Hailing from John Preston, writer of the novel A Very English Scandal, Stonehouse is your typical British political fare, dipped in the paisley and burnt orange of the 1970s and capped off with wigs that made you wonder what happened to style before Aqua Net and MTV became popular. Much like many of BritBox’s other offerings (or most crime dramas to come out of the UK, really), the series is baked in seedy, underhanded dealings and suspicious persons galore, but manages to stand out from the pack with the uniqueness of its protagonist, who manages to be the absolute worst criminal the world of British politics has ever seen.
One would assume that someone who goes through the motions of faking their own death to avoid criminal charges would be somewhat clever, but that certainly isn’t the case here. Stonehouse flourishes in its protagonist’s inability to be anything other than completely inept, with things quickly devolving as soon as the twenty-minute mark in the first episode. Stonehouse cannot, no matter what he does, pull off any scheme he comes up with, and the series is a bit like watching a car crash in slow motion, the creeping roll of traffic past a three-car pile-up that allows children to leer out the windows, while their parents tell them not to look for the sake of everyone’s dignity.
There are notes of Macfadyen’s Succession performance in John Stonehouse, and perhaps for good reason, since underhanded business dealings and their unfortunate consequences tie both of those characters together like the world’s worst pair of handcuffs. He can hardly keep his head on straight, and if I didn’t know any better about the way the world works, I’d say I’m shocked that a man like Macfadyen’s Stonehouse even had the brain cells to make it into Parliament in the first place. He can talk a big talk — Macfadyen’s monologues are some of the best parts of mostly droll dialogue — but he can’t walk the walk, whether in providing information to the Czechs or creating a new identity to live under in Australia.
And yet, while Stonehouse is bumbling and idiotic, he, like any man caught in a mistake of hilariously stupid proportions, shows a slimier, more devious side the moment he faces the possibility of consequences for actions he is one hundred percent responsible for. It’s impossible (at least for me) to feel any kind of sympathy for such a man, particularly as the show goes on, but it is possible to be morbidly fascinated with his downfall — one that you know is coming, considering the real-life outcome of John Stonehouse’s disappearing act. Any morsel of sympathy Macfadyen could’ve garnered just from being an excellent performer (I’ve got an awful fondness for his Mr. Darcy) is eked out the longer the series stretches on, particularly at any moment he’s dealing with his wife, Barbara, played by Macfadyen’s real wife and fellow actor Keeley Hawes.
Where it’s impossible to sympathize with Stonehouse, I found myself rooting for Barbara, and while I know Hawes and Macfadyen have been pleasantly married for almost twenty years in real life, I take great pleasure in Hawes’ performance as a woman so scorned that she’s often one wrong word from ripping her husband’s head off his shoulders entirely. (And rightly so, perhaps.) While Stonehouse is obviously a vehicle for Macfadyen — and a successful one at that — Hawes shines just as brightly in the limited series, bringing the bite that her husband’s bumbling, inept MP lacks and making you hope for all the best for Barbara while eagerly awaiting Stonehouse’s inevitable downfall. She’s a victim and a voice of reason in equal measure, and pushes the series forward with her righteous anger, as infinitely sharp and compelling as she has been her entire career.
Kevin McNally also offers an impressively deceptive performance as Prime Minister Harold Wilson, whose earnestness seems trustworthy until one realizes that it’s only the product of his satisfaction with his political party, something that wanes over the course of the series and forces him into dealings almost as sinister as that of Stonehouse’s poorly-faked death. Coupled with Macfadyen and Hawes, along with Emer Heatley as Stonehouse’s mistress Sheila, the performances are what drive the limited series, which offers really nothing more than what could be found in a quick Google search about Stonehouse’s crimes — honestly, what comprises five minutes in the final episode translates to three-quarters of the disgraced politician’s Wikipedia page.
Parts of me wish this miniseries were just a tad bit longer — maybe an additional episode on top of the three we got — just to see a bit more of the nitty-gritty of things. Both Stonehouse’s plan to fake his own death and the ultimate consequences that come with his trial feel just the tiniest bit rushed, though I’m sure pushing this to a five (or more) episode series would’ve made me feel precisely the opposite. It trips along at a pace that’s as odd as the true story it’s trying to tell, and Preston’s work on this series does feel as though it’s hitting all the same beats as A Very English Scandal, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Ultimately, Stonehouse fits in well with the rest of BritBox’s offerings, including its ITV-ported siblings like Honour or The Pembrokeshire Murders, and is perfectly serviceable as an easy one-day binge, even if it brings nothing new to the genre. Unsurprisingly, Hawes and Macfadyen are an unbeatable duo, and if nothing else, the series serves as an easy, post-Christmas watch with your grandparents, in a dry time before TV truly begins to kick off for the year.
Stonehouse premieres on BritBox on January 17.