Who said ‘House of Cards’ isn’t real life.
The show that hit America by storm depicting the dirty world of politics is actually a rip off of a British book series written by Michael Dobbs, who is the former Chief of Staff for Margaret Thatcher and a current member of the House of Lords.
Author Michael Dobbs sat down with Cycle co-host Krystal Ball to discuss the ins and outs of Frank Underwood and the British political system.
Krystal: Since you also served in the British parliament, how much of what we see in ‘House of Cards’ is real?
Michael Dobbs: There’s a difference between being real and being accurate because yes it is real. Politics is rough tough, it’s about ambition, and it’s about sometimes risking everything. But that’s not all of politics, that’s only a small part of darkness. But if you want to write a drama you concentrate on the darkness; the dark side, the ambition, the vulnerabilities, the weaknesses, and all of that. That’s what makes a good drama. But it is, it’s a work of entertainment rather than a work of instruction.
Krystal: Did you ever imagine how well the book would do, how well the BBC series would do and how well the American series would do?
Michael Dobbs: I never even expected to get the book published. I didn’t even expect to finish it, it was one of those huge accidents in my life. Accidents litter my life but that was one of the happiest ones. I just wrote it as a form of therapy. And when someone said they wanted to publish it, fine let them do it. And it just took off, and we’ve had those two wonderful actors, Kevin Spacey and Ian Richardson who did the BBC version and I feel as if I’ve won two Olympic gold medals. It’s as good as that, and I haven’t even broken a sweat.
Krystal: You served as Margaret Thatcher’s Chief of Staff. One of our viewers wants to know: ‘What was Margaret Thatcher really like? Do you have any good stories?’
Michael Dobbs: She was what you saw, I mean at the end of the day when somebody like that is around, it’s not makeup it’s not a PR operation, she really is what you saw. She was tough, she was absolutely determined, she was very courageous. And as far as that’s concerned you know remember at that time in British politics people were getting murderd-assisnated on a very regular basis. Bombs everywhere you know I saw a few, I had friends killed. So you know politics means a great deal to people that’s why some politicians as she was, were desperately determined. But she could also be sweet. I remember her very concerned about what she would get me for Christmas because I didn’t have a lot of money and she wanted to make sure I had an appropriate gift.
Krystal: So you are an expert not just on British politics, obviously serving in the House of Lords, you are also somewhat of an expert on American politics. You were at the Boston Globe covering the Watergate scandal during that time. How does the American political system sort of the color and the texture of it and the characters involved, differ from the British system?
Michael Dobbs: Well of course you’ve got a wonderful Democratic system. We’ve got this old aristocratic style system and you’ve got this wonderful democratic system, where you seem to keep coming up with the same old names and same old families, like the Clintons, the Bushs, the Roosevelts, the Kennedy’s
Krystal: We might have Bush-Clinton in 2016.
Michael Dobbs: I thought you had a revolution against us to stop all that! Well the differences, you’re bigger, you’re much more powerful, and yet, we both contribute to the same democratic ideal, I think is hugely important. But you have more money; you have more power, and therefore the excesses if you like- are even greater here than they are in Britain. But also what you achieve is much more greater. When you get it right.
Krystal: There is a very different system of campaign finance. You essentially have exclusively public campaign finance in Britain correct?
Michael Dobbs: Well no, not really but we have limits, huge limits on how much can be spent. And in Britain the individual candidates don’t really matter that much when we have a general election. Generally constituency will tend to go along with the national trend so in the American system, individual matters much more and I think there are great strengths to that. But in Britain you can have a great candidate, but if he’s on the wrong side of the trend of politics at the time, he’s going to get thrown out with all the rest of them. Which I think is a pity.
Krystal: Any autobiographical elements to Francis Urquhart/Francis Underwood?
Michael Dobbs: He’s been very successful in politics-Francis has, and I wasn’t because I didn’t have the heart for it at the end of the day. It is a very tough business and there are other things to do in life apart from politics. I’m fascinated by it, I’m committed to it. And I play a big role in it, give a big chunk of my life to politics through the House of Lords. But I wanted to be Prime Minister when I was 8, but then I grew up. You know almost every Prime Minister in the last hundred years, with one or two exceptions, has been chopped, hacked, shoved, dragged from office. They never get to resign on their own time so you know as Prime Minister they’re going to get you in the end.