Friday, 17 April 2015

A Tale, Told By An Idiot

By James Taylor-Foster

Picks up a framed photo of Margaret Thatcher and pauses in contemplation.
Francis Urquhart: Nothing lasts forever. Looks to camera. 

Hunting alongside his labrador outside his country estate.
Francis Urquhart: Looks to camera. I have hopes of high office, I must confess. But first things first—we have a General Election win.

House of Cards, Episode 1 (1990)

Frank and Claire Underwood

House of Cards first aired on Netflix in 2013 and, two years and thirty nine episodes later, Francis Underwood is President of the United States of America. His trajectory has been marvellously sensational, suffused by a terrifying edge of authenticity. As one MP (John Dalberg-Acton) famously said, ‘all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ It makes for great TV.

Amidst the backstabbing, murderous, lust-infused plot line of corruption and uncontrolled ascent, how many UK voters realise that this piece of fiction was born out of something closer to home? The original House of Cards was penned in 1989 by author, playwright, former MP, and Life Peer, Michael Dobbs — first advisor and later Chief of Staff to Margaret Thatcher. The original Underwood was Francis Urquhart: a ruthless, cold and aggressively driven governmental whip whose sole purpose was to rise to the pinnacle of the British political amphitheatre, set amidst the menagerie of a post-Thatcher political void.

Over two decades later Hollywood called, and Francis’ transatlantic counterpart  - played by Kevin Spacey - emerged as a fictional superstar. The appeal of the theme maintains its currency because theatrical entertainment is so closely aligned to political performance. Underwood’s trademark monologues to camera is a technique known among thespians as ‘clocking the audience’. Breaking the fourth wall and feeding the viewer with dramatic irony compels the audience to empathise.

It’s also something that Shakespeare, master of the early political thriller, often exploited. Think of Macbeth (or Frank Underwood). Although he has murdered and usurped, the audience is still compelled to sympathise with his actions against all reason. Even as Lady Macbeth (or Claire Underwood) enters the throws of insanity, the audience pities her in spite of her malevolence. And why? Because Shakespeare provides insight into their ambitions, doubts and fears. In essence, the audience is made to feel complicit in their actions and aligned to their twisted political motivations.

Francis Urquhart / House of Cards
Ed Miliband / Leaders Debate

It’s the night of the 2015 Leaders’ Election Debate, hosted by ITV. As Adrian Shaughnessy noted on this blog, the ‘gameshowification’ of the event is strangely palpable. The dramatic opening music is accompanied by a shining silver title sequence, which shatters to the beat of an orchestral crescendo. All the while a camera pans around a glistening studio, each podium lit in its party colour.

ITV Leaders Debate / Titles

During introductions, the spotlight turns to the potential leaders. They either smile at one another or look authoritatively toward the seated audience. In any case, they’re acting. When his name is called Ed Miliband silently turns to the camera and smiles. It’s an unintentional, disconcerting allusion to the emblematic Urquhart-cum-Underwood’s glance: as if about to break into soliloquy about what he really thinks about that chap wearing mustard yellow trousers on the front row.

Here, the anatomy of the show begins to take form. One by one, the camera hovers before a candidate and gently zooms toward their face as they make an opening statement. In turn their speeches, meticulously written and slightly over-rehearsed, are relayed to screens across the land. Watchwords such as ‘votes’, ‘fairly’, and ‘deficit’ form the backbone of these orations, keenly interspersed by the informal personal pronoun — mostly ‘you’, ‘I’, and ‘we’.

As is the case in so many political performances, it boils down to faith. How believable is the staging? How well delivered is their recital? In most cases, the key points of their speeches have been heard before and so the audience watches and waits, hoping that this time the candidates will forget a statistic or carefully phrased policy. Based on the human details of these fragmentary performances, many will cast their vote.

‘It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.’
Macbeth, Act V, scene v

It’s all just pantomime.

James Taylor-Foster is a writer, researcher, editor and architectural designer working between the UK and The Netherlands. James writes and lectures on art history, and is the author of the international bestseller Monet: Colour in Impressionism (2011)*. He is an Editor at ArchDaily, the world's most visited architecture website, and writes on contemporary architecture for a number of journals and magazines. He consults and undertakes freelance research in this capacity for small practices.

James is an in-house practice researcher and publisher at Mecanoo architecten in Delft, Editor of LOBBY Magazine (Bartlett School of Architecture, London), Guest Lecturer at Manchester School of Architecture, and co-leads an independent research team based in the UK studying a neglected aspect of the architectural discourse. 

No comments:

Post a Comment