Keeley Hawes and Matthew Macfadyen reveal how they brought MP John Stonehouse’s bizarre story to ITV
Matthew Macfadyen and his wife Keeley Hawes are Britain’s most in-demand TV couple. Pride & Prejudice and Ripper Street star Matthew was recently catapulted to global fame on the hit US drama Succession, while Bodyguard, The Durrells and Crossfire star Keeley is one of our leading ladies the most wanted.
But the couple have barely worked together since they fell in love on the set of BBC1 spy drama Spooks 20 years ago, so it’s a rare treat to see the pair star together in the new drama. Stone house. Based on the weirder-than-fictional true story of Labor MP John Stonehouse, who faked his own death in 1974 in a bid to avoid financial and personal humiliation, the three-part series hits ITV this week.
With a wig, sideburns and false teeth, Matthew stars as the charismatic MP whose vanity and misjudgments have led him to infamy. Keeley plays Barbara, the wife of a model politician caught off guard by her husband’s fake suicide. ‘Working with Matthew was delightful!’ said Keeley, 46. “We had talked about doing something together again, and it was perfect.”
They shared a cozy moment in an Airbnb while filming near Birmingham, even bringing their dog. “It was probably weirder for the people around us on set, knowing that we’re married and how that might work out,” Keeley explains. “For us, it was really normal. Having worked together before, we knew it would be OK. We would ride together, then his fake teeth would come in, we would do the scenes and then we would have lunch. It was a lovely experience.’
Matthew Macfadyen and his wife Keeley Hawes are Britain’s most in-demand TV couple, pictured as Barbara Stonehouse and John Stonehouse in ITV’s Stonehouse
Stonehouse’s bizarre story is told lightly, in the same style as 2018’s A Very English Scandal about MP Jeremy Thorpe, starring Hugh Grant. The similarity isn’t surprising, given that writer John Preston is at the heart of both. A Very English Scandal was based on his 2016 non-fiction book, adapted for the screen by Russell T Davies, while Stonehouse is John’s first screenplay for television and has the same offhand approach.
John turned to Davies’ Scandal scripts to help him write Stonehouse. “The opportunity arose to do Stonehouse like a TV series, not like a book,” he says. “For me it was a very interesting idea because I had never written a screenplay before. I had Russell’s scripts for A Very English Scandal at home so I could look at them and think, ‘Oh, this that’s how he did it.” So that taught me a lot.
And the fantasy tale suits the breezy tone perfectly. Rising star of the Labor government led by Harold Wilson (Kevin R McNally), junior minister Stonehouse has been tipped as future prime minister. But outside of politics, his businesses were deeply in debt, and perhaps as early as 1959 he had begun spying on Czechoslovakia to make money. Married with three children, he also began an affair with his secretary Sheila Buckley (Emer Heatley of Showtrial).
With his life falling apart, Stonehouse stole the identity of a deceased voter and, in November 1974, faked his death in Miami and traveled to Australia to start a new life with Buckley. He didn’t get away with it as the new drama reveals.
It’s such a bizarre story, says Matthew, that their own son could hardly believe it. “I was saying to our 16-year-old boy and he was like, ‘What, really? It’s not true! laughs Matthew, 48, who has Maggie, 18, and Ralph, 16, with Keeley. She has another son, Myles, 22, from her first marriage.
“He’s ridiculous, but there’s something nice about him,” adds Matthew. “He was very likeable, by all accounts, funny and charismatic. But he was not without vanity, and he liked the trappings of his position. He was very fun to play.
Matthew Macfadyen as John Stonehouse, Keeley Hawes as Barbara Stonehouse and Emer Heatley as Sheila Buckley
Mired in financial and romantic difficulties, with suspicions about his loyalty circulating in Westminster, Stonehouse made his fateful decision. “I think it’s become too much,” says Matthew. “I played him as if he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. There is an extraordinary scene where he says goodbye to his wife and children and leaves for a business trip to Miami with them without knowing that it was meant to be a final goodbye. Once you start thinking about it, it’s unimaginable. Very hard to do. I found it quite emotional.
There are echoes of Matthew’s Emmy turn as Tom Wambsgans in Succession: Stonehouse and Wambsgans are both out of their depth. “There was a bit of exploration from Tom when it came to playing Stonehouse,” admits Matthew. “Both like to be close to power – and both are grotesque.”
Another commanding performance comes from Pirates of the Caribbean’s Kevin R McNally, who says he felt pressure to get Harold Wilson just because viewers will still remember the Prime Minister who served from 1964-1970 and 1974-1976 “If you play Disraeli, you go for the historical spirit because no one has encountered it,” says 66-year-old Kevin. “But with Harold Wilson, I didn’t think I could get away with being a bit like him. I felt like I had to do everything I could to inhabit him completely.
“At school, I amused my classmates by pretending to be him. I felt it was useful because I wanted to look like him as much as possible, as a tribute to my generation.
As for the long-suffering Barbara, Keeley has come to admire her resilience. “She was an intelligent woman who had ambition for her husband. It was a male-dominated world. As the wife of a deputy, she was used to a certain press. It was nothing compared to the furor that followed John’s disappearance and then his discovery. It was a huge story. It must have been horrifying, humiliating and deeply moving. Their dirty laundry appeared in the newspapers. She was very strong and brave.
For budgetary reasons, the fake death was shot in Malaga, Spain, in unusually bad weather. “Horrible storms,” recalls Matthew. “The sky has turned yellow with all the sand of the Sahara. We filmed there for six days and for all of those days, except one, no one could get in the water because it was too dangerous. Then we had a low sun day so we went. The water was very cold. Some of us wore jumpsuits and some didn’t – including me in wig and sideburns.
The icy plunge was surely worth it for Matthew to bring the flawed politician to life with the audacious plan. He also tried to convey the comic aspect of the man.
“There’s a nice caper element to it,” he says. “It’s the old adage, ‘If you can make people laugh, you can take them somewhere else.
Stonehouse, Monday, 9 p.m., ITV1.