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The showbusiness awards season begins in earnest this weekend with the Golden Globes – soon followed by the Oscars, Baftas and a host of others.
The US TV version of Michael Dobbs’s House of Cards – a book set in the murky world of Westminster politics, which became a BBC1 series – has been nominated for 10 awards in the next few weeks, including four Golden Globes.
Lord Dobbs tells how Hollywood set his story in Washington and gave it a new lease of life, 25 years on:
When I wrote House of Cards… as a tale of Parliamentary power, limitless ambition and unashamed wickedness, I was sulking after a particularly bloody encounter with Margaret Thatcher, for whom I worked as chief of staff during the 1987 election. I had no idea my hesitant scribbles were about to change my life, or that all these years later it would still be walking me through rainbows.
The BBC made a prize-winning adaptation of House of Cards with the wonderful Ian Richardson in the role of the Machiavellian chief whip, Francis Urquhart. It created waves and even a little outrage.
At every twist and turn since then, the murderous Francis Urquhart – whom I call FU – has been at my side.
Now the Americans are at it. They’ve changed the name to Frank Underwood and put him in Washington as an ambitious Democratic Congressman. And he has become bigger than ever.
FU’s new lease of life began with a telephone call from… Media Rights Capital. Might I be interested in a deal on the TV rights? Perhaps, I replied cautiously.
For a while I heard nothing. Then another call. “We’ve got others who want to join in.”
“Like who?” I asked.
“Kevin Spacey and David Fincher.”
Spacey and Fincher! Their collection of Oscars and other top awards would break any bookshelf. Spacey has been named the greatest actor of his generation. Fincher (Fight Club, Seven, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network) is in some eyes the best director – ever.
“I think I might be interested,” I spluttered. “Very interested.”
So the US version of House of Cards was born. Thirteen hours of superb digitalised television drama, made available through Netflix at the press of a button over the Net.
The finished series became a global sensation. President Obama is a fan. David Cameron watched it – even an elderly lady peer declared: “Michael, I rather enjoyed your film. But it’s a bit gritty in places!”
All the sex, I hastened to explain, is entirely necessary to the plot.
Sex is certainly a part of the programme’s success. So is hype and excitement. But mostly it’s down to toil and sweat – rivers of it.
As the production got under way, the world of House of Cards, though set in Washington, was created on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Baltimore. It used to be a pharmaceutical warehouse but was transformed with an eye for detail into the White House, the Congress, FU’s Georgetown home, anything the scriptwriters wanted.
The result was so authentic there was whiskey in the crystal decanter, suits in the closets and fine linen on the beds.
And at the heart of it, Spacey, waiting quietly in the wings for his call.
Kevin would be bent over his Blackberry, thumbs twitching, his mind in the White House, but his heart still very much back in London, one minute raising money for his beloved Old Vic theatre, the next organising master classes for actors, perhaps making a date for tennis. He seemed to have time for everything and everyone. He was the man who held this enormous empire together.
I’m often asked which version of House of Cards I prefer: the British or American. Richardson played FU with more dark camp humour, Spacey seems like a sardonic Richard III.
The Netflix series had many more hours and a production budget reported to be $100 million (about R1 billion) that would leave any BBC producer weeping in envy.
Why should I pick one over the other? I feel I’ve won two Olympic gold medals without even breaking sweat.
But selling the rights to your creation is a little like selling your house; the new owners take over, decide how to redecorate, what to knock down and where to extend.
Spacey and Netflix asked me to help them, made me an executive producer, paid homage to the old while bringing imagination to the new. I want to protest neutrality, but deep down I know the current House of Cards has become the most exciting professional experience of my life.
And it has an undeniable magic. It’s become a major part of an internet revolution that allows you to watch whatever, whenever, wherever. The show is being imitated everywhere.
There’s a hilarious House of Cardinals spoof on YouTube, along with a House of Nerds version that was made to entertain President Obama at the White House Press Association dinner.
The New York Daily News, in a blistering attack on the US Congress, devoted its entire front page to its own version beneath the headline “House of Turds”. If imitation is flattery, I am almost overwhelmed.
FU has been changing my life from the moment I first wrote about him. I suspect he might carry on changing my life for a while to come. Sometimes, I feel I’ve created a monster with a limitless appetite.
I read press reports that President Obama loves the whole thing so much he’s considering taking a cameo. It’s only a rumour of course, no chance of it becoming reality, is there?
Well, you might say that, I couldn’t possibly comment.
• Season two of House of Cards will be on Netflix on February 14. Get the e-book from Simon & Schuster and other outlets. –