HOUSE OF CARDS" is the type of Masterpiece Theatre that sends you scrambling for the proper British adjectives -- clever, witty, brilliant, delightful, devilish, that sort of stuff.
It is at once a thriller and a comedy, a send-up and a cautionary tale, an excruciatingly on-target parody and a fascinating straightforward drama.
The subject is politics, and "House of Cards" reduces it to its essential core -- a game played to see who comes out on top. It begins its four-week Masterpiece Theatre run Sunday night at 9 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67,
The central character is Francis Urquhart of Britain's Conservative Party who holds the position of Chief Whip in Parliament. It is something like being the top non-commissioned officer -- you do all the work so others can take the credit.
Urquhart's job is to make sure that all the party members are in line when policy matters come up for a vote. He puts out fires and settles squabbles, massages egoes and arranges affairs, washes dirty linen and airs out grievances.
"House of Cards" caused quite a stir when it aired in England because in its opening scene Urquhart comments that nothing can last forever as he puts away a picture of Maggie Thatcher. The four episodes then go on to show a Conservative Party essentially coming apart at the seams following the demise of its longtime leader.
By total coincidence, as Alistair Cooke notes in his introduction, "House of Cards" began on the BBC the very week that Thatcher did, indeed, leave office. And she left because of internecine warfare within her own party featuring rivalries not unlike those seen in this drama.
But, so far in England, no one has turned up an actual character quite like the invented Urquhart. Passed over for a cabinet post in the first post-Thatcher government, Urquhart maintains his lap-dog posture but secretly becomes a Doberman pinscher.
The result is as if Noel Coward wrote "Seven Days in May." While he publicly remains as obsequious as a gentleman's gentleman, behind the scenes, Urquhart bares previously unseen fangs.
As Chief Whip, Urquhart has learned in which closet most of his party members' skeletons are kept, and he rattles various bones to satisfy his well-hidden ambition.
But Urquhart doesn't go after these rivals with some crass Lyndon Johnson-style blitz -- They don't even realize from whence they are being attacked. No, he crafts elaborate schemes for their downfall, plans that often don't pay off for quite some time, when Urquhart is safely distanced from their beginning.
It's not just the offensive prime minister he targets, but also the pretenders to that throne who, of course, bare their own fangs once the prime minister's blood is sensed.
And through it all, Urquhart maintains his old image of loyal party functionary so well that he remains totally above suspicion, becoming everyone's confidante as they sort out the new order, which of course puts him in an even better position to further his own schemes.
He is Iago played as a jester, contesting this game only because it's what he happens to be good at, constantly bemused by his cleverness and his opponents' clumsiness.
One of his primary, if unsuspecting, allies is a young, ambitious political reporter named Mattie Storin, who works for a paper that backs the Conservatives. Again while completely hiding his own aims, Urquhart steers her toward stories that undercut his opposition.
Thus the screenplay of "House of Cards," written by Andrew Davies (who also wrote "Mother Love"), effectively skewers the press, showing how the ambitions of the fourth estate can be easily manipulated by an apparently trustworthy politician.
To say that Ian Richardson plays Urquhart superbly would not do this performance justice. It is one of those roles so perfectly handled that once you see Richardson, you cannot even imagine another actor in it.
Susannah Harker brings a fresh-faced beauty to Storin, making her a naive ingenue whose taste of success quickly convinces her that she's cool and calculating.
There are laughs aplenty throughout "House of Cards," in large part because Richardson breaks the barrier between performer and audience as Urquhart narrates this story and provides commentary on his maneuverings, sometimes most effectively with just a knowing, bemused glance at the camera as another piece of his puzzle falls neatly into place.
But beyond the comedy, "House of Cards" carries a serious message. In Part 2, Urquhart's wife tells him that if he finds it necessary to use the aphrodisiac of his new-found power to reinforce Storin's trust, he has her permission. In that scene, you see how turning sex into nothing more than a strategic weapon in a political game robs it of any possibility of meaning or even passion.
Similarly, the entire plot of "House of Cards" demonstrates what happens when politics becomes divorced from its foundation, when its players forget that they are supposed to be governing a nation and serving its people; it becomes "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
At least Urquhart, the idiot telling this tale, is clever, witty, delightful, brilliant and devilish.
"House of Cards"
**** This four-part Masterpiece Theatre is a serio-comic look at Machiavellian intrigue within a contemporary British government
CAST: Ian Richardson, Susannah Harker
TIME: Sundays at 9 o'clock
CHANNEL: PBS channels 22 and 67