PBS Serves Up a Pair of Gems : Television: British TV has long excelled at political intrigue. ‘Die Kinder’ and ‘House of Cards’ continue the tradition--and share the cynicism.
The British are coming to PBS this week in duplicate: two Richardsons (Miranda and Ian), two thrillers, two successes.
To each his own. While American TV has a knack for splattering the airwaves with frequently bloody and gratuitous docudramas about sensational murders, British TV has long excelled at literate stories of titillating political intrigue.
The best of these in recent years was the 1989 “Masterpiece Theatre” drama “A Very British Coup,” a scintillating tale about a conspiracy to preserve the nation’s ruling class by undermining a newly elected Labor prime minister bent on reform.
And now--to “Mystery!” and “Masterpiece Theatre” respectively--come the BBC’s “Die Kinder” and “House of Cards,” sharing a dark cynicism about establishment politics while differing in plot and style.
The six-part “Die Kinder” (tonight at 8 p.m. on Channel 50, at 9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15) initially is about a London divorcee’s search for her two children, who have been abducted by their German father and spirited to Hamburg. Soon, however, Sidonie Reiger (Miranda Richardson) is swept up in some murky machinations by bloodless British and German authorities curiously interested in a 1970s radical group of which her ponytailed former husband, Stefan (Hans Kremer), was a member. It seems that 20 year earlier, the group had bombed a Hamburg department store, and memories of this flaming tragedy flicker ominously throughout Paula Milne’s script.
Meanwhile, Milne does the unthinkable. Into a story so hauntingly and mysteriously played out against a sophisticated background of eroding East-West barriers in Europe, she brashly injects a stock U.S. character--a seedy, maverick, street-tough private eye named Lomax (Frederic Forrest), whom Sidonie hires in Hamburg to find her children.
The shadowy forces guiding the fates of Sidonie and her brood--in particular the flower-sniffing British security officer Crombie (Derek Fowlds)--are often callous and their agendas are interestingly complex. Director Rob Walker uses his London and Hamburg settings to foster a sense of unease and urgency, placing Sidonie in a vast urban environment that gives a sense of her isolation and smallness in a political scenario much bigger than herself. Later in the story, the search for her children becomes secondary to that for the former terrorist leader Karin Muller (Tina Engel).
Richardson is one of England’s rising talents, an actress of subtlety and shading. Here, on this taut and perilous emotional high wire, she is all nerve endings, giving Sidonie a raw, stinging, neurotic intensity.
Although each production is generally irresistible viewing, it’s the romantic relationships in both “Die Kinder” and Sunday’s “Masterpiece Theatre”’ production of “House of Cards” that sputter and gasp for air.
There’s just no believing the evolving love link between Sidonie and the coarse, slovenly Lomax, who at first repulses her. Nor is there any credible basis for an affair between the aging and corrupt politician in “House of Cards” and the young newspaperwoman he takes into his confidence and shrewdly manipulates while secretly plotting to become prime minister.
The first of its four parts airs Sunday (at 8 p.m. on Channels 24 and 50, at 9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15), introducing Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson), a Conservative Party whip who expects a Cabinet job in the administration of his party’s successor to Margaret Thatcher. After being passed over by the new prime minister, however, he takes matters into his own ruthless hands, going all out for the top job himself by launching a secret campaign of dirty tricks that has catastrophic results for everyone standing in his way.
Coincidentally, “House of Cards” aired in Britain about the time Thatcher actually was forced to step down. Based on a novel by former Thatcher aide and Conservative official Michael Dobbs, this is at once a chucklingly good satire of political infighters and dishonest press barons--including somewhat heavy-handed symbolism in the form of scurrying waterfront rats--and a grim thriller whose scheming protagonist makes Richard Nixon look like a guileless wimp.
Urquhart uses blackmail and cruel lies to sink his political foes. He makes a cocaine-snorting colleague (Miles Anderson) his reluctant operative under threat of exposing the man’s behavior. And he plants stories with unsuspecting political reporter Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker), solidifying their professional relationship by taking her to bed. She calls him “daddy.”
Andrew Davies’ script adds a comic twist to Dobbs’ book by turning Urquhart into a sort of Richard III who addresses the camera, in effect making viewers his co-conspirators. “You’re not getting squeamish, are you?” he asks at one point. “Let’s not have any cold feet now, because you know we are in this together.” Urquhart makes you smile merely by slyly raising an eyebrow, but as this story winds on, it grows increasingly sinister.
Its flaws are not in the acting or in Paul Seed’s directing, but in the writing, with the success of Urquhart’s plan relying on his human chess pieces being always where he wants them to be and doing what he wants them to do. Life is rarely that pat.
Otherwise, “House of Cards” is no less than evil at its grandest, bolstered by one sterling performance after another as it moves smoothly toward its jolting conclusion.
Except for the affair with Mattie, Richardson brings it all off splendidly, utilizing his mastery of the devious to create a charming and solicitous, yet utterly insincere and amoral character who rates the title once conferred on the Napoleonic diplomat Talleyrand: “A silk stocking filled with mud.”
It’s chaps like Urquhart, and stories like “Die Kinder” and “House of Cards,” that help make TV worth watching.