Plot: A three-part drama, based on the extraordinary rise and fall of MP John Stonehouse. As a high-flying member of Harold Wilson’s Labour government and a seemingly devoted family man, Stonehouse’s perfect life spirals out of control in the early 1970s amid rumors of fraud and espionage.
Review: There is no shortage of true crime stories that can be adapted into television dramas, but it takes a unique tale that can make such a series funny. Murder and death don’t tend to work well in humorous adaptations, but when a bizarre series of events is so bafflingly strange and involves no one dying, it can appease many audiences. Coming from the United Kingdom, Stonehouse is a darkly hilarious true crime story that was big news in the 1970s but remained a relatively unknown curiosity in the States. This new three-part limited series adapts the exploits of John Stonehouse, which involve spies, identity theft, faked deaths, and bribery in a way that is too crazy to be fiction. It also helps that a wonderful Matthew Macfadyen leads it as the title character.
Stonehouse opens with the titular British member of Parliament on a Miami beach as he lays his clothes gently on a towel before stepping into the water. This scene seems out of context as the series shifts to the newly elected John Stonehouse beginning a quick ascent in the political landscape with aspirations for the highest offices. But, it becomes evident very quickly that Stonehouse is way over his head, especially when he is blackmailed into becoming a spy for the Czechoslovakian secret police. Taking money and living outside his means, Stonehouse soon finds himself without the career he hoped for and no intel to keep up his lavish lifestyle. With no other choice, he decides to fake his own death, which throws his political colleagues and his family into chaos. And all of that is just the first episode.
Over the next two episodes, Stonehouse’s ploy is figured out, and his criminal career becomes front-page news, yet he still retains his role as a Member of Parliament. It is a baffling situation that resonates today as the party in power needs to maintain a majority, even if that means relying on a scandalized politician. Stonehouse works through all of this by keeping the story moving briskly, condensing many events for dramatic and comedic effects. It also helps that Matthew Macfadyen, best known for his Emmy-winning performance on Succession, is so good at playing the idiotically brilliant Stonehouse. While Macfadyen has a long career playing romantic and dramatic leads, his layered turn as Tom Wambsgans on the HBO satire has opened up his career. Stonehouse serves as a nice parallel to the contemporary Succession. Macfayden plays John Stonehouse as a deeply flawed and greedy man who mistakes his luck for success and decides on the most insane solution to his problems. It is hard to sympathize with the lack of logic Stonehouse employs in his decision-making, but it is fascinating to see him fail upward no matter what he does.
It also helps that the central relationship in this story is shared between John Stonehouse and his wife, Barbara, played by Macfadyen’s real-life spouse Keeley Hawes. The frequent on-screen partners channel an unspoken chemistry that makes them a believable couple and enhances the impact of the lies and deceit between them. Emer Heatley, who plays Stonehouse’s secretary and mistress, Sheila Buckley, is equally good as the third member of the main cast. Heatley portrays Sheila as a knowing participant in Stonehouse’s plans and shifts between sympathetic and scary as the series progresses. All three actors tell this story with a serious and dramatic style and cheeky humor beneath it that sometimes made me wonder if this series was meant to mock the events or if the story is just inherently ridiculous to tell.
Written by journalist and novelist John Preston, known for his novel The Dig and non-fiction book A Very English Scandal (both turned into excellent adaptations), Stonehouse is directed by John S. Baird, who lends a solid eye to the 1970s setting. The production values here are far better than some television productions. The story moves along without getting bogged down in minute details about the politics or legal elements of the British government. There is enough in the story to figure out what is going on, but Stonehouse is presented so that this English scandal is easily relatable for viewers from around the globe. The peppy musical score keeps the tone light, even if the events taking place should be anything but humorous.
Stonehouse is an excellent companion to Succession, with both of Matthew Macfadyen’s characters serving as prime examples of what can happen when someone gets in over their head. The stakes of Stonehouse’s actions at first may have seemed to harm no one but himself and his family. Still, as the depth of his actions became more apparent, the failure of the British government to take action became an indictment of the entire legal system running the country. It is absurd, it is insane, and it is true. Thanks to Matthew Macfadyen’s pitch-perfect performance, Stonehouse is a very entertaining and disturbing tale that is funny when it really shouldn’t be, making it even more shocking as a true story.
Stonehouse premieres on January 17th on BritBox.