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A flawed portrait: Lord Hodgson reviews 'Stonehouse'

Matthew Macfadyen as John Stonehouse | Image courtesy of ITVX

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts

3 min read

Although Stonehouse captures the essence of the disgraced former MP’s wife and secretary, the ITV drama does less well in its portrayal of the ruthlessly ambitious man I knew

I lost the seat of Walsall North (for the second time that year) in the October 1974 general election by the not insignificant margin of some 16,000 votes. That appeared to be that. However at 2.30am one morning, a few weeks later, I was rung by a Daily Mail journalist to say that my opponent, John Stonehouse – missing and believed dead – had been found alive in Australia and did I have any comment? So commenced the long and tortuous road that led to my becoming the MP for Walsall North at a by-election in November 1976 with a majority of 5,000! This and other by-election losses led to the creation of the Lab-Lib pact.

This three-part television drama on John Stonehouse’s career covers most of the bases though individual events are elided and their chronology changed to give dramatic impetus. Of course the defeated Conservative candidate for Walsall North was never going to be aware of the views or actions of Harold Wilson, the then-prime minister, though rumour suggested he did not trust Stonehouse. I recall at our October count he walked about with a little transistor radio glued to his ear (no mobile phones then). As the result began to show that Wilson would remain as prime minister, he went home realising that his hopes of political advancement were gone. 

As to the characters, the programme captures well the essence of Barbara Stonehouse (Keeley Hawes) who always appeared a wonderfully supportive wife, well rooted in the Labour Party, and was also scrupulously polite to her husband’s rather insignificant opponent; and Sheila Buckley (Emer Heatley) too, clearly devoted to Stonehouse with the inevitable local gossip that her devotion went beyond secretarial duties!

I can never recall him being anything other than completely in control of himself and of events

But the programme does less well with the man himself. Stonehouse was, in my memory, a very smooth operator with a much harder more ruthless edge. For example by February 1974 he had already seen off two sitting Labour MPs, Stanley Evans in Wednesbury – his previous seat – for voting with the Conservatives over Suez and William Wells QC the then-Walsall MP at boundary redistribution.

Local rumour suggested persistent, personal financial strain – in particular during his time at the cooperative movement in East Africa, not covered in the programme. Though it makes for good television much less was heard at that time about the Czech spying episodes.

As played by Matthew Macfadyen – slightly unfocused with unkempt hair and very often a look of surprise on his face – it seems unlikely that Stonehouse would have dealt with these huge pressures for as long as he did. And I can never recall him being anything other than completely in control of himself and of events.

As for his treatment of me, he was always perfectly considerate, but then I was a mere pebble in the path of his ambition. His problem was that heady cocktail of power, ambition, money and sex; the downfall of many politicians in the past and no doubt in the future as well.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts is a Conservative peer

Directed by: Jon S Baird
Broadcaster: ITVX

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