Michael Dobbs wrote the original House of Cards novel. Photo: Getty
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House of Cards creator Michael Dobbs: "I must have sold my soul"

The man behind television's most masterful political operator reveals the inspiration for his story, gives advice to the PM on the powers of persuasion, and recalls his own real-life political dramas.

“So this is our little office.” It’s an aside worthy of Francis Urquhart. Pithy, understated, and a little bit camp. Michael Dobbs, or Baron Dobbs of Wylye as he’s known around these parts, is showing me into the House of Lords chamber. But his awe at this opulent workplace gives him an innocence unexpected of the man behind House of Cards’ infamous antihero.

Dobbs is the author of House of Cards, the original novel published in 1989 about the machinations of an amoral fictional chief whip. Two further books to complete the trilogy and a BBC miniseries on, Urquhart has morphed into Frank Underwood, the modern-day Washington DC equivalent played by Kevin Spacey in three successful television series on the online streaming service, Netflix.

The story, a hit in the UK during the Nineties in its Westminster days, has become a sensation since its migration to the marble corridors of the Capitol.

The programme has been the most popular series ever on all of Netflix (that’s 6.4 per cent of subscribers who tuned in during the first 30 days after each season premiere), according to figures released in March.

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in Season 3 of House of Cards. Photo: episode still

Dobbs is an executive producer of the US series, which means he “has as much involvement as I want”. He beams that it’s been “the happiest professional experience of my life”, and is currently working on a new drama based in Westminster with Borgen creator Adam Price.

Meanwhile, a fourth season of House of Cards has been lined up for next year, and Spacey and Robin Wright (who plays Underwood’s wife, Claire), have each picked up Golden Globe Awards for their performances (respectively Best Actor and Best Actress in a Television Series Drama) – a first for an online-only show.

And this all came about, as most things do, because of Margaret Thatcher.

Before he began writing, Dobbs was a Conservative party backroom boy, scurrying up the chain of command from speechwriter to special adviser to chief of staff. He was serving as the latter when, on the eve of the 1987 election, he fell out spectacularly with his then boss, the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He was soon kicked into the political long grass, which was when he found time to write fiction.

“It all started because Maggie Thatcher beat me up and was actually rather cruel to me,” he says, looking softly out onto the Thames from a sunny spot on the Lords Terrace. “I don’t complain about that – politics is rough and tough. But it caused me great unhappiness for a while . . . [Despite] the fact that she could be absolutely horrid to me, I still regard her as being probably the greatest peacetime prime minister in the 20th century.”

It was on the day known as Wobble Thursday, exactly a week before polling day in ‘87. Thatcher was convinced she was losing the election (spoiler: she wasn’t), and “she took out all her pain and anger and frustration on me, when in fact I was perhaps the most innocent person in the room at the time”, says Dobbs with a sweet smile.

Soon after, the bruised former chief of staff found himself on holiday with his wife, sitting on the beach and scrawling two letters onto a piece of paper: “F U” – his soon to be protagonist’s initials, and a none-too-cryptic two fingers up at the page.

Although Dobbs denies his first and most successful novel is a “book of revenge”, the story begins and ends with a toppled prime minister, and he does reveal that the book was inspired by his experience of politics. “Most of the stuff I put into House of Cards was material from events I’d either seen, or participated in, or done, or watched other people do.”

Dobbs himself was tagged “Westminster's baby-faced hit man” by the Guardian in the Eighties because of his skill as a political operator. Indeed, although he is 66 years old, and merrily aware of growing older (he chuckles that he would like to write a play about the House of Lords with the title “The Zimmer Conspiracy”), Dobbs has a boyish look – all wide-eyed wonder beneath his sweep of tousled sandy-white hair. He even wears his stripy orange tie and smart waistcoat a little like a school uniform. It’s hard to imagine him as a Westminster machiavel.

So how much of the Urquhart/Underwood ruthlessness comes from him?

“Oh, not a lot,” he says. “Because I had to take reality and water it down. Politics is outrageous, it’s ridiculous. We do things that you couldn’t possibly get away with in a work of fiction.”

Dobbs’ theory is that brilliant politicians derive their ambition from private demons – and he himself doesn’t “have that sort of drive”.

“Great people have great vulnerabilities, great weaknesses, and that’s often the reason that pushes them onto the public scene,” Dobbs explains in a hushed voice. “Harold Macmillan was a cuckold all his life, and it was his official biographer, Alistair Horne, who said it was his private shames that drove him to his public duties. There’s a huge amount of truth in that for all great people. Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, Gladstone...”

He adds: “What makes them different, more obsessive, more driven, is that there is a worm inside them, a worm of shame or guilt or anger that drives them beyond the normal, which is why they end up being able to do what they do.”

Dobbs’ preoccupation with politicians’ personal turmoil has made his creation so appealing to a general audience. It’s about people, not politics – an angle heightened by Urquhart and then Underwood’s shattering of the fourth wall to give asides to the audience throughout the action.

“It’s not about politics, it’s not about institutions,” Dobbs tells me. “It’s about power, it’s about personality, it’s about great ambition, it’s about weakness, it’s about wickedness. All of that was drummed into me when I was a schoolkid, because we were made to read Shakespeare.”

The late Ian Richardson, who starred as Urquhart in the BBC series, was a stage actor who had played Richard III among other Shakespeare leads. And Spacey had just completed a worldwide tour playing Richard III before beginning filming the first Netflix series in Baltimore in 2012.

Dobbs is ecstatic about his story being brought to life by such accomplished actors. “It requires the best possible acting to get away with it. It would look really clunky if it were done by somebody who wasn’t up to it. Ian Richardson, Kevin Spacey – I think somewhere along the way I must’ve sold my soul, because I’m not quite sure why I’ve been so lucky.”

Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart in the first episode of the BBC's House of Cards miniseries. Photo: YouTube screengrab

Beau Willimon, the writer of the US series, who has also worked in politics, owes a great deal to his British counterpart’s focus on character over political minutiae. When I spoke to him following the release of the first series, he told me: “One of the things that I thought was so fantastic about the English original is it didn’t require that you be a political expert in order to enjoy it. We wanted to take that same approach . . . it doesn’t leave you by the side of the road as the political freight train rolls on past.”

Yet Dobbs has had his fair share of real-life political drama. As if working for Thatcher during the height of her premiership, and being in Downing Street with John Major at the very end wasn’t enough, Dobbs was present when the IRA bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the 1984 Conservative party conference.

“I had been right in the path of that bomb for much of that previous day, working in [then President of the Board of Trade] Norman Tebbit’s room,” he recalls. (Tebbit’s wife Margaret was left permanently disabled by the bomb).

“I realised two things. First of all, how lucky I was to be able to walk out of that . . . Secondly, it made me realise just how dangerous politics was. I had some really good friends who were murdered.”

Dobbs recounts discussing plans for the future on Thatcher’s sofa with her Northern Ireland Secretary Airey Neave the day before he was murdered outside the window of the very same office by a car bomb as he was driving out of the Commons car park. He was also “fantastic chums” with Ian Gow, the Tory MP and minister who was also killed by an IRA-planted car bomb.

“It was rather symbolic,” Dobbs reflects. “Airey was murdered almost at the start, it was the 1979 election, as the election campaign was starting – Ian was murdered pretty much right at the end . . .

“It certainly conditioned my view about my own political future, and how to protect my family while I was doing it. It was certainly a major step on the way to being who or what I am today.”

Indeed, Dobbs is more at home as a close observer than an active participant. Two weeks before our interview, he went back to stay in the Grand for the first time since the bombing, because “as a writer, you need to keep testing yourself”.

His most recent foray into British politics was his attempt to push the Private Member’s Bill to legislate for an EU referendum through the Lords, which failed in January 2014. He believes “the European question has been a cancer, a huge distraction in this country”, and warns David Cameron to take a softly-softly, behind-the-scenes approach to his EU renegotiation. Urquhart-style persuasion, perhaps.

“Being a little sensitive about these issues is very important,” he says. “I've always suggested to my lords and masters who make these decisions that we must make sure the way this is handled should enable not only the country to come back together afterwards, but also our party to come back together afterwards.

“Some people want to take it one direction, others in a totally different direction . . . And actually, although sometimes I think we get the tone wrong, if we want to persuade people, it’s often better to talk quietly to them, which he’s [Cameron’s] doing, rather than shouting at them across the barricades, which is what many people have been doing for too long.”

And although Dobbs, who was present during the Tories’ 1992 election victory, says the current period reminds him more of 1983 than Major’s surprise win, he doesn’t see a smooth road ahead for his party: “You always know that when the pressure’s off on a party, they normally manage to screw it up themselves – that's the nature of politics,” he chuckles.

Dobbs was made a life peer in December 2010, and remains enchanted by the House of Lords. He still thinks to himself “how on earth did I end up here?” when walking through its halls, and finds the “characters so lovely”.

But there’s still a glint of the old steel: “This isn’t a perfect place,” he admits. “We do have people who shouldn’t be here, absolutely clear about that. We don’t have the right procedures to get rid of them, no matter how hard we try.”

Whether this results in one final political coup, or another work of Westminster-based fiction, remains to be seen. Dobbs is guarded about what he plans to do next, bringing to mind the words most repeated to him by his colleagues and friends – the old Urquhart catchphrase: “You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment.”

House of Cards Season 3 is now available on Blu-ray & DVD

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Why is it called Storm Doris? The psychological impact of naming a storm

“Homes being destroyed and lives being lost shouldn’t be named after any person.”

“Oh, piss off Doris,” cried the nation in unison this morning. No, it wasn't that everyone's local cantankerous old lady had thwacked our ankles with her stick. This is a different, more aggressive Doris. Less Werther’s, more extreme weathers. Less bridge club, more bridge collapse.

This is Storm Doris.

A storm that has brought snow, rain, and furious winds up to 94mph to parts of the UK. There are severe weather warnings of wind, snow and ice across the entire country.

But the real question here is: why is it called that? And what impact does the new Met Office policy of naming storms have on us?

Why do we name storms?

Storm Doris is the latest protagonist in the Met Office’s decision to name storms, a pilot scheme introduced in winter 2015/16 now in its second year.

The scheme was introduced to draw attention to severe weather conditions in Britain, and raise awareness of how to prepare for them.

How do we name storms?

The Name our Storms initiative invites the public to suggest names for storms. You can do this by tweeting the @metoffice using the #nameourstorms hashtag and your suggestion, through its Facebook page, or by emailing them.

These names are collated along with suggestions from Met Éireann and compiled into a list. These are whittled down into 21 names, according to which were most suggested – in alphabetical order and alternating between male and female names. This is done according to the US National Hurricane Naming convention, which excludes the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z because there are thought to be too few common names beginning with these letters.

They have to be human names, which is why suggestions in this list revealed by Wired – including Apocalypse, Gnasher, Megatron, In A Teacup (or Ena Tee Cup) – were rejected. The Met Office received 10,000 submissions for the 2016/17 season. According to a spokesperson, a lot of people submit their own names.

Only storms that could have a “medium” or “high” wind impact in the UK and Ireland are named. If there are more than 21 storms in a year, then the naming system starts from Alpha and goes through the Greek alphabet.

The names for this year are: Angus (19-20 Nov ’16), Barbara (23-24 Dec 2016), Conor (25-26 Dec 2016), Doris (now), Ewan, Fleur, Gabriel, Holly, Ivor, Jacqui, Kamil, Louise, Malcolm, Natalie, Oisín, Penelope, Robert, Susan, Thomas, Valerie and Wilbert.

Why does this violent storm have the name of an elderly lady?

Doris is an incongruous name for this storm, so why was it chosen? A Met Office spokesperson says they were just at that stage in their list of names, and there’s no link between the nature of the storm and its name.

But do people send cosy names for violent weather conditions on purpose? “There’s all sorts in there,” a spokesperson tells me. “People don’t try and use cosy names as such.”

What psychological impact does naming storms have on us?

We know that giving names to objects and animals immediately gives us a human connection with them. That’s why we name things we feel close to: a pet owner names their cat, a sailor names their boat, a bore names their car. We even name our virtual assistants –from Microsoft’s Clippy to Amazon’s Alexa.

This gives us a connection beyond practicality with the thing we’ve named.

Remember the response of Walter Palmer, the guy who killed Cecil the Lion? “If I had known this lion had a name and was important to the country or a study, obviously I wouldn’t have taken it,” he said. “Nobody in our hunting party knew before or after the name of this lion.”

So how does giving a storm a name change our attitude towards it?

Evidence suggests that we take it more seriously – or at least pay closer attention. A YouGov survey following the first seven named storms in the Met Office’s scheme shows that 55 per cent of the people polled took measures to prepare for wild weather after hearing that the oncoming storm had been named.

“There was an immediate acceptance of the storm names through all media,” said Gerald Fleming, Head of Forecasting at Met Éireann, the Irish metereological service. “The severe weather messages were more clearly communicated.”

But personalising a storm can backfire. A controversial US study in 2014 by PNAC (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) claimed that hurricanes with female names lead to higher death tolls – the more “feminine” the name, like Belle or Cindy, the higher the death toll. This is not because female names are attached to more severe storms; it is reportedly because people take fewer steps to prepare for storms with names they perceive to be unintimidating or weak.

“In judging the intensity of a storm, people appear to be applying their beliefs about how men and women behave,” Sharon Shavitt, a co-author of the study, told the FT at the time. “This makes a female-named hurricane . . . seem gentler and less violent.”

Names have social connotations, and affect our subconscious. Naming a storm can raise awareness of it, but it can also affect our behaviour towards it.

What’s it like sharing a name with a deadly storm?

We should also spare a thought for the impact sharing a name with a notorious weather event can have on a person. Katrina Nicholson, a nurse who lives in Glasgow, says it was “horrible” when the 2005 hurricane – one of the fifth deadliest ever in the US – was given her name.

“It was horrible having something so destructive associated with my name. Homes being destroyed and lives being lost shouldn’t be named after any person,” she tells me over email. “I actually remember at the time meeting an American tourist on a boat trip in Skye and when he heard my name he immediately linked it to the storm – although he quickly felt guilty and then said it was a lovely name! I think to this day there will be many Americans who hate my name because of it.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.