Things I Watch When I Am Ironing #6: House of Cards, season one (US version)

Kevin Spacey House of Cards

People go on and on about House of Cards, so when Better Call Saul finished (sob) I hoped it would fill that (enormous) gap.
It doesn’t.
Kevin Spacey is great, the plots are crafty, it is an exciting and probably realistic view of power in high places – but it is also a bit so what.

Congressman Frank Underwood (Spacey) is viciously ambitious, and everything he does is with his eye on the prize – high office. I am assuming subsequent series see him inaugurated as president. His wife Claire is cold and calm, and runs a charity bringing water to Africa, although gods know why, she doesn’t appear to have any deeply held principles.

Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) - she's never wear a flowery cardi

Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) – she’d never wear a flowery cardie

Zoe Barnes is an up-and-coming reporter looking to make a name for herself (aren’t they all?) who latches onto Underwood. He leaks her various choice pieces of news and they have cringe-making sex in her seedy flat.
Later on, Zoe and two friends do what reporters always do in these things – spend their whole time trying to uncover the dirt on Underwood, without a thought for their day jobs and no-one yelling “can you do me a downpage piece on that RTA and a string of picture caps” in their ears.

Kate Mara

Work experience girl or dance student? Reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara)

Anyone watch Borgen? Borgen was a superb Danish series about a minority political party, lead by a woman – Birgitte Nyborg – who find themselves holding the balance of power. Birgitte becomes prime minister and has to deal with all manner of thorny problems, like who to appoint as EU ambassador, how to placate the angry pig farmers and the difficult Greenland question. There were no murders, prostitutes or fist fights and it was BLOODY BRILLIANT. House of Cards doesn’t come close – although Birgitte’s English boyfriend (Jeremeee) is horribly similar to Claire’s English squeeze, Adam.

In Borgen, we really related to the characters – in House of Cards, everyone is so cold and manipulative it is hard to feel anything for any of them. Even poor Peter Russo, the Congressman whom Frank gases in his car, is a weak and pathetic figure (or would be, if he didn’t obviously work out every day – is it possible to be that fit and healthy looking when you are an alcoholic?). While we admire Frank his machinations and ambitions, we aren’t really on his side.

Corey Stoll

Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) – a bit too buff to be an addict

He is also inconsistent. Aren’t we all, eh? But Underwood thinks he is infallible, everything he does is thought through and clever. Unless it isn’t. He goes on TV and messes up the interview terribly; usually unfailingly courteous to his wife, he is suddenly oddly unfair to her, and when she responds by getting what she wants through thwarting him, he is incensed. Later, he lets the odious Zoe (who always looks like she has just come out of an urban dance class rather than a newsroom) root through Claire’s impeccable bedroom and try on her fancy clothes. Would he really allow this, while claiming their relationship is just business?
I also can’t see him dirtying his hands by actually killing someone. Sure, the outpouring of sympathy and everything worked for him, but didn’t CCTV on that fancy apartment block see him driving in with Russo? Isn’t it suspicious that Russo was sitting in the passenger seat when he died?

As a well-acted, well-scripted political thrillerlite, House of Cards works well. But it doesn’t have the extra depth that Borgen or Better Call Saul have – lacking the clever photography or quirky characters. No, I haven’t seen the BBC original, but it is next on my list.

Things I think about when I get the coat hangers:

  • The Origami. Uncharacteristically, Claire gives a $20 note to a homeless man. The next day, he chucks it back at her – in the form of an origami crane. Then we see Claire practising origami with a YouTube video, and then it turns out Russo’s children also do paper folding, and give her little presents of their figures. When Claire leaves Adam in his impossibly bohemian New York loft, she leaves him with an origami bird made from a photograph they took together. What does it all mean? Freedom? Complexity? Dexterity? No idea, but it is a nice touch.
  • Claire’s clothes. Black, white, silver grey, navy. Not a pattern in sight. Doesn’t she get bored and yearn for a nice spotty jumper and a pair of floral leggings?
  • The Underwood’s pristine pad. Who does their housework? Does Frank really make the bed? Who fills their fridge? Surely Wal-Mart is below someone of Claire’s elegance?

Why zombies are the new ‘Red Indians’, Nazis and Zulus

Just started on season four of The Walking Dead and loving it. It’s grimdark without the fantasy – anyone can die at any time in any number of horrible ways (except Rick Grimes. Like Tyrion Lannister, crafty ol’ Rick has made himself unkilloffable).

I spent the first half of 2014 playing The Last of Us – the best-scripted, utterly compelling and most beautifully rendered gore-soaked head-smashing game I have ever played. Last summer, my son and I spent weeks on Project Zomboid, fortifying our-blood soaked suburban house and making nerve-wracking sorties into town in search of carpentry books. And I recently iPlayered I Am Legend, the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson which helped kick-start the whole post-apocalypse zombie virus genre.

Why do we love the zombies so much? Part of it is the post-apocalyptic thing. Driving down an empty motorway, taking your pick of abandoned cars, pushing a trolley through a deserted supermarket and helping yourself to whatever loot your fancy from your neighbour’s houses – what’s not to love?

There is also something utterly compelling about trying to survive in a world without wi-fi, a police force, government, mains water, electricity, fresh food and antibiotics. Like winning the Lottery, we all have plans on how we’d manage it (mine involves looting the nearby solar panel farm and harvesting wild raspberries).


Meet the family – now chop their heads off

But what’s the other, deeper, reason we love our zombies? It’s because we can kill them, and it’s good to kill. The quick blast of endorphins you get when you pull off a perfect headshot on Call of Duty, the sense of achievement at running over half a dozen gang members in Grand Theft Auto, right down to the simple pleasure of clearing the screen in Space Invaders (one for us ancient gamers there).

But it is better when it is actual people we are killing – killing them without consequences.

Zombies aren’t strange aliens – they were once people, like us. They look like us. For a lot of story plots, we knew and loved them. To kill them, you have to bash or blow their brains out. How satisfying is that? You haven’t been able to get away with it for a few thousand years, but as a race, what we really like to do is kill other members of our race.

At one time we did this anyway, as we fought for land and spoils. Then we became civilised, and had to get our killing kicks via the media – books and films. For a while, ‘Red Indians’ were fair game (American films) and Zulus (British films). In the 1940s and 50s, it was safe – desirable even – to wipe out as many Nazis as possible.

But the wholesale killing of actual people isn’t the done thing anymore, and while we have flirted with killing aliens it just isn’t the same. We want to decimate things that look like us.

zombie getting an axe to the head

It looks like a gory murder, but you couldn’t be more wrong

The morals are simple – killing the zombies is not only guilt-free, it is laudable. If you don’t kill the zombie, it will kill you. Not only that, if it kills you, you become a zombie as well. You have a duty to bash the rotting brains out of every zombie you see. There is no zombie police, no Crown Prosecution Service deciding whether to take you to court. You did the Right Thing. And even if you didn’t, who’s gonna prosecute you anyway?

Is is a bad thing to feed our blood lust like this? Is this just a modern way of shooting an arrow at a straw-filled dummy? I reckon so. In the meantime, I’m off to B&Q to stock up on axes and baseball bats.

how to kill a zombie poster

Don’t try this on the living

The Battle of Hastings – not a fun day out

Our house backs onto a churchyard, home to around 1,000 bodies (or so I was told) and an ancient church. I mean actually ancient – it celebrated a 950th anniversary at the weekend.

This, though, was not its actual anniversary – it just so happens it was mentioned in the Domesday Book. But the parishioners of 1066 would have heard of the Battle of Hastings and the church would have been an old building then, with (literal) roots going back to Roman times.

To celebrate the anniversary, someone on the church council came up with the inspired idea of inviting re-enactment society Regia Anglorum for the May Day weekend.

The society recreate living history from the first millennium, around the Battle of Hastings and before. They have their own longhall in Kent and a fleet of Viking longships. There were no longships in our churchyard (despite the bloody rain) but tents of solemn women dyeing wool and cooking over pots, as well as stonemasons and woodcarvers. And warriors.

Regia Anglorum battle re-enactment

The bigger you are, the harder it is to knock you over

Fighting was a hell of big deal in those days. Viking hoards could descend on your settlement at any time, so if you were a bloke you had to drop your plough and grab your axe. Tussles for land escalated into massive battles, with professional warriors making a full-time job out of fighting – for as long as they could stay alive.

Watching the battle re-enactments is a revelation. This ain’t like it is on the TV…

There were no lithe, dashing swordsmen a’leaping over carts and swinging from trees. This is heavy, cumbersome and brutal. Warriors wore padded leather and chainmail – coming in at well over a stone – and would carry a wooden shield and wield a sword, with an axe and a seax (big, long pointy knife) in their belts for back up. The seax was practically disposable – you would plant it in someone’s neck and hope to be able to retrieve it later.

If you didn’t have chainmail you would be in a flappy wool tunic with what looked a baby blanket pinned round your neck. It would be sweaty and uncomfy, horrible when wet, and no protection whatsoever from any kind of blade. You would also be running around with a great long spear – not for chucking (because then you have no weapon at all, durr) but for stabbing.

Regia Anglorum battle re-enactment

Looking good in a tunic – before the hard work begins

I always thought axes were just for show (or dwarves), but they are vital for yanking shields away while your mate aims for the belly with his spear.

‘Oof’ is what you hear instead of ‘avast ye varlet’, and there is no breath left for witty banter. Even if you live you will be so battered and bruised I can’t imagine how you would recover in an age devoid of antispetic and ibuprofen.

A word about footwear: It was rubbish. A soft piece of leather wrapped round your feet like a nappy. With no tread – this is a world without segs. So if the ground is in anyway soft you will be slipping, and who wants to be flat on their back in the mud surrounded by Anglo Saxon spears?

And while shields may protect your front, who’s creeping up behind? The number of fighters who were felled by a sword in the small of the back while they were hand-to-hand with someone else was terrifying. The sound of grunts, clashing iron and bashing shields is so loud you can’t hear anyone shouting “watch your back Ulf!”.

Regia Anglorum battle re-enactment

This is not good

This shows how medieval warfare was a numbers game – if they had more than you, it often didn’t matter how well you fought.

One thing the Regia Anglorum members said they couldn’t recreate was the devastating psychological effect of lining up to do battle and seeing the opposing army lining up on the opposite hill in their armoured thousands.

Not a fun day out, especially for King Harold’s men, who had just marched down from Stamford Bridge, where they had been fighting Harald Hardrada. Peering towards William the Conqueror’s 10,000 or so Frenchmen would not fill you with joy.

For us, 1,000 years later (one thousand years – imagine it! No – you can’t), seeing and hearing about it makes for a fascinating day out – and a prayer of thanks for modern day everything.

  • Regia Anglorum (it means ‘The Kingdoms of the English’) carry out re-enactments across the country – check out their website here for info on the next one, fascinating historical facts and details on how to join.