Stonehouse's real-life family speak out on drama starring Matthew Macfadyen: 'It's a disappointment'
The real-life family of MP John Stonehouse have delivered their verdict on the new ITV drama starring Matthew Macfadyen and Keeley Hayes.
Family member and lawyer Julian Hayes, who aged nine vividly remembers his great uncle going missing in 1974 and the scandal that follows, said: "The new series is really disappointing."
Having personally lived through it and later went on to delve into great research to pen the biography of his uncle, Stonehouse: Cabinet Minister, Fraudster, Spy - Julian felt the TV series failed to capture the story in its entirety.
The lawyer felt especially let down with the Old Bailey courtroom trial being "overlooked". The Stonehouse scandal was on the frontpage of every newspaper at the time and sent ripples across the world with the extraordinary story of a politician who walked into the sea and vanished without a trace.
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Only later, the MP was discovered living under a different name in Australia - having faked his death - sending the media into a frenzy. Stonehouse then had to face the reality of his business failures, Czech spy allegations and of course the family he had left behind.
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"The most shocking [part of the story] is the callous way John abandoned his family," great nephew Julian told HELLO! “He was prepared to do what he did to disappear."
Keeley Hawes and Matthew Macfadyen in their Stonehouse characters
Speaking to HELLO!, the author laid bare the heartache the Stonehouse family endured as a consequence of his great uncle’s actions and expressed his own disappointment with the ITV series. "The story begs to be told again," he said…
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Having written a book about John Stonehouse's life, why do you think it's important to tell the story of his life?
There are lessons to be learned from the story. The same mistakes are still being made by many of the politicians that we have in power and it perhaps highlights that it is still there in our lifetime. We need to ensure that politicians uphold the highest possible standards in our time. There are a lot of lessons to be learned. But I think the main thing with this is it is such an extraordinary story and not one that will ever be repeated. It is almost impossible for people to disappear now. It is one of those stories that is worth telling time and time again. There are all different aspects that clearly can be highlighted in this story, whether it's the Czech spy allegations, whether it's the political career, whether it's the mess that he got in with his business, the disappearance and all the other political ramifications that arose.
Relative Julian has written a biography on John Stonehouse
Then on top of that, there's the drama of a trial that played out. That in itself is a drama which to me was a bit of a disappointment to me with the production that we have. But certainly there are all these aspects to it which just make it such a fascinating and extraordinary story.
What has been the reaction from those you know about the series so far?
I think most people I know have been disappointed with it. Anybody who has read my book. It was a laugh and how it was done was a laugh. It was just a comedy drama. That is what is really disappointing. To be honest the whole story begs to be retold again. It’s one of those stories that keeps giving.
Why was the courtroom drama side of the production a disappointment for you?
It's a whole series of things. I think that the drama of the courtroom basically encapsulated all that had gone on… As part of Stonehouse’s defence, he attacked various members of the family and friends, including my father. There was a very dramatic time where they locked horns in court where he was cross-examining my father directly. All those aspects were played out in the world, in court number one at the Old Bailey but it was not in any way properly covered in the TV series. It was overlooked as a significant event in terms of what went on.
Stonehouse's relative felt the trial was "overlooked"
The drama does not in any way provide any substance to the story. It really is just a frothy comedy in my view that frankly doesn’t allow for the characters to have developed. Particular characters involved appear cliched, rather than being a genuine attempt to try and examine those characters and indeed the people who suffered as a result of his behaviour of which there were many.
What did you think of Matthew Mcfayden’s portrayal of John Stonehouse?
Actors are there to portray the script and if the script is written in such a way, they are going to have to portray it in that way, that’s what they are paid for. Unfortunately, the script hammed up Stonehouse and Matthew Macfadyen is the perfect actor for that. He’s also a very serious actor and I think he would have done a very good job if indeed it was portrayed as a serious case. It wasn't. He played it as he had been asked to do.
What was your response to the real-life story?
I have very, very vivid memories as a nine-year-old of him disappearing and everything else that arose. Indeed I have very clear recollections of his mistress - although we didn’t know it at the time - who came over to stay. When he disappeared, the press just went wild. When he was discovered, the press went even more wild. You have seen the level of interest, and this is 50 years on, imagine what it was like at that time.
It was on the front page of every newspaper and it was like that for three years. It was on all the news programmes. It just didn’t go away. I remember coming home, stepping through photographers, they were crazy times. For a child of nine, you are very impressionable. Life seemed a little bit boring after all of that.
Stonehouse was discovered under a different name in Australia. I remember all that. My mum was very incensed. When he came back, she drove down to London with us all, myself and my sister, with the intention to throw eggs at the passing convoy. Whilst we were armed with eggs, we never did. Although I couldn't quite understand the impact it's having on my parents, it was clear it had a big impact. My father never spoke to John again and clearly felt very betrayed as a result of it.
What for you strikes me as the most sort of shocking part of the story and why?
The trouble is there are so many shocking parts to the story. I think the most shocking is the callous way he abandoned his family. He was prepared to do what he did, to disappear. His three children and his wife thought he was dead. The rest of the family had to clear up the mess he had created.
What inspired you to write your book?
Curiosity. It was an extraordinary time living through it. You see the impact it has had on my family. The more I delved into archives, the more extraordinary the story became. It was very much curiosity that drove me initially. I didn’t believe he had been a spy for the Czechs but when I analysed the documents that’s what convinced me he had worked with them. That in itself was something that was a revelation.
Do you have any advice for anyone who would like to do the next TV series?
Speak to me and I will provide you with everything. I've approached it very much as a lawyer. I've tried to be as factual as possible. I’ve tried to remain as objective as possible. I don't have any ill feelings towards John. I'm more interested in what drove him to what he did and I deal with many criminal cases.
HELLO! reached out to ITV for a response:
John Preston's Stonehouse is based on years of extensive research, dramatising the aspects of the story that interested him most to create a rich, colourful and poignant account of an unforgettable politician.
Stonehouse: Cabinet Minister, Fraudster, Spy by Julian Hayes is out now in paperback (Robinson, £10.99)
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