Michael Dobbs has walked 14 miles to meet for lunch. Next month the House of Cards author will trek 150 miles in seven days, raising money for a young man, the son of a school friend, left paralysed from the waist down by a rugby accident. Dobbs’s hair is as windswept as the Wiltshire downs he’s marched across, his figure svelte from a self-imposed booze ban. The cold, clear day has marked him with a rosy glow, topped up by his excitement at talking about the third series of the show that has come to define him, first in Britain, but now across the world.
The success of the Netflix adaptation of House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey as the villainous US politician Francis Underwood, and Robin Wright as Claire, his scheming wife, has given Dobbs worldwide recognition. Such is the show’s success, he reveals, that a fourth series has already been commissioned, to be shown in 2016. But there’s the third instalment to get through first.
“It involves the Middle East, it involves Russia, it involves foreign affairs, and it’s a fantastic rollicking plot,” says Dobbs. “But more than ever it’s about Claire and Francis. It’s about their relationship. This is all about the couple on a new and different level. And yeah, by the way, they are sorting out the world.”
Spacey has brought to Underwood a deeper sense of thuggery than Ian Richardson brought to Francis Urquhart, the patrician protagonist of Dobbs’s books and the original BBC series, which resonated with the political sleaze of the 1990s. “Ian was almost a little camp, in a very British way,” says Dobbs. “Kevin is much darker than Ian’s interpretation. You really sense the evil inside.”
While Spacey revels in the malevolence, Dobbs reveals that Richardson’s angst about the character was one of the main reasons the British version concluded after three series.
“Ian grew to loathe the role and insisted that he would do no more,” he says. “As soon as he finished, he went off to the stage for the first time in 14 years, played in a Molière farce, in which he shaved his head and grew a moustache. About as far away from FU as you can get. Kevin has more fun with it. He’s a much more public figure, much more involved.”
Baron Dobbs of Wylye, to give him the full title that he wears so lightly, spent years as an advisor to Margaret Thatcher, before penning the books that foretold what Westminster would look like after she was gone. After two series of following a similar path to the books, which ended with Urquhart being shot dead, the US version has now diverged.
The original UK production of House of Cards
“We are in totally new territory,” says Dobbs. “It will go on longer than the books, as long as we’re enjoying it. There will have to be an end. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll come back to some of the ideas that I set out in the books. But we’re not there yet, and actually, it’s not my decision any more.”
Indeed, while Dobbs has an executive producer credit, he’s signed away the rights to Netflix, with no regrets. “I expected it all to go horribly wrong, and me to be left outside on the doorstep, shouting through the letterbox, ‘You’ve got it all wrong.’ But it really has been the happiest professional experience of my life, and that is something I never ever dreamt I’d be able to say.”
Here he draws explicit contrast with what he calls his “handbags at dawn” with the BBC. By the time the broadcaster came to adapt his third book, The Final Cut, in 1995, his relationship with the corporation had disintegrated to the extent that he insisted his name was excised from the credits. “It bore so little resemblance to my book; in fact I don’t think my book had anything to do with it,” he says.
“I started reading drafts about the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, with ‘how much better if she had gone by the bomb or by the bullet.’ Having recently walked out of the ruins of the Grand [the Brighton hotel housing the 1984 Tory conference that was bombed by the IRA], I was rather sensitive and I thought it was not right. When I was told by a very senior BBC executive that if I took my name off, I would never, ever work for the BBC ever again, I thought that they’d given me absolutely everything I needed to walk out the door, and I did.”