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Art aping life? I couldn't possibly comment

TONIGHT Francis Urquhart, the stage villain prime minister, begins his final appearance on our screens and a fascinated nation will once again ask if art will imitate life. In Andrew Davies' adaptation of Michael Dobbs' first Urquhart tale, House of Cards, the previous PM fell: and as the nation watched, so did Margaret Thatcher. In the second, To Play the King, a monarch separated from his wife struggled to find a role: and at that moment, so did the Prince of Wales.

In the third tale, The Final Cut, even more dramatic events unfold. Baroness Thatcher is buried; Britain goes to war; and the Machiavellian prime minister himself meets a grisly end. So is Lady Thatcher imminently due for her lying-in-state? Should the Army be put at maximum readiness? Should John Major put his affairs in order?

"Of course I am wishing Lady Thatcher the best of health," said Mr Davies, who will be repeating the feat of keeping the nation glued to the small screen he has just performed with his adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. "It really would become very bad taste if she died before the programme started, although if she died shortly after it we would seem like soothsayers.

"It's in the future. We've all got to go sometime. Actually we give her a very nice send-off with Grenadier Guards, Union Jacks, in Westminster Abbey. You know, the sort of funeral we would all like to have. It all seemed rather nice to me but Michael Dobbs thinks not."

The adaptation led to Mr Dobbs demanding his name be erased from the credits, a request which leaves Mr Davies puzzled.

He added: "When we were talking about what we were going to have in the story, Michael suggested quite early on there should be a memorial statue on Parliament Green that Urquhart would be annoyed about. The assumption is that she is dead and gone by this time."

Some aspects of the plot in The Final Cut have already been mirrored in real life. "We've got a Cabinet Minister crossing the floor of the House to join the 'opposition party', as we coyly call them. That was another bit of serendipity for Michael," he said. "We've got a leadership challenge from within the party. We've probably come unstuck with that. We were rather anticipating a real one this month."

However, Mr Davies insisted that in many ways he has been "completely wrong". "In House of Cards, Lady Thatcher is succeeded by a dim, well- meaning man who no one gives much time for. We all rather expected John Major to last a year or two and then be replaced by someone rather nastier and more right wing."

The fact that Mr Major is "still around" rather irritates Mr Davies. "He just gets in the way of the credibility of the whole thing. If someone like him can survive four or five years it makes a nonsense of our whole story. I'm rather cross with him really, although he seems a nice enough chap in a 'cycling to church through the mist on a Sunday morning' sort of way."

The Final Cut includes a war, smaller than the Gulf or the Falklands, which is orchestrated by Urquhart in order to boost his falling position in the polls. "We didn't predict quite how badly the Tories would slump in the polls. We've got Urquhart being 14 points behind but Major is off the scale," he said.

Mr Davies reiterated that it was a fictional programme: "Real politicians aren't wicked and corrupt," he said.