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Stonehouse on ITV review: Matthew Macfadyen is great as the narcissistic MP in a richly enjoyable retelling

So, if you were a minister for aviation on a trip to Czechoslovakia in 1962, right in the middle of the Cold War, and you were taken out to dinner by a bombshell blonde, would or would not the first thing that came into your head be the word: honeytrap?

Well, not if you were John Stonehouse, the ill-fated Labour minister who is now remembered chiefly for his bungled attempt to fake his own death on Miami Beach to start a new life with his mistress Sheila Buckley (played here by Emer Heatley). This imagined but entirely plausible scene is a not-unreasonable assumption about the course of events that led to the unfortunate Stonehouse becoming a Czech spy.

In this richly enjoyable retelling, with Matthew Macfadyen as the minister, we see him the following morning, much the worse for wear, being confronted by a sinister intelligence operative who shows him footage of his encounter with the blonde and tells him this means he must now spy for Czechoslovakia. His first question is, “Will I be paid?”

The real pleasure of this return to the Sixties and early Seventies is watching Matthew Macfadyen as a venal and ambitious narcissist. He’s less handsome than the actual Stonehouse but his face is a shifting register of most of the mortal sins: lust, covetousness, duplicity, greed, ambition and deceit. The wonder is that his put-upon wife, Barbara (Keeley Hawes), puts up with it, but then the two actors are married in real life, which may explain her expert look of resigned stoicism.

Matthew Macfadyen as Stonehouse (ITV)
Matthew Macfadyen as Stonehouse (ITV)

John Preston’s script is full of good lines; his last book, on the fall of Robert Maxwell, may have prepared him for Stonehouse. When his wife asks, understandably, where all the money is coming from for a big new house, he asks her patiently, “Darling, which of us is a graduate of the London School of Economics?” Well, that was the Sixties. And when as an election candidate he bounces into a hospital ward, he tells the patients: “You’re all looking terribly well!”

It’s quite possible to sympathise with Macfadyen’s endlessly optimistic, endlessly duplicitous Stonehouse, as he tries to convince himself as much as everyone else, that really, he’s very much put upon, as the net closes in on him. But then it’s also possible to sympathise with his exasperated minder, Alexander Marek (Igor Grabuzov) who declares after yet another dud revelation from Stonehouse, “You are the worst spy EVER”.

Stonehouse is a wonderful subject for a docudrama, an Hogarthian ambitious poor boy (his mother was a scullery maid) who almost rises to the top of British politics, only to be brought low by his own cupidity and rotten judgment. The first episode ends as it begins, with him stepping into the sea off Miami, carefully leaving behind his passport and clothes, emerging to put on a new shirt and identity further down the coast.

And if you want period detail, it’s where Stonehouse, then Postmaster General, enthusiastically explains his plans for a two tier postal system, with a first class post “with a next day delivery in the morning, not the afternoon!” That dates it, doesn’t it?

Stonehouse will air on ITV and ITVX at 9pm on January 2