Stonehouse, review: Matthew Macfadyen is brilliantly ridiculous in this comic masterclass
You know what you’re going to get with Stonehouse (ITV1) from the opening five minutes. The music is jaunty. Matthew Macfadyen appears looking slightly ridiculous in a powder blue suit. We’re set up for an entertaining caper that refuses to take its story too seriously.
Stonehouse was the Labour MP who faked his own death in 1974 by leaving his clothes on a Miami beach. In fact, he headed off to Australia using a passport he had obtained in the name of a deceased constituent. He was arrested a month later – in a wonderfully preposterous twist, it was by detectives who had mistaken him for the missing Lord Lucan.
Stonehouse’s daughter has criticised the drama, maintaining that her father was suffering from mental illness. But the script by John Preston (who also dramatised the downfall of Jeremy Thorpe in A Very English Scandal) sticks with the idea that the MP had been recruited as a Czech spy, was in financial dire straits, and devised his plan in the belief that he might get away with it.
Macfadyen is so good at characters like this – hubristic, duplicitous and ridiculous – that it is a treat to watch him try to scheme and bluff his way through Stonehouse’s misadventures. His comic timing is perfect. “You want me to spy for you?” he asks, seemingly appalled, when blackmailed into a relationship with the Czechs. A beat later: “Would I be paid?” He turns out to be a monumentally useless spy. “An important thing about being a spy is that you have to get information before everyone else, not after,” says his despairing handler.
It is a comedy masterclass, but Macfadyen also delivers moments of vulnerability and makes his character likeable. Here purely for the laughs is Kevin McNally as Harold Wilson, in a double act with straight woman Dorothy Atkinson as Betty Boothroyd. Wilson appears frequently because the drama puts Stonehouse’s disappearance and reappearance in the context of Labour’s small majority. Or, as the Prime Minister puts it: “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.”
Macfadyen’s real-life wife, Keeley Hawes, plays Barbara Stonehouse. She is a let-down – the character is underwritten and Hawes brings little of note to the drama. And when it comes to Stonehouse’s mistress, Sheila Buckley (Emer Heatley), Preston gets more mileage out of her speech impediment (“Egg and cwess? Sausage wolls if you pwefer?”) than her involvement in Stonehouse’s mad plan.