TV preview: Francis Urquhart, the charming, amoral English politician of two previous 'Masterpiece Theatre' episodes, works his wicked ways in 'The Final Cut.': Sweeps Relief


Old F.U. is back.

That's Francis Urquhart to viewers of "Masterpiece Theatre," and he's back at 9 tomorrow and Monday nights on MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26).

To those who missed his previous two outings on "Masterpiece" -- "House of Cards" and "To Play the King" -- Urquhart is the most hypocritical, cynical and downright criminal of politicians. He makes Oliver Stone's Nixon look like a Disney creation.

But, as played by Ian Richardson, Urquhart is also as charming, brilliant and successful a politician as has ever been imagined. You'll hate yourself for the sheer delight you take in his wickedness.

In "The Final Cut," the four-hour finale to this brilliant and bloody trilogy, Urquhart is truly in top form. He is trying to top Margaret Thatcher's record for the longest run as British prime minister and looking ahead to his place in history. He's also -- with a little help from his Lady Macbeth of a wife (Diane Fletcher) -- circling in on a way to leave office a wealthy man. As Urquhart might put it, "So much mischief to make and such a first-rate mind to make it."

We're in on all his schemes, ploys and dirty work through those perfect little asides crafted by screenwriter Andrew Davies. Just before meeting members of the Royal Family, duping one of his many enemies into political suicide or rising to address the House of Commons at full flower, Urquhart faces the camera and tells us what he's really thinking -- and it's almost never pretty.

In "The Final Cut," the best of the trilogy, Urquhart gets a new personal secretary -- a sort of chief of staff -- who is almost as smart as Urquhart and might be even more self-serving.

This aide is a woman (Isla Blair), and we know from past episodes that women who get close to this prime minister have a habit of coming to bad and unexpected ends. (The same is true for men, of course, but women seem to give Urquhart special pause.)

Also hovering around the prime minister is the naive niece (Yolanda Vasquez) of two Cypriots Urquhart seems to have killed in cold blood when he was a soldier in Cyprus some 40 years ago. She's talking about getting some classified war records unclassified.

Furthermore, there's Urquhart's foreign secretary (Paul Freeman), who is giving the PM a very hard time within his own party. Shades of going out as Mrs. Thatcher did -- booted out by her own party before a general election -- are starting to make Urquhart shiver. And, just to make matters more interesting, Urquhart's political rival is sleeping with Urquhart's new personal secretary.

As if all that weren't enough, poor Urquhart has to suffer the design and erection of a statue to Mrs. Thatcher right outside his office window. He abhors the woman but must put on a face for his fellow Conservative Party members.

"The Final Cut" is not to be missed. There really is nothing like it in American television.

Imagine a first-rate American actor -- say, Richard Dreyfuss -- playing an absolutely amoral American politician who, instead of having to suffer for his sins as Nixon did, seems to thrive and

prosper in his wicked ways. And all of the drama is crammed full of allusions to real people and events in national life.

We couldn't stand it. There would be a sea of ink decrying the blurring of fact and fiction. The nearest thing we have is Stone's work in feature films, and we can barely stand that. Every time he makes a movie, a national debate breaks out with all the political writers in Washington seeming to think they've been called by God to take up film criticism.

In fact, Monday night's ending of "The Final Cut" is made of the very stuff from which Stone weaves his dark theories of political life: shadowy figures, gunmen, assassination, cover-ups and truths suppressed.

Somehow, it's so much easier to believe when it's set in someone else's country.

'The Final Cut'

What: 'Masterpiece Theatre'

Stars: Ian Richardson

When: 9 p.m. -- 11 p.m. tomorrrow and Monday

Where: PBS; Channels 22 and 67 (MPT); Channel 26 (WETA)

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