Michael Dobbs wrote the original House of Cards novel. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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 deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage