It would be difficult to play the story of John Stonehouse, the Labour MP who faked his own death in 1974, as tragedy; his downfall was entirely self-inflicted, and his suffering thereafter on the limited side (convicted of fraud, he served just three years in prison). But still, I hadn’t expected ITV’s new drama about him to be such a caper – and weirdly timely with it. To anyone who may be under the illusion that no greater wazzock than Matt Hancock has ever tip-toed the corridors of Westminster, I give you the former member for Walsall North, a buffoon beyond the imaginings even of a generation currently bracing itself for the next series of Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins, in which you-know-who is poised to appear.
For this new year palate cleanser we must first thank John Preston, its writer. The territory of this series is purest catnip for him – Preston wrote the book on which the BBC’s A Very English Scandal, about Jeremy Thorpe, was based, though this is his first screenplay – and he duly finds rich opportunities for satire, irony and a certain kind of parochial shabbiness even in those rare moments when his disgraceful protagonist isn’t on screen. Informed by aides that Stonehouse’s mother was once a scullery maid, for instance, the newly elected Harold Wilson (an excellent impersonation from Kevin McNally), responds: “Better give him aviation, then” – and thus, for no better reason than his roots are working class, Stonehouse is appointed a junior minister.
Preston also has Stonehouse singing a song – “rocking, rolling, riding…” – he learned as a boy at Woodcraft Folk (scouting for socialists, if you’re wondering) to his small son, only for the same small son to say to his father a little later: “Some people have all the luck!” (At this point, his father, up to his eyes in debt, is about to fly to Miami to perform his disappearing act.) Did Wilson really once tell Stonehouse, something of a looker in Labour Party terms, that whenever his own wife Mary saw him on television, the PM brought to mind “an old saucepan”? It hardly matters if he didn’t. This is dialogue that does so much more than merely move the action along.
And then, of course, there is the series’ star, Matthew Macfadyen, resplendent in a car coat and a pair of greying sideburns. I would watch Macfadyen in anything at this point, but in the case of Stonehouse, the casting is perfect: his character is basically a cut-price version – more stupid, more obvious, more hairy – of Tom Wambsgans, the everyday monster he plays in Succession. Covering Stonehouse’s peculiar flagrancy with a series of furtive expressions that are straight out of the Usborne Book of Spycraft (adored since childhood, I have this volume still and have been able to check), Macfadyen gives him a nakedness that would be almost touching if he wasn’t so selfish and venal. Though pretty much everyone takes him for a fool – even his loyal wife, Barbara (Keeley Hawes, magnificent in a series of funky Seventies cardigans) – they don’t credit him with being capable of wrongdoing because, well, how could someone so straightforwardly oblivious be a crook?
But he is a crook, his crimes born first of opportunism and then of desperation. In Czechoslovakia on UK government trade business, he strolls straight into a honey trap; in the throes of passion, he looks like a giant grouper fish, open-mouthed and open-everything-else too. The Czechs having duly suggested he spies for them – the alternative is that his bare bum will soon appear on the front page of the Daily Mirror – all he can say is: “Will I be paid?” Alas, he’s too hapless to be of any use in the espionage stakes. “You’re the worst spy I’ve ever come across,” says his handler at the Czech embassy, after Agent Twister delivers the non-shattering news that the British government is to introduce two kinds of stamp (first and second class; Stonehouse is now postmaster general).
After this, one disaster leads smoothly to another. The Eastern Bloc money dries up; Wilson, no more impressed than the Czechs, demotes him; his various businesses (one deals in “oven mitts”) go belly up; all he can do is transfer money between bank accounts, as if he’s just playing Monopoly. He’s even a rubbish socialist: his children attend flashy private schools, whose fees he can no longer pay.
Stonehouse’s secret plan to escape this mess, hatched following a trip with his secretary (and lover) to see The Day of the Jackal, is completely and utterly preposterous. But herein lies the joy of this series: a sense of catharsis I expect only to grow with successive episodes (as I write, I’ve seen only one). While the element of farce involved – Stonehouse hopes to let the world think he has drowned off the coast of America – is pleasingly heightened by the fact we know his new identity will remain intact for only a matter of weeks, it’s his ironclad pomposity that really has us rubbing our hands with glee; his absolute conviction that he can get away with anything, even this.
Don’t we recognise it, after all? Isn’t this why Stonehouse is horribly resonant as well as wildly entertaining? Oh, the grandiose delusions of those who would lead us! The way they just have a go – at any job going. Tell me: which do you think is the crazier? For an inept and inexperienced man quite naturally to assume he should be in the running to be the next leader of his party and thus to govern the country, or for him to believe he can escape ruin by leaving his passport atop a carefully folded pile of clothes on a Florida beach? For me – and perhaps for all of us, post-Hancock and (especially) post-Liz Truss – there really isn’t very much in it, if I’m honest.