I couldn’t possibly comment

My trial subscription to Netflix Instant Streaming is proving to be a lot of fun. Tonight, I’m watching a little something I’ve had in my instant queue for a week or two: “House of Cards,” which I haven’t seen since it originally ran in the U.S. on “Masterpiece Theater” in 1991. It made such an impression on me that I can still remember certain scenes very clearly.

It’s wonderful, well worth a look if you have Netflix (you can also rent it a la carte from Amazon Instant Video). Netflix is working an an American adaptation – more about that later – but I can’t imagine anything will top the original.

The miniseries, based on a novel, deals with what happens after the inevitable end of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister. By sheer coincidence, it aired in the U.K. the very week that she stepped down, giving it a timeliness that resulted in record ratings there. It ran here in the U.S. a few months later.

Ian Richardson plays Francis Urquhart, a chief whip in Parliament. At first, he’s loyal to Henry Collingridge, Thatcher’s fictional successor, but when he’s denied a promised cabinet post, and at the urging of his Lady Macbeth-like wife, he begins working on his own agenda.

The genius of the original series is that Richardson, in an incredible, unforgettable performance, breaks the fourth wall, not unlike Richard III, to tell the audience what he’s up to. He’s so effective and charming that he pulls you in even as his schemes take a frighteningly-dark direction.

Urquhart needs to be able to plant certain things in the press, and he befriends an impressionable young reporter, Mattie Storin (Susannah Harkness), who looks up to him a little more than an objective reporter should. He plays her like a violin, with the implicit blessing of his wife. It’s a recurring theme that Urquhart steers the conversation so that the information he wants to plant eventually comes out of Mattie’s lips, not his own, leading him to reply, with a twinkle in his eye, “You might think so, Mattie – but I could not possibly comment.”

There were two followup miniseries, “To Play The King” and “The Final Cut.” Both were good, but neither had the electricity of the original, in part because they lacked the relationship between Mattie Storin and Francis Urquhart. Both Netflix and Amazon package all three together as “The House of Cards Trilogy.”

Netflix’s version will move the story to America, which will require extensive changes to the plot – it’s more likely to be inspired by than based on the original. Kevin Spacey will play the Urquhart character (whatever they call him). He could be interesting – but I suspect I’ll enjoy it more if I think of it as something completely separate from the original.

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