TELEVISION / 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.

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The writer Michael Dobbs has an uncanny knack for pre-empting the headlines. House of Cards, published in April 1989 and turned into a television series in 1990, depicted the downfall of a Conservative Prime Minister 19 months before it happened in real life. The April 1992 sequel, To Play the King, focusing on a clash between the Prime Minister and the King, features sordid tabloid coverage of royal marital strife. The story - the four-part television version of which starts on Sunday - even includes a prominent member of the Royal Family in scanty sportswear working out on the weights- machine at a multi-gym. Ken Riddington, the BBC producer on both series, is in awe: 'Michael Dobbs is so astute about political happenings. I don't know if he's got a mole, but he's very clever at saying what might happen.' Maybe all that time Dobbs spent working as chief of staff at Conservative Central Office during the 1987 general election campaign was some use after all.

At the majestic location of Carlton House Terrace by the Mall, Ian Richardson, who plays Francis Urquhart, is being filmed travelling to Buckingham Palace in the Prime Ministerial Daimler (he has, of course, traded up from the chief whip's car of the last series). The PM is off duty now, relaxing between scenes in the catering-bus with a cigarette, an ice cream and a bib neatly tucked into his collar to stop the drips. He reflects on the happy coincidence of art and reality. ' Half-way through the filming of House of Cards, during the poll tax riots, it rather looked as though Mrs Thatcher was on a sticky wicket. We thought, 'Hang on, Maggie, hang on.' She did, and timed her exit to perfection. But it would be better for us if there were no events to parallel anything in this one. Perhaps the disappearance of our present Prime Minister would be quite useful, but beyond that, no.'

This time round, with invasions of royal privacy such an explosive issue, Riddington is well aware that he may have another topical time- bomb on his hands. 'The script (by Andrew Davies) has been vetted by the BBC lawyers, who only asked for a couple of little things to be taken out. We're not in any way saying detrimental things about the Royals.' Then, with a diplomatic air the fictional PM would be proud of, he adds: 'If anyone gets the blame, it should be Urquhart.'

After many years of playing kings at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Richardson finally acceded to the throne of celebrity with Urquhart, a Richard III for the television age. 'Within five pages of the first episode, I knew that this was the part I'd been waiting for all my life,' the actor says. 'I find him an irritating bugger, but he's a joy to play.' The characterisation - which Richardson based on a British consul acquaintance in Japan - won him three Best Actor awards. It also earned him some lucrative ads in the USA (in one, he and Paul Eddington drive along in Rolls-Royces extolling the virtues of mustard).

The ramifications of Urquhart, the politician who makes Machiavelli look nave, do not end there. Urquhart's nastiness caused a diplomatic incident at the Garrick, Richardson's club. 'Soon after House of Cards, I walked in to the bar for a Scotch,' he recalls. 'This man turned round and said, 'Good God, I hope none of the Cabinet are in tonight.' I didn't go back to the club for about two years. It's all right now, but it won't be again, when this comes out - it'll be even worse. People like St John Stevas will be boycotting me, I might even have to relinquish my membership.' Politicians, with uncharacteristic reticence, have fought shy of giving Richardson more upfront feedback. The producer points out, however, that 'nobody has said, 'We don't behave like that.' ' MPs have also paid Urquhart the indirect compliment of 'poaching his catchphrases'. Riddington says: 'Earlier this summer, I heard Michael Mates say, 'You might think that; I couldn't possibly comment.' '

Even with the bib on, Richardson exudes a fatal attraction; he fixes you with those magnetic blue eyes, topped by the most expressive eyebrows this side of Jack Nicholson. They hook viewers even before the titles of To Play the King, when Urquhart turns conspiratorially to the camera and asks with a smirk: 'Remember that frightfully nice man who talked a lot about the classless society? He had to go, of course, in the end. Everything changes.' As someone once said: 'Treachery with a smiling face'.

Richardson avers that 'Urquhart's most attractive feature is his wickedness; he does everything with such gusto. He does the sort of things that all of us dream of being able to do, but daren't - not just because of convention, but because they're bloody illegal'. Captain Hook was always more alluring than Peter Pan.

The catering-bus audience at an end, Richardson hands the bib to a flunkey, stands up, straightens his tie and, metamorphosing into Urquhart, marches out of the bus peering imperiously down his nose at a gaggle of gawping tourists. A wardrobe assistant franticly brushes the back of his jacket before he steps into the Daimler purring in readiness for the next shot.

The towers of the Palace of Westminster gleam in the background over the treetops of St James's Park. As the car drives off past a statue of Edward VII - 'Rex Imperator, 1901- 10' - Urquhart gives his finest stately wave. With a smiling face.

'YOU MIGHT THINK THAT; I COULDN'T POSSIBLY COMMENT'

Timothy Renton MP was Conservative chief whip from 1989 to 1990.

Michael Dobbs is coming to speak at my constituency in 10 days' time, and his biggest fan will be there - Tim Renton. The book of House of Cards is a very good read; the television version is more over-the-top, and the real joy lies in Ian Richardson's performance - the way he looks into the camera and says things like, 'We need to shake 'em up and put the stick about a bit.' I did ask John Birt if I could play the part myself, but I was turned down; I wasn't villainous enough.

It is very well played all round; but where it's implausible is that chief whips would never sleep with journalists - they're far too discreet. It can't be that accurate, because it's a pastiche, a journalist's wildly exaggerated view of politics. I particularly love the character of Stamper (the deputy chief whip, played by Colin Jeavons) - a nasty little Iago figure, but not true to life at all.

The timing of the first broadcast was brilliant - the time of Mrs Thatcher's downfall. I was chief whip at the time. I remember a lot of people had gathered at the Downing Street gates, and I couldn't resist stopping my car, wheeling down the window and saying in my most evil voice: 'I am the chief whip.' It was like being a pantomime wicked uncle. Japanese tourists dropped their cameras, and stout ladies from Manchester shielded their children from me. The timing has also been good for the repeat run, as whips have been in the news again over the Maastricht debates. David Lightbrown (a current Conservative Whip) has even gained a Stamper image, but I know he's gentle at heart.

I have been thinking about writing a history of whipping. For the moment, I've just finished my first political novel and a chief whip comes into it, although he's not the main character. Is there a lot of skulduggery in it? You might think that; I couldn't possibly comment.

(Photograph omitted)

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