A flawed individual would be a euphemism to describe British politician John Stone house.
In politics from 1957 to 1974, he fell out of favor in the late 1960s when Prime Minister Harold Wilson first confronted him about allegations that he had spied for Czechoslovakia. In 1974 his “creative accounting” attracted the attention of the authorities.
Within a year he faked his own death and tried to disappear by fleeing to Melbourne.
Over the years he also had an affair with his secretary and little respect for his wife and children.
All of which makes for a juicy subject from writer John Preston and a 3-part miniseries from BritBox.
In the title role is the consummate Matthew Macfadyen (Succession, Pride and Prejudice) whose real-life wife Keeley Hawes takes over the role of his would-be on-screen wife, Barbara Stonehouse.
While Barbara was proud of her husband’s rise in the political ranks, she was unaware of the extent of her husband’s dark secrets, which began after his routine visit to Czechoslovakia as an Air Force Undersecretary. There, he was blackmailed into supplying information to the state by Wilson’s Labor government, which was soon clinging to power by a slim majority.
Stone house he even persuaded the Czechs to pay him for information, and began to enjoy the good life of sports 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 Stone house even disregarding his strange speech disorder.
It goes without saying that as the heat rises, Stonehouse embarks on a slapstick plot to fake his own death on a Miami beach. He re-emerged in Melbourne under the name Clive Mildoon but not all went to plan for him.
Macfadyen devours this role with such malice, accompanied by the catch me if you can tone of director Jon S. Baird’s production. In the fantastic 60s/70s anything goes, when wrapped in a lively soundtrack and captivating fashions.
Macfadyen grins and ducks on cue as Stonehouse’s antics drift from clandestine affairs to scrutiny, by both his wife and the authorities.
Keeley Hawes has the toughest role as the unsuspecting Barbara, who struggles to keep the family together, swallowing her husband’s apologies, in an age and class system where women were too often expected to be subservient .
Kevin McNally plays Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who is desperate to hang on to power despite his minister’s unacceptable actions. Many of his scenes are sadly reduced to consultations with Government Whip Betty Boothroyd (Dorothy Atkinson).
Naturally I was eager to see how the Melbourne scenes have shaped up here. Shot in Spain, it’s unlikely to be very passable for Aussies, but an international audience won’t be the wiser (eucalyptus trees and left-hand driving should be enough, right?).
As a character study, Stone house she revels in the man’s brash and weak schemes, but leaves little room for sympathy when it comes to family commitments. Macfadyen never wrongs a step throughout the three hour dramatization, but I’m not sure the writing ever offers a satisfactory justification for his shortcomings… only that he’s fallen deeper and deeper into the ‘romance’ of it all .
However in the hands of good performers, Stone house it’s easily entertaining and at 3 hours it doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Stonehouse airs Tuesday 17 January on BritBox.