Matthew Macfadyen brings so much wickedness to his role as a UK politician who fakes his death and flees to Melbourne in the 1970s.

A flawed individual would be a something of an understatement to describe UK politician John Stonehouse.

In politics from 1957 – 1974, he fell from grace by the late 1960s when PM Harold Wilson first confronted him about allegations he had been spying for Czechoslovakia. By 1974 his ‘creative accounting’ drew the attention of authorities.

Within a year he faked his own death and tried to disappear by fleeing to Melbourne.

Across the years he also had an affair with his secretary and little regard for his wife and children.

All of which makes for a juicy subject by writer John Preston and a 3 part miniseries by BritBox.

In the title role is the consummate Matthew Macfadyen (Succession, Pride & Prejudice) whose real wife Keeley Hawes takes on the role of his aspirational screen wife, Barbara Stonehouse.

While Barbara was proud of her husband rising through the political ranks, little did she know the extent of her husband’s dark secrets, which began following his routine visit to Czechoslovakia as a junior minister of Aviation. There, he was blackmailed into supplying the state with information from Wilson’s Labour government, which was soon clinging to power by a slim majority.

Stonehouse even persuaded the Czechs to pay him for information, and began to enjoy the high life of sporty cars, flashy gifts and multiple hidden bank accounts…

Life becomes less conventional and more murky when Sheila Buckley (Emer Heatley) arrives as his attractive young secretary, with Stonehouse even overlooking her odd speech impediment.

Needless to say as the heat ramps up, Stonehouse embarks on a farcical plot to fake his own death on a beach in Miami. He resurfaced in Melbourne under the name of Clive Mildoon but not everything went to plan.

Macfadyen gobbles up this role with so much wickedness, matched by the catch-me-if-you-can tone of the production by director Jon S. Baird. In the cool ’60s / ’70s it’s anything goes, when wrapped in a bouncy soundtrack and fetching fashions.

Macfadyen smirks and skulks on cue as Stonehouse’s antics veer from clandestine affairs to coming under scrutiny, whether from his wife or the authorities.

Keeley Hawes has the more difficult role of the oblivious Barbara, endeavouring to keep family together, swallowing the excuses of her husband, in an era and class system when women were expected to be too-often subservient.

Kevin McNally plays PM Harold Wilson, desperate to cling to power despite the unacceptable actions of his minister. Many of his scenes are unfortunately whittled down to consultations with Government Whip Betty Boothroyd (Dorothy Atkinson).

Naturally I was keen to see how the Melbourne scenes shaped up here. Filmed in Spain, it’s unlikely to be very passable to Aussies but an international audience will be none the wiser (eucalyptus trees, and driving on the left of the road should suffice, right?).

As a character study, Stonehouse revels in the man’s brazen and feeble schemes but leaves little room for sympathy when it comes to family commitments. Macfadyen never puts a foot wrong over the three hours of dramatisation, but I’m not sure the writing ever offers a satisfactory justification for his flaws …only that he spiralled more and more into the ‘romance’ of it all.

Nevertheless in the hands of fine performers, Stonehouse is easily entertaining and at 3 hours doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Stonehouse screens Tuesday January 17 on BritBox.

7 Responses

  1. Wow!, I almost missed this show. I’m not sure how many people nowadays will remember 1970’s socialist Britain or PM Harold Wilson, much less John Stonehouse. I’m sure those keen on following British political subjects may think that after 50 years nothing much has changed and similarly duplicitous politicians are still currently active in Britain right now. With ‘Stonehouse’ starring the ever busy Keeley Hawes I am like a bee to a honeypot guaranteed to eventually watch this limited series.

    1. Another duplicitous politician going back to 1965 whilst I was living in the Devon in the UK for a time was Jeremy Thorpe and the scandalous affair that came to light in the 70s that was all over the press causing intrigue and mayhem. Subsequently A Very British Affair was made with the befitting Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw. Now there is Mat Hancock and his downfall possibly being made into another series after trying to “redeem” himself as he put it on Celb GMOOH. The only thing that comes to mind is why do they do it thinking they’re not going to get caught. Makes great TV though.

  2. Arguably two of the best British actors on screen together again. What a joy.! Love Britbox because they have enjoyable shows with all things British. Regards LHD cars my grand mother had a 1938 Ford 91A convertible LHD with a rumble seat. She did at times suffer “orientation” issues with sitting in the left side driving on the right side, but I found the rumble seat the best (and probably safest) place to be.

Leave a Reply