Stonehouse Review – Matthew Macfadyen Is A Brilliantly Evil Villain In This Fun, Death-Faking Game | Drama
LLast week, No 10 released a statement regarding what it considered to be “very concerning” reports of MPs engaging in sex and excessive alcohol consumption on parliamentary trips abroad. (Perhaps the suitcase full of wine served beyond Downing Street?) With fortuitous timing, Stonehouse (ITV 1) is here with the vintage edition. This fun and funny drama, high-spirited and reveling in its absurdities, tells the story of John Stonehouse, Labor MP for Walsall North, former Postmaster General and rising star in Harold Wilson’s government, who found himself in a situation of financial espionage and espionage. hassle-based. His solution was to fake his own death on a Miami beach in 1974, before fleeing to Australia with his secretary and assuming a new stolen identity.
The problem for him, and the joy for viewers, is that Stonehouse isn’t very good at being a villain. Matthew Macfadyen plays him like a carefree jester from the start. In the Commons he repeated what Wilson said; at home, he repeats what his wife, Barbara (played by Macfadyen’s real-life wife, Keeley Hawes), says. He is a man in search of his identity, and on a work trip to Czechoslovakia (as it was then) he uses the “traditional Czech delicacies” on offer a lot by getting extremely drunk and having sex with his guide and translator – an act which is, naturally, filmed by the Czech secret service and used to blackmail him into spying for them.
Stonehouse, a father in an ordinary household, does not seem particularly disturbed by this development. He sees it as a chance to inject some excitement into his suburban life. The problem is, he’s not very good at spying either. His information is either boring – and the on-screen Stonehouse is good at boring for England, if nothing else – or happily provides outdated information. “You are the worst spy I have ever met. Ever!” barks his master, who wanted state secrets and got a dreary Bond sidekick instead.
It’s so bad at providing useful information that you start to wonder if it’s a strategy. One of the case studies in Stephen Grosz’s fascinating book on psychoanalysis, The Examined Life, is that of a man who seems determined to annoy everyone around him; Grosz concludes that this is a deliberate act, designed to exclude others. I wonder if that might be what Stonehouse is doing, but maybe that reads too deep into the story. Moreover, the evidence for this does not turn out to be particularly strong; Stonehouse gleefully informs the Czechs of the Concorde’s invention, only to be told that this bombshell had been on the French newscast two nights earlier.
The tone is direct, ironic and cheeky. It’s written by John Preston, who also wrote the book on which 2018’s A Very English Scandal, about disgraced MP Jeremy Thorpe, was based, and it moves along at a similar pace. Much of the scandal is played for comedic effect. The title sequence is Mad Men-ish, the soundtrack Pink Panther-esque, and the espionage is campy rather than sinister. Macfadyen’s Stonehouse has a touch of his Succession character, Tom Wambsgans, though the deputy lacks the watery ruthlessness of the Wambsgans; Stonehouse is less sneaky and easier to please.
But there are cruelties here, casually buried in his slapstick, as you’d expect from a man trying to convince the world he’s dead. Poor Barbara tries to intervene in the household budget, as new cars and bigger houses spring up while private school fees go unpaid. “Which of us graduated from the London School of Economics? said her husband, pretending there was nothing to worry about. He hires a secretary whose shorthand is lacking, mainly because he wants her. And later, he steals the identity of a deceased voter, flattering his widow into attending the man’s funeral, only to betray him for his own ends.
Last July, Stonehouse’s daughter feared the drama was a “twisting” of her father’s story. As with most of these types of dramas, it gets a disclaimer at the start, explaining that it’s “based on a true story” with some parts “reimagined” for dramatic purposes. It seems inevitable that there will be complaints from surviving relatives, as he is not particularly sympathetic to Stonehouse. From The Crown to The Thief, His Wife, and the Canoe, the question of what, if anything, a drama inspired by real life owes to its subjects will continue to be debated. As a drama, however, Stonehouse’s brief rise and stunning fall, John Stonehouse, makes for hugely entertaining television.