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Stonehouse review: Matthew Macfadyen is delectable in a real-life tragicomedy

The actor behind Succession’s favorite cringe schemer roils U.K. politics in a BritBox limited series

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Stonehouse
Stonehouse
Photo: Courtesy of BritBox

Who knows, Hulu may already be developing a project about pre-disgraced New York Representative George Santos (get carbo-loading, Anthony Ramos). If the doughy fraudster really wants a series, he might consider faking death by drowning and then hiding out under an assumed name in, say, Australia. It worked for crooked British MP John Stonehouse in 1974, a bizarre historical footnote dramatized in ITV/BritBox’s sly and stylish Stonehouse.

Apart from brevity—it’s essentially a segmented movie—the period dramedy’s chief asset is a delectable Matthew Macfadyen, armed with lush sideburns and a plummy baritone. As he has demonstrated over three (soon to be four) Succession seasons, Macfadyen is a master of obsequious masculinity under pressure. The British actor’s innate grasp of caste and manners imbues toadying schemer Tom Wambsgans with palpable angst. Here, even more at home in British society and in a politely miserable marriage (opposite his real-life spouse, Keeley Hawes), he runs endless variations on puffed-up privilege deflated by its mediocrity and mendacity. Sharing John Cleese’s funny-tall-guy attribute, the 6-foot-3 star makes for a first-class squirmer; his cringe is our delight.

John Stonehouse (1925-1988) is the latest criminally corrupt ex-Parliamentarian to be resurrected on TV, after John Profumo in The Crown, Jeremy Thorpe in A Very English Scandal, and Lord Lucan in Lucan. In fact, both Stonehouse and Very English Scandal were scripted by John Preston, and our hero is briefly mistaken for Lucan, also on the lam in 1974 (for murdering his children’s nanny).

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Nothing quite so grisly drives the plot here; our pompous protagonist secures a spot in the 1964 Labour cabinet of Prime Minister Harold Wilson (Kevin R. McNally) as Aviation Minister. Handsome, married with children, and relatively young, Stonehouse seems poised for a bright future in Parliament or perhaps even 10 Downing Street. However, in the first 10 minutes of episode one, the seed of his downfall is planted.

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On a diplomatic trip to Czechoslovakia, Stonehouse is seduced by his pretty blonde translator and filmed as they make love in his hotel room. The next morning, a bleary-eyed Stonehouse is shown the kompromat and goes straight into the pocket of the Soviet satellite state, handled by the weary, chain-smoking Marek (Igor Grabuzov). Appalled at the prospect of being exposed on the world stage as a bare-buttocked philanderer, Stonehouse gulps, then asks the Czechs, “Will I be paid?”

Greed, ambition, and a spoonful of lust (he soon woos his secretary Sheila, winningly played by Emer Heatley) are the basic—and mostly unexplored—ingredients of Stonehouse’s character. His lame attempts at espionage (“You’re the worst spy I’ve ever come across!” Marek fumes) get Stonehouse disbarred from the Czech embassy, and the bills for his extravagant lifestyle (think country manor) start piling up. Soon, the only way out seems to be staging his death by drowning during a business trip to Miami, then laying low in Melbourne with an identity forged from the birth certificate of a deceased constituent. The pitch meeting probably went something like this: Patricia Highsmith reimagined by Alan Bennett.

Stonehouse | BritBox Original Exclusive Trailer

Preston and director Jon S. Baird keep the action light, stylish, and dryly humorous. From title credits on down, there’s a Catch Me If You Can and Mad Men spirit of jazzy cool: groovy period details (unironic plaid! vintage trimphones!) and clipped dialogue. If anything, the creative team errs too much on the side of sardonic glibness when they could have dug deeper into the psychology of such an elaborate narcissist or honestly depicted the pain he inflicted on his family. Hawes (Bodyguard), a vibrant, passionate actor in her own right, gets too little screen time as Barbara tries to grapple with her husband’s pathology. Still, psychoanalysis itself is treated as something of a joke in the series, another grift Stonehouse picks up in prison.

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What really drove the wayward MP, besides egoistic pride? Was he mentally unstable or a crook? Political idealist or con man? Toxic skirt-chaser or unhappy married man who fell in love with his secretary? Some scenes from the public record could make rich drama with a bit of inspiration and license. Before Stonehouse and Sheila were extradited to England from Australia, Barbara supposedly demanded he choose between her and the secretary. An agitated Stonehouse apparently threatened to kill himself and then collapsed into Sheila’s arms, giving Barbara her answer. In comparison, that scene in the second episode is blandly understated, with Preston pulling back from either camp or honest pathos.

In the end, you pine for something (anything) dredged up from the oily antihero’s childhood or sexuality; imagine what (the living) Stephen Poliakoff or (the very late) Dennis Potter might have done with such a real-life tragicomedy. At least Macfadyen’s minutely calibrated performance—at once transparent and guarded—makes a selfish cipher’s rise and fall (and rise) enjoyable. In the end, the fellow’s lies and fraudulent schemes, however carefully planned out, unravel with pathetic, comical speed. The name may be Stonehouse, but the man was built of straw.

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Stonehouse premieres January 17 on BritBox.