Every once in a while, a story comes along that not only sounds made up but like it could only have been conceived in a creative Hollywood think tank. Disgraced British politician John Stonehouse’s life story is truly bonkers, and even when you’ve seen it in the black-and-white newsprint of the day, it still seems too far-fetched to be authentic. But it is.
Stonehouse was an up-and-coming Labour MP in the cabinet of Harold Wilson, who served as aviation minister and then as Postmaster General. Just as he appeared poised to become Wilson’s successor, he was named in 1969 as a Czech agent by a secret service defector. Combined with several unwise financial investments and an affair with his young secretary, his career appeared on the brink of a humiliating collapse. Instead of facing the music, Stonehouse decided to fake his death and begin life anew in Australia.
The story made headlines worldwide in 1974 but soon faded from the collective consciousness—pushed aside by decades of hard-to-believe headlines. So you’d be forgiven if the name Stonehouse doesn’t ring any bells despite the extraordinary circumstances behind his initial fame. After all, it’s been nearly half a century since the man left his clothes on a Miami beach and disappeared into the ocean.
Perhaps more surprising is that it took until now for the entertainment industry to show genuine interest in the juicy true story. But finally, the politician is the subject of a new three-part ITV and BritBox series with Brit Matthew Macfadyen (Succession) in the lead role. Written by John Preston—the author of A Very British Scandal—and directed by Jon S. Baird (Stan & Ollie), Stonehouse is a fictionalized, satirical, humourous, and occasionally pointed look at Stonehouse. From his unbelievable opportunism, his (still contentious) time as a truly awful spy to his relationships with his wife Barbara (Keeley Hawes, Macfadyen’s real-life wife), his Prime Minister Wilson (Kevin McNally), and his secretary-cum-lover Sheila (newcomer Emer Heatley). At the end of the day, the politician—played to buffonish perfection by Macfadyen—remains an intriguing, ephemeral enigma. What remains clear is that he’s a man who came to prominence in a time less inclined to forgive his sizeable trespasses. Had he risen to fame amid Boris Johnson or Liz Truss’s cabinets, it’s not hard to imagine Stonehouse getting lost in the shuffle of daily scandals and potentially coming out the other side of events with an army of apologists and a host of dedicated Twitter fans.
I had the chance to sit down with the filmmakers and stars of the new series to talk about Stonehouse’s appeal, what makes 2023 the perfect time to tell his story and to get an explanation for North Americans on the ins and outs of Morris Dancing (it’s a plot point, I swear). Tune in below to hear from Macfadyen and McNally, Heatley, and filmmakers Jon S. Baird and John Preston:
Stonehouse is available to stream now on BritBox.