Michael Dobbs, Lord Dobbs, is starstruck. He’s recently back from a Hollywood awards ceremony and pinching himself, you sense, at the good fortune that sees his greatest character invention, the amoral but all-too-believable politician Francis Urquhart, about to return in the second season of the glitzy American take on the classic BBC series, House of Cards.
Actually, not Francis Urquhart. The name was deemed too tricky for the Americans to cope with, so Urquhart’s become Underwood. The first name’s still Francis, so the initials still tell the story – FU – but this is a thoroughly American series grounded in the grisly and complex world of American congressional politics.
“Yes,” Lord Dobbs happily acknowledges, “I have sold the House. They have the right to do anything they want, pretty much.” But far from buying the idea and ridding themselves of the English inventor of the HoC brand, the producers at internet streaming company Netflix, which has made the new series, seem to have taken the view that Dobbs is best kept onside.
“This has been the happiest professional experience of my life,” Dobbs says. “They keep me in the loop, I see all the scripts, I don’t feel in the least bit cold-shouldered.” And when he does visit, he sees his original creation pumped with resources and with money. People have come from the White House just to see the set, which has been created in Baltimore, about half an hour from Washington. Apparently the doors close with the same satisfying crump as they do in the West Wing itself. The taps actually work. Was he royally recompensed? “I am not complaining,” Lord Dobbs says.
And, of course, he gets to meet the new House of Cards star, Kevin Spacey. The man who has taken the monster created in the original BBC series by Ian Richardson, and made him his own. Spacey is mesmerising on screen and, according to Dobbs, pretty impressive in real life as well. “He has star quality. And he’s not only a serious actor, he is a thoroughly nice, decent man. When I see him on the set and he’s waiting for the next call, he’s bent over his phone answering all the questions people write in with about the theatre and acting.”
There is, it is fair to say, no character in the new House of Cards without moral flaws, including Underwood’s wife Claire, played by Golden Globe-winner Robin Wright (ex-wife of Sean Penn). It is a vision of political dystopia. It is gripping but depressing, if you take it as commentary on how politics is done. As Spacey intones to camera in the first series: “In a Congress choked by pettiness and lassitude, my job is to clear the pipes and keep the sludge moving.”
One of Lord Dobbs’s colleagues in the House of Lords – a baroness of some age and standing – took him to one side recently, and, with gentle understatement, told him she’d recently watched series one and found it “a bit gritty in places”.
It is seriously gritty in every place. So is Dobbs, who is, after all, a working Tory Peer, just a little concerned that the view of modern politics that he has helped to create and now perpetuate, is unreasonably grim. I remind him of a speech the former Home Secretary David Blunkett made recently in which he called for a halt to the “those b******* are all the same” view of modern politics and politicians. Does Dobbs feel any queasiness about his creation?
“None whatsoever,” he says. “For a start, it’s given people a huge amount of fun. It raises interest in politics as well, but people understand that it’s a drama, not a documentary. And anyway, look at the real world; look at President Hollande, look at Berlusconi, look at our own Liberal Democrats. I don’t think I can be accused of bringing politics into disrepute.”
What he does believe, fervently, is that when real-life politicians misbehave, we need an unmuzzled press to uncover them. I ask him whether the pressure for the press to be regulated in more draconian fashion has passed. “It’s a moving feast,” he says. “The technology changes and the way the political system moves you can never say, right, that’s it. But I do suspect that we are coming to a balance that will see us through the next difficult period.” People who are public property (he includes himself in this) “should sometimes think twice about the things they do and say. That’s not a bad thing.”
I wondered whether the Liberal Democrats’ recent scandals might assist in persuading the public that the press needs to be in a position to keep digging. Should his Coalition colleagues’ alleged excesses lead to a rethink? Could I at least tempt him to tell me, “You might say that; I could not possibly comment.” But no. Lord Dobbs does not take the bait. He is unpartisan in his view of politicians’ failings. All of them, he suggests, are alive in the House of Cards.