Francis Urquhart

Francis Ewan Urquhart is a fictional character created by British politician and author Michael Dobbs. Urquhart is the main character in Dobbs's House of Cards trilogy of novels and television series: House of Cards (1990), To Play the King (1993) and The Final Cut (1995). He was portrayed in the BBC TV adaptations by Ian Richardson, who won a BAFTA award for his performance.[1]

Francis Ewan Urquhart
House of Cards character
Francis Urquhart.jpg
First appearanceHouse of Cards
Created byMichael Dobbs
Portrayed byIan Richardson
In-universe information
OccupationChief Whip
Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury
(Series 1)
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
(Series 2 - Series 3)
SpouseElizabeth Urquhart
Political affiliationConservative

House of Cards follows Urquhart, a Conservative and the government Chief Whip with roots in the Scottish aristocracy, as he manoeuvres himself through blackmail, manipulation and murder to the post of Prime Minister. To Play the King sees Prime Minister Urquhart clash with the newly crowned King of the United Kingdom over disagreements regarding social justice. By the time of The Final Cut, Urquhart has been in power for 11 years, and refuses to relinquish his position until he has beaten Margaret Thatcher's record as longest serving post-war Prime Minister.[2]

Thought to be based on Richard III and Macbeth,[3] Urquhart is characterised by his habitual breaking of the fourth wall, his quoting of Shakespeare, and his usage of the catchphrase, "You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment", or a variation thereon, as a plausibly deniable way of agreeing with people and/or leaking information.[3]

Development and receptionEdit

Michael Dobbs stated that the inspiration behind Urquhart came during a drinking session at a swimming pool after a tense encounter with Margaret Thatcher, deliberately creating a character moulded around the initials "FU".[4] Ian Richardson was offered the role of Urquhart for the BBC TV adaptation of House of Cards in 1990, which he immediately accepted, noting:

From the moment I read the first scripts, I felt that not only was it the biggest acting opportunity to come my way since my Shakespeare days, but probably was going to be something rather special on the box.[2]

Richardson based his portrayal of the character on a representative of the British Council whom he met whilst touring with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Japan.[5] While acknowledging that playing Urquhart brought him immediate public recognition, Richardson stated that as a Scottish Presbyterian, he found the character's "Machiavellian deviousness" and sex appeal "really rather revolting".[2] Nevertheless, despite finding him "an irritating bugger", Richardson found Urquhart "a joy to play".[6]

The character also took inspiration from contemporary Conservative politicians, including the fearsome Conservative Party whip Tristan Garel-Jones.[7]

Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times praised Urquhart as making "Richard Nixon look like a guileless wimp."[8] Urquhart's catchphrase – "You might think that. I couldn't possibly comment" – has entered the national lexicon, and has been quoted in the House of Commons.[3]


Personality and backgroundEdit

Urquhart is portrayed as having few other interests outside politics, though he is an avid reader of Italian Renaissance poetry and Elizabethan/Jacobean drama, with John Webster and Cyril Tourneur being among his favorite authors. He frequently quotes William Shakespeare, particularly Macbeth.[9]

The novels provide him with a backstory: Urquhart was born in 1936, the youngest of the Earl of Bruichcladdich's three sons. His older brother, Alaister, was killed in the Second World War, while the middle brother, William, worked for the family estate and occasionally sat in the House of Lords.[9] The first novel reveals that his father committed suicide, and that his mother disowned him after he decided to go into politics rather than maintain the family estate.

Urquhart was educated at Fettes (although he often wears an Old Etonian tie in the BBC adaptation) where, although not noted for brilliance, he was recognized for his diligence and industriousness. He joined the British Army at age 18, and spent three years in Cyprus, where he was commended for bravery in his capture and interrogation of EOKA terrorists. Urquhart resigned his commission after a colleague was court-martialed for accidentally killing a suspect, and took up a deferred place at the University of Oxford reading History, where he narrowly missed getting a First. He later taught Renaissance Italian History at the university, becoming an authority on the Medici and Machiavelli. He married Elizabeth McCullough, eldest daughter of whisky magnate William McCullough, in 1960. By the time of House of Cards, Urquhart has long abandoned academia in favour of politics, having steadily risen to the position of Chief Whip.[9]


Urqhuart lives in Lyndhurst, Hampshire and represents the county constituency of New Forest for the Conservative Party. He is right-wing and his policies include abolishing the Arts Council, outlawing vagrancy, reintroducing conscription and banning pensioners from National Health Service treatment unless they have paid for Age Insurance. He describes himself to his wife, Elizabeth, as "a plain, no-nonsense, old-fashioned Tory." In To Play the King, the King of Britain accuses Urquhart of practically abandoning Scotland and Wales. Urquhart notes that he detests the welfare state and contemporary youth culture.[10]

Urquhart's foreign policy is Anglocentric; he thinks that Britain has more to teach the world, and Europe in particular, than the other way around. He would like to see the rest of the European Union speaking English – a position that would then completely alienate Foreign Secretary Tom Makepeace. Besides this, his strong belief in discipline and the rule of law shapes his foreign policy in Cyprus, where he authorises the use of force against schoolgirls who are blocking military vehicles.[11]

Fictional character biographyEdit

House of CardsEdit

Following the resignation of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the moderate but indecisive Henry Collingridge emerges as both Thatcher's successor and the leader of the Conservative Party; the party wins the next general election with a reduced majority. Shortly afterwards, Urquhart, the party's Chief Whip, submits a memorandum to Collingridge advocating a cabinet reshuffle that would contemplate a prominent ministerial position for Urquhart himself. However, Collingridge discards Urquhart's proposals on the basis that doing so would probably adversely affect the party's popularity. Enraged, Urquhart begins plotting an intricate, long-term political revenge.

Urquhart exploits his position as Chief Whip to leak inside information to the press to undermine Collingridge, ultimately forcing him to resign. Most of his leaks are to Mattie Storin, a young reporter for a tabloid newspaper called The Chronicle. With his wife's encouragement, Urquhart had gained her ultimate trust by having a sexual relationship with her. Their relationship is paternal as well as sexual; she is attracted to him in part because he is old enough to be her father, and often calls him "daddy".

Urquhart systematically eliminates his enemies in the resulting leadership contest by means of fabricated scandals that he sets up himself or publicizes. These include threatening to publish photographs of Education Secretary Harold Earle in the company of a rent boy; causing Health Secretary Peter MacKenzie to accidentally run over a disabled man; and forcing Foreign Secretary Patrick Woolton to withdraw by blackmailing him with an audiotape of a one-night stand that Urquhart himself orchestrated. His remaining rival, Environment Secretary Michael Samuels, is alleged by the press to have supported far-left politics as a university student. Urquhart thereby reaches the brink of victory.

Prior to the final ballot, Urquhart ties up loose ends by murdering the party's drug-addicted and increasingly unstable public relations consultant, Roger O'Neill, whom he forced into helping him to remove Collingridge from office. Urquhart invites O'Neill to his country house near Southampton, gets him drunk, and puts rat poison in his cocaine.

The ending of the novel and TV series differ significantly (indeed, only the ending and popularity of the TV series prompted author Michael Dobbs to write the sequels). Mattie untangles Urquhart's web and confronts him in the deserted roof garden of the Houses of Parliament. In the novel, he commits suicide by jumping to his death. In the TV drama, he throws Mattie off the roof to her death, and claims she committed suicide. Shortly afterward, Urquhart is driven to Buckingham Palace to be invited by the Queen to form a government as Prime Minister. He does not know that Mattie was taping their conversations, and that someone has found the tape.

To Play the KingEdit

The second installment starts with Urquhart, in his second term as Prime Minister, feeling a sense of anti-climax. Having gained great power and influence, he wonders how to use them. His wife comments that he needs a challenge. This challenge is shortly provided in the form of the new King, a political idealist who opposes Urquhart's hard-line policies. He does not directly criticise Urquhart in public, but makes speeches about the direction he wishes the country to pursue, which contrasts with the Government's policies. Urquhart wins the confidence of the King's estranged wife and uses his influence in the press to reveal intimate and scandalous secrets concerning the royal family. The King is dragged into campaigning on behalf of the Opposition during a general election which Urquhart wins, creating a constitutional crisis and finally forcing the King to abdicate in favour of his teenage son, whom Urquhart expects to be a much less influential monarch.

Meanwhile, Urquhart's right-hand man and Party Chairman, Tim Stamper, becomes embittered by Urquhart's failure to reward his loyalty and plans to bring him down. He acquires the tape of Mattie's murder and plans to go to the police with it. Urquhart learns of Stamper's mutiny, however, and has him killed. He also eliminates his own aide (and lover) Sarah Harding, in whom Stamper had confided. Both perish in car explosions, made to appear as IRA terrorist attacks by Urquhart's bodyguard, Commander Corder.

With a tame monarch and no threat in sight, Urquhart is secure as Prime Minister.

The Final CutEdit

The last installment in the trilogy portrays the embattled and increasingly unpopular Urquhart determined to "beat that bloody woman's record" of longevity as Prime Minister, as well as make his mark on the office. He sets about reuniting Cyprus, both to secure his legacy, and to gain substantial revenue for "The Urquhart Trust" after a Turkish Cypriot businessman informs Urquhart of an international sea boundary deal which would give the exploitation rights for offshore oil to the British and the Turks. His past is catching up with him, however – a tenacious Cypriot girl and her father are determined to prove that he murdered her uncles while serving as an officer during the unrest that preceded independence in 1956. He also fires his more liberal and pro-European Foreign Secretary, Tom Makepeace, leaving Makepeace free to challenge Urquhart for the party leadership.

When civil unrest erupts in Cyprus, Urquhart orders a military raid that results in the deaths of several civilians, including children. Urquhart's party turns on him, and it appears inevitable that he will be forced out of office. Worse, he faces the prospect of imprisonment when evidence of the murders he committed in Cyprus – as well as the recording of Mattie's murder – falls into Makepeace's hands. Urquhart is shot dead at the unveiling of the Margaret Thatcher memorial, having been Prime Minister for 4,228 days – one day longer than Thatcher. In the TV series Urquhart's bodyguard, Corder, arranges his assassination with the consent of his wife (who is implied to be Corder's lover) to stop the dark secrets from Urquhart's past being revealed. In the novel, Urquhart allows himself to be killed by an assassin who is out for revenge, martyring himself in the process by pushing his wife out of the way and saving her life. He receives a State funeral, and soon afterward his party wins a landslide re-election.

Other incarnationsEdit

In the 2013 U.S. remake of the House of Cards trilogy, Urquhart's place is filled by Francis "Frank" Underwood (Kevin Spacey),[12] a Democratic representative from South Carolina's 5th district and House Majority Whip. Series producer Beau Willimon explained that the last name Urquhart had been replaced with Underwood, which was both "Dickensian and more legitimately American" but maintained the initials F.U. Unlike Urquhart, who is of aristocratic birth, Underwood is a self-made man, which Willimon thought "more consonant with the American mythology".[13]

Critical reaction to the reimagined Urquhart has been mixed. Andrew Davies, the producer of the original UK TV series, stated that Underwood lacks the "charm" of Urquhart.[13] Conversely, The Independent praised Spacey's portrayal as a more "menacing" character, "hiding his rage behind Southern charm and old-fashioned courtesy,"[14] while The New Republic noted that "When Urquhart addressed the audience, it was partly in the spirit of conspiratorial fun. His asides sparked with wit. He wasn't just ruthlessly striving, he was amusing himself, mocking the ridiculousness of his milieu. There is no impishness about Spacey's Frank Underwood, just numb, machine-like ambition. Even his affection for his wife is a calculation."[15]


  1. ^ "House of Cards' Richardson dies". BBC News. 9 February 2007. Retrieved 26 December 2015.
  2. ^ a b c Mail, Sharon (2009). We Could Possibly Comment - Ian Richardson Remembered. Author Way Limited. ISBN 1476442738
  3. ^ a b c Youngs, Ian (9 February 2007). "Richardson's rule in House of Cards". BBC. Retrieved 4 June 2008.
  4. ^ "Some thoughts..." Retrieved 2 March 2013.
  5. ^ [1] Published on 26 May 2016 Excerpt from a radio interview on ABC's Midday. Presenter - Margaret Throsby First broadcast in 2002. This anecdote has been previously mis-reported in the Independent as the British Consul - a common mistake.
  6. ^ Rampton, James (2 March 1993). "Exposed: the man who would be king: House of Cards is back and this time Francis Urquhart has turned really nasty. James Rampton met the actor Ian Richardson on set, while the former Chief Whip Tim Renton compares the role with reality". The Independent. London. Archived from the original on 28 August 2010.
  7. ^ "WESTMINSTer's SECRET SERVICE » 20 May 1995 » the Spectator Archive". Archived from the original on 20 July 2014. Retrieved 8 July 2014.
  8. ^ Rosenberg, Howard (28 March 1993). "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". Los Angeles Times.
  9. ^ a b c Davies, Andrew (28 November 1993). "Profile: An impeccable player: Francis Urquhart: Is this Prime Minister a Machiavelli or a Macbeth? Andrew Davies ponders his record". The Independent.
  10. ^ Paul Seed (director), Ian Richardson (actor) (1993). To Play the King (DVD). BBC.
  11. ^ Mike Vardy (director), Ian Richardson (actor) (1995). The Final Cut (DVD). BBC.
  12. ^ BBC Breakfast News June 2013, interview with Michael Dobbs
  13. ^ a b Lacob, Jace (30 January 2013). "David Fincher, Beau Willimon & Kate Mara on Netflix's 'House of Cards'". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 24 February 2014.
  14. ^ Hughes, Sarah (30 January 2013). "'Urquhart is deliciously diabolical': Kevin Spacey is back in a remake of House of Cards". The Independent. London, England: Independent Print Ltd.
  15. ^ Bennet, Laura (5 February 2013). "Kevin Spacey's leading-man problem: the star of the 13-hour "House of Cards" is as impenetrable as ever". The New Republic.