TV Review: Stonehouse, broadcast on ITV in three episodes on January 2-4, 2023.
I would guess that pretty much everyone has daydreamed about running away from everyday life. Away from the job, the debts, the responsibilities, the unreasonable line manager, the commute, the family.
In our fantasy we wish to somehow reinvent ourselves in another part of the country (or another country) and start again without the mistakes and the regrets of the past.
I recall vividly the doubts expressed on the BBC Radio 4 programme The World At One by William Hardcastle (1918-1975) as he questioned the tidal data from the Florida coastguards about the supposed drowning of the Labour MP John Stonehouse in 1974. The tides they suggested would have brought his body back. Stonehouse could not have drowned off that Miami beach. And yet he was declared dead as he had simply vanished.
ITV’s dramatisation of the missing Member of the House of Commons and representative for the Wednesbury constituency in the Midlands Stonehouse was a ironic black comedy that was deftly directed by Jon S. Baird from a script by John Preston.
It seemed a completely crazy story of how a married man with everything anyone could want: power as the Postmaster General, good looks, brains, a beautiful wife and an adoring family and status as an MP on an upward trajectory – how could he or would he have thrown it all away for the love of his beautiful and adoring secretary Sheila Buckley played by Emer Heatley. Whoops – that’s the answer. Sheila was everything that Barbara Stonehouse (Keeley Hawes) was not.
Barbara: plus large stately home, plus children, plus expectations, plus status was what Stonehouse wanted at first but in this drama she didn’t have that loyal, sexy and coquettishness that the testosterone driven MP wanted and found in the adoring Sheila.
There was the wonderfully awkwardness of the two women in his life meeting in Australia where he had fled – when poor duped Barbara suddenly realised the truth about her husband’s disappearance. Not a nervous breakdown but an elaborate ruse to be with his mistress and dump his wife.
Like all good dramas in which the protagonist is a flawed and tragic hero we feel for John Stonehouse. And yet he is also repulsive in his selfishness – his disloyalty and betrayal to his family, colleagues and constituents.
Only in the closing sequences when he partially redeems himself by condemning many of his fellow MPs as simply politicians who are only on the make and have no real thought for the public who voted for them that we get a more rounded picture of the man who ran away. In the scene in which he and Harold Wilson (played by Kevin McNally) have their final fireside chat over a glass or two do we feel that perhaps Stonehouse actually influenced the course of events.
Wilson was to step down shortly afterwards and the rest as they say is history as Stonehouse did a Profumo and tried to resurrect his reputation by talking about nervous breakdowns to anyone who would listen. Tragically comically, comically tragical. This was ITV drama at its best.
Harry Mottram

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