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January 30, 1994|MATT WOLF | Matt Wolf is an arts writer based in London

LONDON — Actors don't get much more silken than "To Play the King" star Ian Richardson, who on a recent morning is indeed the very model of that vanishing breed--a modern British gentleman.

"There used to be a great deal more good-mannered behavior around," Richardson, 59, is saying over morning coffee at Brown's Hotel, exactly the kind of discreet, wood-paneled hotel his TV character Francis Urquhart might repair to for a confidence-filled chat.

"Now," the actor continues, "good manners and politeness are regarded by young people as a sign of weakness, and that I find abhorrent. I was brought up to be extremely good-mannered in all my dealings with my fellow men. I find it quite extraordinary that the very training I had should be regarded as weak when it's a sign of strength to know how to behave."

Try telling that to his chillingly magnetic creation, Urquhart, who, when last encountered in "House of Cards" (1991), was leaving a well-mannered trail of havoc and death in his wake. In Andrew Davies' sequel based on the Michael Dobbs novel, Richardson's devious prime minister locks horns with a newly crowned and--gasp!--compassionate king (Michael Kitchen of "Out of Africa"), whose resemblance to a certain current monarch-to-be is there for the making.

Were the parallels acknowledged during filming, one wonders, especially with the issue of Prince Charles' accession to the throne a constant topic of British tabloid fodder? "They were never disregarded," Richardson says under his breath. "I was quite surprised when I first did a scene with Michael Kitchen that he was actually attempting a Windsor voice.

"I might have thought myself that Michael might shy away from it because of the obvious controversy that would inevitably follow. But then I thought, 'No, this is very brave, because even if he played it with a Liverpool accent, people would make the connection anyway.' "

Richardson says talk of a sequel never arose during the filming of "House of Cards" and he was at first "of two minds" about reprising the role. " 'House of Cards,' if you like, was like the first half of 'Richard III,' which is the most enjoyable half to play because he's saying to the audience, 'I'm going to do this, and you're going to watch me do it, and it's all jolly amusing.' "

"Now comes the second half, and it's not funny anymore because Richard is in power and he has got to stay there. He starts suspecting everyone, even Buckingham his old chum, and it's all downhill after that," the actor explains. "I thought it was very likely 'To Play the King' would be like the second half, and having played 'Richard III' at Stratford, I can tell you, I was apprehensive."

The finished product, though, offered its own validation: "I think probably as a melodramatic thriller, 'To Play the King' has the edge on 'House of Cards,' which I never thought it would. The way Andrew has written it I win in the end through the usual Urquhart means." The actor smiles: "It's way over the top, really."

It's also made the actor a TV star after a distinguished lifetime in the classic theater, playing most of the Bard's great male roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company and appearing from time to time on Broadway.

In 1976, Richardson had a taste of musical stardom on the Great White Way as Higgins in "My Fair Lady." But despite winning a Tony nomination, he speaks sourly about the experience. "I had never worked with microphones on stage; my voice had been trained to fill large theaters without electronic assistance and nobody thought to warn me, with the result that Christine Andreas as Eliza was being heftily miked by the controller at the back of the auditorium and whenever I opened my mouth, he was turning the mikes off, which gave a curious imbalance to the thing."

He played the role for a year, "and that was quite long enough. I reached the stage where I would gladly have handed my quite generous salary back to the producers if only they would let me go home." (Mere mention of a later Broadway role, in 1981 for Edward Albee's ill-fated stage version of "Lolita" and playing opposite Donald Sutherland, makes Richardson wince.)

Back in England with his wife, Marousia Frank, Richardson has forsaken the stage in recent years for character parts on TV and the big screen (alongside Jeremy Irons in "M. Butterfly," among others). He speaks balefully about losing the role of Lord Darlington in "The Remains of the Day" to James Fox: "The producers looked at my tapes again, and the consensus of opinion was that, although I'm not an intellectual person in reality, what comes across on screen is a man who's really rather bright, which was completely wrong. Lord Darlington should be aristocratic but rather stupid, so they went with James Fox, which is not very complimentary, but at least he was better for it."

All of which may be why, after doubts about a follow-up to "House of Cards," Richardson readily embraces a rumored third go-round as Urquhart. "As far as the camera's concerned, it's wonderful for someone of my age who had settled into a routine of turning up and playing a featured role to somebody else's leading role suddenly finding I carry the thing; it's terrific."

But the actor did make one proviso clear to the producers. "I have said I will do it provided in the final reel Urquhart is blown to bits. They have agreed that he must meet his demise."

Part 3 of "To Play the King" on "Masterpiece Theatre" airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on KVCR, 9 p.m. on KCET and KPBS and Tuesday at 8 p.m. on KOCE. The fourth and final part airs at the same times next week.

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