WARNING: this review contains spoilers for all three episodes of Stonehouse
At first glance, ITV drama Stonehouse has all the usual true crime trimmings: deceit, betrayal, untimely death (well, sort of), but it’s quickly apparent that this is not your average true crime drama.
The set and costume design gives a sizable early hint that this won’t be a particularly gritty story – instead of bleak and sinister it’s luxurious and rich with jewel tones – and rather than the usual ominous true crime soundtrack we get jaunty, spoofy spy music.
Indeed, you can imagine this music gleefully running through Labour MP Stonehouse’s head (a la Kronk from The Emperor’s New Groove) when he’s recruited as a Czech spy in the opening scenes after being all-too-easily caught in a honey trap.
But in Matthew Macfadyen’s portrayal of the disgraced politician, intelligence (the secret agent kind or otherwise) is as lacking as subtlety, and he brazenly splashes his spy money on a mansion and new sports car, and relishes loudly announcing himself Bond-style (‘Stonehouse, John Stonehouse’) when arriving at clandestine meetings.
Unfortunately for him (but gloriously for us), his Czech handler quickly dubs him “the worst spy I’ve ever come across”, when the best secret intel he can come up with is the invention of Concorde, his pride at the ‘scoop’ quickly vanishing when he discovers it was revealed on French TV two nights previously.
Although Stonehouse’s daughter has roundly condemned the ‘untruths’ of this series, Macfadyen does a masterful job of quickly establishing his comically exaggerated interpretation of the man: a bumbling, pompous, narcissistic buffoon who is a joy to watch. Every facial expression and gesture adds to the hilarity – Macfadyen delivers a smart, assured masterclass in comedy throughout all three episodes.
This is far from a one-dimensional ‘play-for-laughs’, though – for all his reckless ineptitude as he lies, cheats and scams his way to political and reputational ruin, Macfadyen’s Stonehouse is somehow effortlessly likeable, and interspersed among the hammy bluster are moments of both light and darkness.
His darker side comes in the way he patronises his wife when she asks about his new business dealings, repeatedly betrays her in his cliched affair with his secretary Sheila, and screams down the phone at his children’s school when he can no longer pay the fees as his life (and finances) falls apart after he’s booted from the shadow cabinet and his spying career comes to an abrupt end.
But there’s redeeming moments in his obvious adoration of his children, singing them a lullaby he pitifully repeats to himself as the pressure mounts in his increasingly desperate financial situation, leading to a genuinely poignant goodbye with his family before he leaves for Miami to fake his own drowning and flee to Australia.
As a loveable rogue, his ‘straight man’ sidekick comes in the form of his wife (both on-screen and off-screen), as Line of Duty’s Keeley Hawes plays Barbara Stonehouse with a campy incredulity which builds to seething exasperation as her husband’s antics escalate. Once he’s inevitably caught in Australia, her long-suffering bemusement turns to brilliant rage, and a particularly satisfying moment is when Stonehouse flounces off and unconvincingly threatens to jump off a cliff, leading to Barbara’s zero-f***s-given response: ‘Well go on then! You’ve died once already so you’ve had some practice. Maybe this time you’ll make a better job of it!’
Stonehouse’s secretarial side-piece Sheila (Emer Heatley), on the other hand, rather fades into the background as his loyal, puppy-dog-eyed mistress who relies too heavily on the supposed comedy of her speech impediment. But the ‘girl power’ of Hawes’ Barbara is well-matched by Dorothy Atkinson (Pennyworth) as the wry Betty Boothroyd, who forms another comic double act with Kevin McNally (Pirates of the Caribbean) as the wise yet struggling PM Harold Wilson.
Indeed, McNally makes admirable attempts to bring the Stonehouse story back to its wider political implications, and succeeds in adding some much-needed heft to the series’ final act in amongst Stonehouse’s continuing capers, representing himself at his trial with disastrous consequences and defecting to the Morris-dance-loving English National Party.
Perhaps we needed all this levity to deal with the ending, which – like many true stories – is unavoidably sad, and deals us with an unexpected gut punch of a conclusion. But despite the pathos at the series’ close, this is still a rare example of an ultimately uplifting true crime story. We’ll close this review with our official plea to ITV to release a Stonehouse blooper reel, because we can only imagine what a riot the cast and crew had filming this.
Stonehouse is available to stream on ITVX