John Stonehouse: The Politics, Espionage, and Controversy Behind the Miniseries

The colloquialism “having skeletons in the closet” resonates to a greater or lesser degree with most families. That idiom evokes flashbacks of awkward Christmases, where a relative may succumb to drunkenness and a negligent slip of the tongue, provoking more ‘in-the-know’ family members to swiftly escort them off before all is revealed.

In my family, however, the closet door is very much ajar for each one of us to not only have a peek, but a good old rummage around. What distinguishes our family even further, is that the contents of that closet are accessible to the outside world. Last Summer, my father Julian Hayes released Stonehouse: Cabinet Minister, Fraudster, Spy, and following its release, ITV announced the production of a brand new three-part miniseries called Stonehouse, starring Matthew Macfadyen set to be released later this year.

John Stonehouse: Cabinet Minister

The year is 1968. While Vietnam and America were embroiled in the worst genocidal onslaught ever to take place within Vietnamese domains, the US mourned the death of arguably its greatest civil rights advocate Martin Luther King. Meanwhile, Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to re-establish order during the Prague Spring uprisings. In the comfortable confines of his constituency office deep into Black Country territory, Labour MP John Stonehouse was swiftly and discretely concluding his dealings with the StB, A.K.A the Czech Secret Service. Unbeknownst to him, this symbolized the beginning of the end for this decorated cabinet minister, who was soon to become the architect of his own, astounding downfall.

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More of a Connery than a Craig, Stonehouse was a real-life personification of Ian Fleming’s fictional James Bond. A tall, dark, and handsome man, with an eye for the finer things in life. Enlisted as an RAF pilot during World War 2, Stonehouse was more accustomed to piloting a Spitfire than a You Only Live Twice Autogyro. Rising to political acclaim in the 1950s, Stonehouse quickly became a formidable force within the Labour Party ranks, before establishing himself as a junior minister under Harold Wilson.

In the midst of political reform, after Labour’s 14-year hiatus, their return to government signified newfound hope and optimism following the hardship of the 1950s. With the considerable reconstruction of flattened parts of the U.K. that were decimated at the hands of a fascist dictatorship in Nazi Germany. Patriotic morality was at an all-time high, international dealings seemed as distant a prospect as they were geographically, but John Stonehouse had an entirely different agenda.

John Stonehouse: Fraudster

Leapfrogging ourselves into a new decade, six years on from 1968 to 1974, plastered across the front of the Daily Mail was the headline, “Missing: Labour MP John Stonehouse feared to have drowned along the Miami coast.” A pile of clothes found on the golden beaches of Miami seemed to be all that was left of the MP for North Walsall, suspected to have disappeared when swimming in the Atlantic.

Six weeks after his suspected death, an ‘English gentleman’ was spotted frequenting the banks of Melbourne, Australia, depositing large sums of money under two different names. After a period of undercover investigation undertaken by Australian authorities, the man was detained by Australian Police on Christmas Eve, 1974.

Following hours of rigorous interrogation, the writing was on the wall; Stonehouse had been rumbled after faking his own death six weeks prior. Ultimately, a scar on his upper left thigh revealed his identity. He had actually been mistaken for the recently vanished member of royalty, Lord Lucan, who had disappeared concurrently, and was wanted for murder. Interestingly, Lord Lucan had been considered for the role of James Bond during the casting process, partly due to his lavish, extravagant tastes and dashing, striking looks. Sought after by British authorities for fraud, John Stonehouse was hundreds of thousands of pounds in debt. He had made haste with his mistress, Sheila Buckley, staging his own death to evade punishment, leaving his entire former life in his wake, including his position as MP and then-wife and children.

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Upon capture, John Stonehouse returned to British shores, where he awaited trial. Surprisingly, he continued his duties as MP for Walsall, to the dismay and outrage of his constituents. In August 1976, following a three-month trial, John Stonehouse was found guilty at the Old Bailey of charges of fraud and theft. He was given a custodial sentence of seven years, which he served at HMP Brixton.

John Stonehouse: Spy

Throughout his political career, Stonehouse and his Labour compatriots alike (including Prime Minister Harold Wilson), were often forced to deny repetitive allegations that he was operating as an undercover double agent for the Czech government. It wasn’t until after his death in 1988, that ‘Kolon’ (Stonehouse) was outed as a former Czech spy. A Czech whistleblower had revealed that Stonehouse had been feeding Czechoslovakian secret services leaked information on aviation and trade deals discussed in UK Parliament. This was confirmed officially in 2010, with the opening of the National Archives.

Film lovers are all too partial to scandalous political crime dramas, and realistic spy movies. The vast successes enjoyed by the James Bond and Jason Bourne franchises are evidence of the iron-like grip they have on their audiences. The story of Stonehouse is perhaps stranger than fiction and combines the ingredients for a truly mouth-watering screenplay that could transfer brilliantly onto the big screen, and could have a scintillating biopic made about him. We’ll have to see if the ITV miniseries Stonehouse does the job.

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