23 October 2016Last updated

Features | People

What’s on the cards?

Peer, author, raconteur… Lord Michael Dobbs, the man behind House of Cards, the most popular political drama on air today, tells Colin Drury how the book was inspired by what he saw – and hints at a possible ending

By Colin Drury
25 Mar 2016 | 12:00 am
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  • With House of Cards stars Kevin Spacey and Kate Mara. Dobbs says he enjoys seeing ‘incredible pro’ Kevin in action.

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  • Dobbs says his role on the show is more inspiration than instruction – advice but not impose.

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Lord Michael Dobbs is striding through London’s Palace of Westminster, and he cuts an impressive dash.

He looks like what he is: peer, author, raconteur, not necessarily in that order. He’s 6ft tall, immaculately dressed in a suit and waistcoat, and, at 67, retains a mischievous glint in the eye. He speaks in plum English vowels and models a rakish sweep of silver hair. As the former chief of staff of the indomitable UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher, he was once called parliament’s baby-faced assassin. But these days, if you were to describe him to a stranger, you could do worse than ‘James Bond’s dad’.

We’re 40 minutes in today when he comes out with a spoiler so big I almost spit out my brew.

He only goes and tells me how House of Cards – arguably the most popular political TV drama on the planet right now – may ultimately end. He divulges what is set to become of Frank Underwood, the serpentine American president played 
by Kevin Spacey, who has used bribery, blackmail, scandal and even murder to take down every opponent during the show’s first four seasons.

We’ll – PLOT REVELATION ALERT! – come back to that at the conclusion.

If anyone should know the answers to all the above, it’s Dobbs, who was in Dubai two weeks ago for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. He wrote the 1989 novel of the same name that the show is based on and is now its executive producer.

The book – about the Machiavellian machinations of British Conservative chief whip Francis Urquhart – was informed by the author’s own time amid the hierarchy of the 1980s Tory Party in London. It inspired a 1991 BBC miniseries before 
it was taken across the Atlantic by global internet channel Netflix in 2013.

Dobbs – who has written 19 books besides – was brought on board to retain a link with the novel. ‘Quite often,’ he says today in a Westminster Palace tearoom overlooking the Thames, ‘I instruct people not to pinch me in case I wake up. I’ve been hugely fortunate to have two incredible television series. You must remember when I first started writing House of Cards, I had no expectations of it even being published. This was my first novel. I wrote it for the same reason you might play a weekend game of golf – for something to do.’

Confirmed fans include David Cameron, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The US president said he watches every episode but claimed the dark arts portrayed are not so rife in real-life politics.

‘Well,’ says Dobbs with a raised eyebrow, ‘that’s a matter of opinion.’

Just last year the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi was photographed buying the book. ‘I sent him a note,’ recalls the author. ‘It said, “Please do remember, this is a work of entertainment, not instruction”.’

The Chinese president Xi Jinping too is a viewer. He referenced the show in a speech in the US last year.

‘He said Chinese politics might have a bad reputation but it’s no House of Cards,’ says Dobbs. ‘So, when he came to Westminster I gave him a signed copy of the book. He said, “Ahh, you have House of Cards in UK too?’’’

When asked why he thinks it has such cross-cultural appeal, he brings up another statesman.

‘Julius Caesar,’ he says. ‘Here’s the greatest man on earth, at the height of his power, stabbed to death on the steps of his own capital, by his own friends. Brilliant! It has it all. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re red or blue, left or right, this is what politics, everywhere, throughout the ages, is about: thirst for power. And that’s why House of Cards works. Because it’s not trying to be desperately contemporary. It’s about that thirst and the wickedness that can go with such ambition and the human condition, which is often very dark.’

The novel itself started from a dark place. Namely, it started from a rollicking from Thatcher.

This was 1987. The then plain-old Michael Dobbs had spent eight years working his way up the Conservative Party from speech-writer to chief of staff. He was never an MP himself. He considered running for election but never quite 
fancied it. ‘I’m too self-indulgent,’ he says. 
‘I don’t have the right emotional temperament.’ Exactly one week before that year’s general election, a rogue poll suggested the Tories might lose power. The leader called a meeting of her closest team. Dobbs was singled out, during a discussion about advertising, and given the proverbial handbagging.

‘She lost it,’ he recalls. ‘And I was the object of her anger, in a small room, surrounded by cabinet ministers. I can’t remember precisely what she said – or even what it was about really – but it was grossly unfair. She took her anger out on me.’

He had no more involvement with the campaign – which, as it happened the Tories won by a landslide. Instead he went on holiday to Malta, sat by a pool, and wrote that first novel. The book starts with a prime minister being toppled.

‘People ask if it was a book of revenge,’ he says. ‘Absolutely not. I don’t think Margaret would have even read it.

‘Great leaders – and despite what happened, I regard her as such – aren’t like the rest of us. They don’t go home and switch the television on or read books.

‘They are driven every minute of the day. That’s why they’re difficult to be around. They’re too remorseless. They teeter continually between tragedy and triumph. And she was like that. I’m pretty confident she’d never have known anything about House of Cards.’

What he doesn’t deny is that much of the book is informed by events he witnessed – or things he did – while working in politics. If anything, he intones, he plays them down in his fiction, ‘because if you wrote the reality people would say it was too far-fetched. But look, politics is rough-and-tumble, you don’t go into it for cuddles.’
 Did he ever use the dark arts himself, I ask, reminding him of his assassin nickname and the fact he has admitted to having to fire people.

‘Yes,’ he replies. ‘But people just don’t understand. I was really always very pure.’

There’s an accompanying smile that suggests he probably wasn’t.
 That first novel turned him from suddenly-out-of-work-political-operator to full-time writer. His books since have included a quartet of fictions based on the life of Winston Churchill (‘so you can feel the spittle on his lips’) and a new series about ex-SAS, ex-MP action hero, Harry Jones.

‘But I never had any ambition to lead this sort of life,’ says the father-of-four. ‘It was all a mistake. It happened by accident.

‘I’ve been hugely lucky in that my stories – and I’m a story-teller rather than someone who ever had great ambitions to write literature – have been popular enough to raise my family. That’s all. That’s why I do it. The terror of not being able to look after them. Most art comes from such dark places.’

He was appointed to the House of Lords in 2010 by prime minister David Cameron. ‘Absolutely unexpected,’ he says. He was in his local post office when he took the call. 
‘I dropped all my stamps,’ he recalls.

And then, not long after that appointment, House of Cards came knocking once more.

As executive producer, he is part of the ongoing conversation about how the show will pan out.

‘We film in a huge warehouse on the outskirts of Baltimore,’ he says. ‘My role is more inspiration than instruction. I’m there to offer advice but not impose. And because I am the link to the origins of the whole thing, I think a lot of the younger writers find that inspirational; the concept that this goes back 30 years, that it has historic roots.

‘But, equally, I love being involved. I enjoy seeing Kevin in action. He’s an incredible pro. And I have to tell you this 
is one of the most rewarding professional things I’ve ever done.’ Which brings us, nicely, to that spoiler… I chance my arm and ask how House of Cards, when the time comes, is likely to end? There are at least two more seasons commissioned but he must have an idea? And I expect nothing more than a baronial clip around the ear for my impudence.

Except… here he is, leaning in over his tea and answering with a candour hardly expected from a man who’s spent much of his life around politicians.

‘We were talking about this just the other night,’ he says. ‘About what will eventually become of Frank Underwood. My voice is just one of many, but I would like to see something similar to my original book. As his activities threaten to catch up with him, he arranges to have himself assassinated – so he dies a national hero with libraries and streets named after him and such like. He ends up laughing at us from beyond the grave. That would be a very FU ending for the show.’

You read it in Friday first.

Season 4 of House of Cards is now streaming on Netflix

By Colin Drury

By Colin Drury