The remarkable true story behind ITV drama Stonehouse

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On 20 November, 1974, a man left his clothes in a neat pile on a Miami beach, walked into the sea, and never returned. Later that day, a waiter at a nearby hotel found the man’s clothes and the police were alerted. A search began, but the man could not be found. That man was John Stonehouse, Labour MP for Walsall North and a former Postmaster General in Harold Wilson’s government.

Stonehouse had been a rising star in Wilson’s government of 1964, with his sights set on high office. But things didn’t go as swimmingly as he’d hoped, and within a few years he was in financial ruin, his marriage was over, he had been questioned by MI5 on suspicion of being a spy for the Czech secret service, and he ended up faking his own death in Miami.

In the new ITV drama, Stonehouse, written by John Preston, real-life couple Matthew Macfadyen and Keeley Hawes play the politician and his wife, Barbara. The show chronicles the MP’s steep rise and fall, and his outlandish escape plan.

There are many conflicting stories about what Stonehouse was really up to in the years before his disappearance, and his daughter Julia has already condemned the drama.

“ITV have told me they’ve looked at various sources and that it is a fictionalised account. Because the principal character, my father, is dead, no one can sue,” she told The Guardian earlier this year. “The rest of us are just tubes of paint they can use to paint whatever story their imagination comes up with. And nobody will know what is really behind it all. I call it a misrepresentation. That is being polite.”

She is certain his disappearance was to do with his mental health. “He was crazy. Bonkers,” she said. “We knew that. He had bad mental health, coupled with the effects of Mandrax, [a sedative] also known as Quaaludes, that he was taking in 1966 while he was a government minister, flying about everywhere.”

What we do know, is that for more than a decade before he vanished, Stonehouse regularly met with “diplomats” from the Czech Embassy in London at the height of the Cold War. He was, according to the Czechs, paid around £5,000 for his services to them, which was a lot of money at the time.

His daughter has claimed that his relationship with the Czechs was kosher, and that none of the payments ever reached him, while others suspect he was selling secrets.

Stonehouse denied to MI5 that he was the Czechs’ “Agent Kolon”, and that he’d done anything wrong, but this cloud of suspicion caused a stink, and his political career was doomed after that.

Seeking success outside of politics, Stonehouse set up various companies in an attempt to make money. By 1974, most of them were in financial trouble, and he caught the attention of the Department of Trade and Industry.

Real-life couple Hawes and Macfadyen in ‘Stonehouse’ (ITV)
Real-life couple Hawes and Macfadyen in ‘Stonehouse’ (ITV)

Then, in 1974, he jetted off to Miami, faked his own death, and escape to Australia under an assumed name. It was believed that he had been having an affair with his secretary, Sheila Buckley, and that he fled to build a new life with her, leaving his wife and three children in the UK to mourn his death.

Before long, the police got reports of an unusual Englishman who was making suspicious transactions in banks all around Melbourne. When they apprehended and questioned him, they ask if he was the runaway peer, Lord Lucan, who was wanted for the murder of his nanny in London and, to this day, has never been found.

Stonehouse was found to be carrying a false passport in the name of Joseph Markham – the dead husband of a constituent. It’s thought he got the idea of stealing his identity from the 1973 movie The Day of the Jackal.

But the police figured out that he was the missing MP, and Stonehouse was sent back to the UK, declared bankrupt and convicted of fraud. He received a seven-year sentence but was freed after three years.

In 1981, Stonehouse married his former secretary, Buckley, and the pair had a son together, James William John.

Stonehouse died of a heart attack aged 62 in 1988.

Stonehouse will be shown first on ITV on Monday, January 2 2023 at 9pm, and will be available in full on ITVX after that.