Even before the Netflix remake pushed its Machiavellian tale back into the general public consciousness, House of Cards sustained a heavy influential presence over political drama, especially in the UK. A landmark entry in the genre, any subsequent attempt to dramatize shady goings-on in Westminster has inevitably drawn comparisons with it. Such comparisons are even more inescapable when a drama shares its central plot.
Telling the same story of an ambitious politician who uses a public humiliation as the motive for a surge for power, The Politician’s Husband debuted on the BBC in April and has now arrived on DVD. It’s a determinedly modish piece, which makes for an interesting comparison with House of Cards, which is now approaching its 23rd anniversary. So much has changed in the UK political scene that an update is justified even if, in dramatic terms at least, the comparison does the newer drama no favors.
The Politician’s Husband is, like House of Cards, a story of personal ambition. The titular husband, rising star Aiden Hoynes MP (David Tennant), makes a bold gambit to weaken the present government (of which he is a member) and secure power for himself. He connives with old friend and fellow MP Bruce Babbish (Ed Stoppard), but is betrayed by him as soon as he passes the point of no return. Hoynes’ wife, Freya Gardner (Emily Watson), herself an MP, is promoted as a result. With the scores at Babbish 1, Hoynes 0, our beleaguered anti-hero sets about on a course of revenge and attempts to manipulate his wife in the pursuit of Babbish’s scalp.
The primary difficulty we have in following Hoynes’ scheme is his utter absence of likeability. Devious manipulation is entertaining, especially when the victims are politicians who are just as capable of twisting the knife, but in order for us to care, we need to find some affection for the guy holding the handle.
The central character in both versions of House of Cards is a likeable figure. He connives, manipulates and murders his way through his hapless opponents, but the audience cannot help but be carried along by his charm. His frequent breaking of the fourth wall makes the audience his co-conspirator, and we find ourselves as guilty as him. Indeed, it has become de rigueur for television viewers to follow lead characters out of their own comfort zone. We can only do so, however, if there is something in it that we can believe in, even if it’s only the charisma of the dastardly lead.
We may not approve of Tony Soprano but we do like him, in spite of ourselves. Vic Mackey’s methods are hard to justify in themselves, but there’s little doubt that he believes that he’s doing the right thing. It’s harder to say the same of Aiden Hoynes, who displays a shallow charm when it is expedient to do so, but fails to sustain it for long enough to get the viewer on his side. As for his intentions, he may claim that ‘sometimes you have to do bad things to get into power to do good things when you get there’, but there is no hint as to his actual intentions. There is scant evidence even of his motivation to achieving power, aside from assuaging personal embarrassment.
There’s an attempt to provide a background motivation to Hoynes’ character and choices, but it’s clumsy to the point of crassness. Aiden and Freya’s son, Noah, has Asperger syndrome. He lists foreign destinations in alphabetical order, and has violent tantrums if his route to school is changed or too much milk is poured into his glass. Noah has no other function than to present his father with difficulties that prove what a hard time he’s having. We’re told that Hoynes busied himself in the ‘cesspit of Westminster politics’ as a coping mechanism after Noah was diagnosed. He’s an emotionally absent father and husband, that much is obvious, but it’s an insult to anyone with Asperger to reduce the condition to nothing more than a poorly-written device.
It’s not just Noah. The entire thing is a founded on collection of clichés and symbols that are so predictable that outlining them here barely counts as giving out spoilers. Hoynes and Gardner each have a home office. His is a very nice, fully-fitted affair in the house. Hers is rather less so, and in the garden shed. As Hoyne’s fortunes fall and Gardner’s rise, they swap at her behest. A crack forms in the ceiling plaster in the Hoynes’ bedroom. It forms the shape of a question mark. At a moment of heightened tension Hoynes crushes a wine glass in his fist.
The portrayal of the political scene is the drama’s strongest point. We’re not talking about politics itself, or policy or even the people for that matter. The Politician’s Husband is not concerned with any of that, aside from when it makes an expedient MacGuffin to advance the plot or as a vehicle for the characters’ personal interests. That is not a criticism of the drama as much as it is of modern politics itself.
That House of Cards’ Francis Urquhart was a Tory was beyond doubt. His entire demeanor, from the way he dressed to his vowels and his love of countryside pursuits set it out in bold lettering. With his successors, things are no so easy. It’s actually nigh-on impossible to tell to which party the principals in The Politician’s Husband actually belong This is actually an accurate reflection of developments in British politics since the fall of Thatcher. A combination of historical events and psephological realities have brought both of the main parties to a narrow strip in the middle of the political and social spectrum. A common complaint from both left and right is that there are now no Labourites. There are no Tories. There is only Westminster and its curious hermetically sealed and self-sustaining culture.
Hoynes’ entire character exudes the changed culture of Westminster. Bland and suburban, he’s shown doing the school run as often as he is walking the corridors of power. A red wine drinking, iPhone-wielding member of the open-necked shirt brigade. The discarding of the regimental or public school tie is significant. It’s a failed attempt to appear inclusive and meritocratic, but no one believes that for a second. As it has become more centralized, British politics has become ever more exclusive and remote.
Hoynes, like most modern frontbench politicians, went straight out of university and into a Parliamentary research job before being elected as an MP. He is married to an MP, his friends (or whatever passes for friends) are MPs too. He has no life away from Westminster, and wherever he has the chance to find one, politics comes tumbling back in.
Hoynes is very capable in the bubble, but the real world is distant. If ordinary voters aren’t useful and they aren’t unless they are actually voting, they are an embarrassment. His humiliation at losing his ministerial role is dramatically illustrated by soulless sessions in his constituency surgery, offering dead-eyed responses to complaints about disabled parking spaces. It’s obvious that he yearns for the cut and thrust of national politics, which raises the question, why? There is no satisfaction, no desire to use office to achieve anything other than the maintenance of power itself. Every political failure is a personal humiliation. Every success is inherently Pyrrhic.
The Westminster power games are also shallow and empty of meaning. Hoynes creates a Twitter account to send a single message that somehow goes viral within a matter of hours. He prepares incriminating fake policy proposals in the shed office in the small wee hours. It’s all too clean and simple. To be entertaining, dirty tricks should actually be dirty. If it were this easy to destroy a political career, everyone would be at it.
Not that we’d particularly care, anyway. With such unsympathetic leads, we simply don’t have a sufficient stake in their success. The mild, and entirely predictable, twist at the end is denuded of its power because there’s very little difference between the candidates anyway. They are, I’m sorry to say, all as bad as each other.