Real-life politics versus House Of Cards

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As House Of Cards returns for a third series, the British MPs who inspired its scheming anti-hero are playing out their own tragicomedy before a general election, complete with plot twists to do him proud.

Many British MPs love the show and one of its catchphrases - "You might very well think that, I couldn't possibly comment" - has been used repeatedly on the floor of the House of Commons.

But, despite growing behind-the- scenes scheming ahead of elections in May, some complain that such political dramas are an unfair portrayal of real life in Westminster's neo-Gothic halls.

"There's probably a grain of truth in it, but I don't think we're quite as ruthless as bumping people off," Conservative lawmaker Michael Fabricant told Agence France-Presse.

"Or let's put it this way, I haven't found out," said the fan of the show who was an adviser on the original British television version of House Of Cards.

Frank Underwood, played by American actor Kevin Spacey, starts the new series of the drama premiering in London yesterday as United States president, having schemed and murdered his way into the West Wing.

His devious asides to camera and "FU" cufflinks provide a constant reminder to viewers of his defiant, vaulting ambition.

The hit Netflix series is based on the 1990s books and BBC TV series by Michael Dobbs, once a senior adviser to Margaret Thatcher and a member of Britain's House of Lords.

Underwood is an American version of Dobbs' character Francis Urquhart, a dapper, Machiavellian figure determined to make it to the top.

Dobbs got the idea for the story of a ruthless politician who is determined to do anything to become prime minister after the 1987 general election.

Thatcher's successor John Major told him House Of Cards had done for the perception of his job "what Dracula has done for baby-sitting".

While Underwood-style murder and blackmail may not be on the agenda at the House of Commons, sometimes politics can be almost as ruthless as on TV.

This week, two former senior ministers, Mr Jack Straw and Mr Malcolm Rifkind, were forced out of their parties over claims that they improperly touted for lucrative private sector work in a sting by journalists.

"It is a ruthless game," Mr Fabricant said. "Malcolm Rifkind has had to stand down as an MP and you think, 'Well, I don't believe he had technically broken any rules at all' but, of course, it was perception and close to the general election."

He said that while his constituents often refer to House Of Cards, their perception of him is shaped by the reality of his "grinding, hard work" as a lawmaker rather than any fictional account.

But some of his colleagues have raised concerns.

Ms Hazel Blears, a former Labour minister under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, has spoken of how popular culture "reinforces the idea that politics is disreputable" and detracts from "any sense that politics can be a decent activity".

Professor Steven Fielding of Nottingham University in England has written a book, A State Of Play, about fictional portrayals of politics and agreed drama can play an "important, if insidious, role".

He said politicians were often portrayed as "sane and decent" in fiction until the 1980s, but that this had yielded to a bleaker view amid growing political disengagement.

"The general, unremitting view is of a dark-hearted villain, it's all corruption, it's a different world. That kind of populist view of politics is being reinforced," he said.

Mr Fabricant believes that there would be little public appetite for a fictional TV drama which featured a conscientious, hard-working MP.

"I mean, nobody wants to believe that," he said.

 
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