Michael Dobbs: On House of Cards, Mrs Thatcher and Richard Nixon

House of Cards creator Michael Dobbs is in Harrogate this week. He talks to Chris Bond about writing, politics and why Margaret Thatcher was one of our greatest leaders.

Michael Dobbs is in Harrogate on Thursday. (Jim Pascoe).
Michael Dobbs is in Harrogate on Thursday. (Jim Pascoe).

MICHAEL DOBBS has witnessed some of the most pivotal moments in modern history. He was with Margaret Thatcher when she took her first steps into Downing Street and later was there with John Major when he got kicked out.

He worked as a journalist on the Boston Globe throughout the Watergate Scandal that destroyed a president and shook a nation to its core. In between he survived the Brighton Bombing, was banished from Chequers (after a row with Mrs Thatcher) and became a key figure at Saatchi and Saatchi, before turning his hand to writing thrillers starting with the brilliant House of Cards. “I’ve been an extraordinarily lucky man,” he says, “although I find the harder I work the luckier I get.”

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Lord Michael Dobbs of Wyle, to give him his Sunday name, has enjoyed a remarkable life and at 67 is as busy and content as he’s ever been. And he’s got plenty to be happy about. He continues to write bestselling political thrillers and is executive producer of the US version of House of Cards which has become a global TV hit picking up more Emmys and Golden Globes than you could shake a stick at.

Kevin Spacey who stars in the US version of House of Cards.

Dobbs, who was made a Life Peer in 2010, is also a gifted raconteur and on Thursday evening he’s the special guest at a fundraising event for Harrogate International Festivals at Rudding Park Hotel which includes a champagne reception and a three-course dinner.

He will no doubt talk about House of Cards which continues to grow in popularity more than 25 years after it was first published. Based around the life and inexhaustible lusts of Machiavellian politician Francis Urquhart, the novel was adapted into the hugely acclaimed BBC television series.

The idea for a novel mired in the political dark arts came to Dobbs shortly after the 1987 general election campaign, which had been a particularly bruising one.

Mrs Thatcher had won comfortably but made enemies in the process and this gave Dobbs the kernel of an idea. “I started writing the book beside a swimming pool during a moment of boredom on holiday. I had no idea it was about to change my life so completely,” he says.

Kevin Spacey who stars in the US version of House of Cards.

“I think it’s one of those universal stories that goes back to Julius Caesar. I read about him as a kid getting stabbed and chopped to death by his chums and thought what a brilliant story and that was in my mind when I wrote the original book.”

The novel was an instant bestseller and spawned an equally successful TV series starring Ian Richardson, whose softly menacing portrayal of Urquhart remains one of the truly great TV performances.

In 2013, a US version, starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, brought the saga to a whole new audience and has since become a huge hit. “One of the reasons why the Americans were so keen is because the British series was such a success. Ian Richardson was simply superb and if you watch it now it stands the test of time,” says Dobbs.

For a long time the BBC series was its best-selling overseas drama but the success of the Netflix show has taken its popularity to another level. “I’ve talked to the President of China and the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan about House of Cards. It’s become one of the great global TV phenomenons of our day,” says Dobbs.

Its success, he suggests, is down to the characters and our own primal instincts. “It’s about human nature and I think politics is a wonderful background to set a human drama in and I’ve been very lucky to have two such brilliant actors to bring it all to life.”

Dobbs is a working-class grammar school lad who went on to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford University, where he famously shared a girlfriend with Bill Clinton.

But unlike the cravenly ambitious characters of his novels, Dobbs has a more straightforward political outlook. “I’ve always been a working class Tory,” he says, “and I believe that everybody deserves the opportunity to better themselves.”

After a period of postgraduate study at Harvard he had a spell at the Boston Globe during the days of Watergate, which as an outsider he found riveting. “Richard Nixon was on the brink of becoming one of the greatest American presidents and then he destroyed himself over something utterly ridiculous in a moment of hubris. It’s a wonderful lesson in the uncertainty of politics and what makes a great leader, because what you often find is someone’s great strength is often their great vulnerability.

“Great leaders are often very uncomfortable people to be around, it’s often a rotten and tough job and sometimes they have to be rotten and tough - the same goes for Margaret Thatcher.”

He became advisor to Mrs Thatcher after joining the Conservative Party following his return to the UK in the mid-70s. “She was extremely good to work for and also extremely challenging. She knew her own mind and you want to work for someone like that. She knew what she wanted and she could be confrontational, even with her own allies, which made it wonderfully exciting.”

Dobbs was by her side when she won her first election in 1979. “I was the first to congratulate her. She was waiting for her own count to be heard and she was quite nervous and I turned to her and said, ‘you’ve won’ and she turned round and looked at me with those blue eyes of hers and said, ‘we shall see.’ And didn’t we just.”

These days he considers himself a writer rather than a political hack, although he concedes politics is never too far away from his thoughts. “I’ve always been interested in current affairs, but politics can be all-consuming and there’s been times I would walk away only for something to pull me back in.

“I think it’s because politics matters so much. It’s hugely important to how we live and who we are. That’s why the EU referendum is so important because it will define who we are as a country.”

It’s why he holds Mrs Thatcher, warts and all, in such high regard. “I have very vivid memories of what Britain was like during the 70s when we were seen as the ‘sick man of Europe’ and she tried to do something about it and I was extremely happy to help her,” he says.

“She was the most exceptional peacetime prime minister of the 20th Century and even now nearly 30 years after she left office we still can’t seem to let go of her, for better or worse. I don’t agree with those who demonise her but she was someone who incited strong reactions in people.

“When Meryl Streep played her it was an extraordinary performance and I ask myself will there be a film about Tony Blair on 20 years time? I very much doubt it,” he says.

“Mrs Thatcher was instrumental in changing the history of this country. Britain was much stronger when she left office than when she first took over and that’s the mark of a great leader.”

Harrogate Festivals appeal

The Michael Dobbs fundraising event is to support Harrogate International Festivals’ Future 50 Appeal - the largest fundraising campaign by the arts charity to date, launched to mark the Festivals’ 50th anniversary year to help safeguard its future.

Each year the Festivals deliver over 300 events that attract large audiences. A number of high profile people including Lee Child, Julian Lloyd Webber and the Earl of Harewood have become Future 50 Vice Presidents to promote the charity’s campaign to raise £1m.

For more information about the Michael Dobbs event, or to book your place, email Lizzie Brewster at [email protected] or call Harrogate International Festivals’ on 01423 562303.