Fraud scandal family MP John Stonehouse pleads for new TV drama | Political past
When John Stonehouse, a dapper minister in Harold Wilson’s Labor government, piled his clothes on a Miami beach in 1974 and disappeared, he left many unresolved questions behind.
Even today, nearly 50 years after it was discovered he faked his own death in an attempt to start a new life in Australia, the facts of his story remain unclear. Was he mentally ill? Was he a traitor? Did he act alone?
Now Stonehouse’s daughter Julia fears baseless accusations will be leveled at her father’s memory in a high-profile new ITV drama, starring real-life husband and wife actors Matthew Macfadyen and Keeley Hawes as Stonehouse and his mother, Barbara, the surviving widow of the late Black Country MP.
“ITV told me that they consulted various sources and that it was a fictionalized account. Because the main character, my father, is dead, no one can prosecute,” she said. this week-end. “The rest of us are just tubes of paint that they can use to paint any story their imaginations throw up. And no one will know what’s really behind it all. I call that a misrepresentation. It’s being polite.
The producers of the three-part series Stone housewho has just finished filming in Birmingham and Coventry, have been helped by Julian Hayes, author of a recent book on the case which argues that Stonehouse, convicted of fraud, not only planned to abandon his wife and family with her lover, but was also a spy who received regular payments from the Czech security services.
Her daughter has already complained to Ofcom about the content of this year’s Channel 4 documentary about the scandal, The Spy Who Died Twicewho came to equally damning conclusions.
“Unfortunately ITV is undoubtedly taking the same line,” she said. “I sent them emails and a letter to Channel 4 about their documentary. Theirs was based on a book called Agent Tornado, which they assumed to be reliable. I have a major problem with his research on Czech documents. Letters of complaint were also sent to Hayes’ editor, including one from my mother.
An ITV spokeswoman said she was unable to comment as the drama is still in production.
Hayes, author of Stonehouse: Cabinet minister, fraudster, spyis convinced by the evidence of the MP’s betrayal, the apparent proof of which was originally presented to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher by a Czech defector after Stonehouse died of a heart attack in 1988.
Hayes, who is the son of Stonehouse’s nephew, says in his book that his relative took money for information, arguing that the Czechs “advanced him over £5,000 (the equivalent of over £76,000 £ today)”.
But Julia Stonehouse, who released her own book about her father last year, John Stonehouse, My Father: The True Story of the Runaway MPis certain that the terrible events of 1974 were caused by her father’s addiction to psychotropic prescription drugs and his poor mental health.
“He was mad. Bonkers,” she said over the weekend. “We knew that. He had poor sanity, coupled with the effects of the Mandrax, [a sedative] also says Quaaludes, whom he took in 1966 when he was a minister, flying everywhere.
She does not believe he planned his disappearance in cahoots with his constituency secretary and lover, Sheila Buckley, and she says contemporary newspaper reports claiming he sent Buckley’s clothes to Australia, before putting in scene of his own drowning in Florida, are false.
“The idea he had was based on the contents of the trunk sent by my father,” she said. “We know where he went and who opened it, and it’s not true that his clothes were inside. But it sparked a story that spanned decades.
Stonehouse was arrested in Melbourne later in 1974 and Buckley received a suspended sentence for her alleged involvement. The couple later married.
Stonehouse’s daughter, 71, has made a living as a ghost writer since her family found themselves in the middle of an infamous national storm. “I was 24 when it all started,” she said over the weekend. “I knew Sheila well because she was in my father’s office, but obviously not well enough! My mom is 91 now and will still have to watch all that shit. It’s horrible.
But John Preston, the acclaimed screenwriter of the new ITV drama, said over the weekend that he hoped viewers would sympathize with Stonehouse. He said he couldn’t comment on Julia’s fears but did, he said, put the painful love story at the center of his version.
“It seemed to me that the heart of the story was a love triangle. And that’s something that people will relate to,” said Preston, who wrote the book. A very English scandal, which was later adapted for television starring Hugh Grant as disgraced Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe. Preston also wrote Excavation, the story of the Sutton Hoo treasure and a study of the life of Robert Maxwell, which is to be filmed. Time, Preston believes, gives perspective to real events.
“Your greatest responsibility is to tell the story in the most gripping and entertaining way possible. If you have to get rid of a few tangents to do that, you have to. I started writing Stone house before the release of the Hayes or Julia books. So I was not influenced by them,” he said.
Julia Stonehouse wanted to share documents with the drama’s production team but was not welcome, she claims. She thinks the Czech handlers who said they paid her father were simply bragging about pleasing their Soviet masters.
Preston sees echoes of the 1970s in today’s politics, which may explain the value of revisiting these histories. “The parallels are coincidental, and I hope our drama is a funny and poignant story. I don’t want to tell the audience that this guy is a terrible person. I want them to decide,” he said. .
Looking back at photographs of politicians from the 1970s, Preston thinks Stonehouse and Thorpe stand out. “They were both suave and glamorous and they did very well on television.
“The others look like gray donuts.”