Jon S Baird’s miniseries opens in 1960s Westminster, where John Stonehouse (Matthew Macfadyen) is an up-and-comer in the Labour Party. “What do we know about him?” asks prime minister Harold Wilson (Kevin R McNally playing Wilson for the second time, perfectly, having portrayed him in the 2015 film Legend). “Working-class boy. Parents both trade unionists. Served in the RAF during the war.” Naturally, he’s made aviation minister – a role that takes him to Prague and into the arms of an obvious honey trap. “We would like you to become an unofficial representative of our country in Great Britain,” he’s told, in a smoke-filled Soviet interrogation room, as the film of his tryst is slid across the table. And so begins the decade-long unravelling of his life, a process that will end with him leaving his folded clothes and passport on a Florida beach and swimming out to sea.
Macfadyen is one of Britain’s finest actors, and his performance as Stonehouse rounds out a trilogy of depictions of men hanging by a thread. Beleaguered Tom Wambsgans in Succession, shifty Major Charles Ingram in Quiz, and now, the hammiest of the roles, the unprincipled former MP for Wednesbury. Macfadyen plays Stonehouse – who would assume the identity of a dead constituent after his disappearance – as a man already living out a synthetic version of life. If you can judge a person’s happiness from the sincerity of their laugh, then Stonehouse is in deep despair. “I don’t think he’s a wise man,” a foreign businessman tells the audience, via subtitles. “Haha,” chuckles Stonehouse in response. “Terrific!”
If the role feels more cartoonish than his undertakings in Succession or Quiz, then the issue is probably that the script isn’t written by Jesse Armstrong or James Graham. Writing duties are handed to John Preston (a fine writer; author of non-fiction books like A Very English Scandal, about Jeremy Thorpe, and Fall, the story of Robert Maxwell) for his first screenplay. The final product is, stylistically, a farce. “The important thing about being a spy,” Stonehouse is told by his Czech handler Marek (Igor Grabuzov), “is that you have to get information before everyone else, not after!” This sense that we are in a light-hearted caper is abetted by a score crammed with suspicious woodwinds and bouncy snare drums. The result is something that feels no deeper than the azure Miami waters into which Stonehouse wades.
But Macfadyen is always enjoyable to watch, even if his showy take distracts from the more subtle performance of Keeley Hawes (Macfadyen’s real-life wife) as Mrs Stonehouse. And the story of Stonehouse is itself a pleasantly victimless one. Sure, the kids might get pulled out of private school, the manor house sold, but as political scandals go, this is less sinister and more ludicrous. “It’s Stonehouse,” he announces over the intercom at the Czech embassy. “John Stonehouse.” Brash and buffoonish, he is more Austin Powers than James Bond – and that’s no bad thing.
Sandwiched between the Profumo affair in 1963 and the Thorpe scandal in the late 1970s, the Stonehouse saga is perhaps not quite as memorable. It is slighter and sillier, but still jaw-dropping in its audacity. Anchored by Macfadyen’s nimble turn at physical comedy, Stonehouse once again brings the feverish furores of the 1970s back to life.
John Stonehouse: Labour MP, husband to Barbara, Czechoslovak double agent, father of two, failed businessman, missing person. Stonehouse, the story of a sitting MP who faked his own death – dramatised this new year over three hour-long episodes on ITV – is a remarkable tale. But for all the twists and turns of the Stonehouse legend, the most unbelievable thing in all of this is the fact that it’s taken almost half a century to be brought to our screens.