TV Review: Stonehouse

Real-life couple Matthew Macfadyen and Keeley Hawes have great fun in the campy Stonehouse, but we’ll just not mention the kids

“In order to stay in power, we need the support of someone who’s either off his rocker or pretending to be off his rocker, or else sufficiently off his rocker not to be able to tell whether he’s really off his rocker or not”

I have to say I’d never heard of John Stonehouse, which probably says as much about me as it does the number of political scandals that have been racked up over the years. Written by John Preston annd directed by Jon S Baird, Stonehouse is a dramatised retelling of the shenanigans that he got up to and as it turns out, there’s quite the catalogue of transgressions that would even put the current lot up to shame.

A Labour politican under Harold Wilson, he (allegedly) became a spy for Czechoslovakia, got involved in all kinds of messy financial skulduggery, he stole the identity of one of his dead constituents, he faked his own death on a Miami beach, fled to Australia with his secretary Sheila, soon got caught but then still tried to claim that it was all down to a mental health collapse once he’d been extradited back to the UK.

It’s all rather entertainingly put together with a real lightness of touch and distinct air of camp levity in how silly so much of it. Stonehouse makes for a terrible spy as he delivers ‘secrets’ two days after they’ve been aired on French TV. And his delusional confidence in pursuing his highly idiosyncratic path is played for more slapstick than scandal, particularly with the faithful Sheila helping his every wrongful move.

At the same time though, the show does give Stonehouse too much of a free pass in terms of the absolute abdication of his role as a father. It’s one thing to cheat on a wife, particularly when – as the show suggests – there’s tacit acceptance of the status quo from all parties. But the fact that John cares so little for his three children with long-suffering wife Barbara and that their stories are ignored here lets him off way too easily, especially given the misty-eyed, soft-focus ending the show aims for.

Matthew Macfadyen is perfect casting as Stonehouse though, if not quite Machiavellian then certainly highly manipulative under a bluffly charming exterior. Keeley Hawes delivers powerful emotion as Barbara, scarcely believing the stories that unfold about the husband she’d given up for dead and Emer Heatley rocks some Shirley Henderson-esque energy as the blindly devoted Sheila. Kevin McNally and Dorothy Atkinson offer fine support as a double act of Harold Wilson and Betty Boothroyd, making this an enjoyable watch.

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