decision, insisting that Brexit does not have to mean that Britain is emptied of immigrants and turns its back on the world.
“One thing I get terribly depressed about is all this pontificating about Britain turning in on itself. Absolutely not. The only way we will survive and flourish after Brexit is by opening up and becoming a truly internationalist place with a view about the entire world,” he said.
“I don’t know any sensible person who says we should have no immigration. The question is, what immigration and who’s going to control it? The idea that this country is going to succeed without welcoming a very large number of people is absurd. All we’re saying is we’re going to make the rules now without being told from Brussels what these rules are.”
Come what may
We met after the general election campaign had started but before Theresa May’s wobble over the Conservative manifesto and the narrowing of her poll lead. He admires May and believes her qualities are the right ones for Britain as it prepares to leave the EU.
We had David Cameron, we had Tony Blair, both of whom were PR operators. Theresa May isn't a PR operator
“It’s not an easy job. It’s going to be a very difficult job. It’s not a job that requires great rhetorical flourishes. It’s sitting across a table making sure that the best interests of this country are being defended,” he said.
“And right now, after we had David Cameron, we had Tony Blair, both of whom were PR operators. Theresa May isn’t a PR operator. So instead of politicians running around after the press, the press is now running around after the politician. And I actually think right now, that’s probably a good thing.”
Dobbs acknowledges that May suffers from a lack of experience beyond the Home Office and from having become prime minister so quickly. And even if she wins the election and the Brexit negotiations go well, May will be vulnerable to the pitfalls that face every politician in power.
“What does go wrong with politicians?” Dobbs says. “They get arrogant, they get out of touch. Events suddenly happen. What events might be, who knows?”
- Michael Dobbs will be one of the speakers at the first West Cork History Festival in Skibbereen July 28th-30th, 2017. For more, see westcorkhistoryfestival.org. House of Cards, is currently available to stream on Netflix