Succession star Matthew Macfadyen talks about playing disappearing politician John Stonehouse opposite real life wife Keeley Hawes
In Succession, Macfadyen plays Tom Wambsgans a TV executive who runs the global news outlet ATN. He’s wily, devious, occasionally ingratiating, not to be trusted in any regard and, says Macfadyen “a gift to play.”
The only downsides to his award-grabbing year were, he recalls: “Being in the freezing cold water on the coast of Spain, pretending that it was high summer on a beach in Miami, and not getting back on stage again. Malaga in March was pretty darned chilly, trust me.
“I haven’t been in a play, live in front of an audience, for about ten years. Too, too long. And such a lot of great work is being done outside London these days. If the (Sheffield) Crucible came calling, I’d be all ears about what they might have to offer, believe me. The only drawback would be having to work away from home – our kids are at an age where family time is all important. But never say ‘never.’”
Those chilly seaside sequences will be seen in a brand-new three-part drama series, Stonehouse, in which he plays a Labour Party politician who tried to fake his own death, way back in 1974. Matthew plays John Thomson Stonehouse, a complex man who became the MP for the constituency of Walsall North, and briefly found favour with the then Prime Minister, Huddersfield’s own Harold Wilson. Stonehouse became Postmaster General and then, at a time when new technology was peeking over the horizon, the Minister for Posts and Telecommunications. He was the man who announced, and implemented the two-tier postal system of first and second-class stamps.
“He was also an incorrigible rogue, a reprobate, and a serial philanderer – in other words, in a TV drama, it’s a wonderful role to be given,” says Macfadyan adding loved “the complexity of the man – he was incredibly vain, for a start. He went off on a trade mission to what was then Czechoslovakia, part of the ‘Russian Empire’ of the time, and he was ‘turned’ by their security forces, and became their spy in the heart of the Government. Well, one of them, one that we know of. There were a lot of MPs and Trades Union leaders who were paid quite nicely by the Soviet bloc. He always denied that part, but it seems that he was probably one of the most uselessly inept spies ever, peculiarly bad, and never gave them a shred of anything that would have compromised security in any way at all. Unbelievably hopeless, while being silly and chaotic at the same time.
"He had expensive tastes and that was all reflected in his business dealings – when things turned belly-up, that was when he realised he had to get out, and that the only thing he could do was to find a ‘new life’ in some way, a fresh identity. He planned to disappear in a tragic swimming accident while in Florida, and then fly to Australia, where he would re-invent himself, and start afresh with his mistress, Sheila Buckley – who had been his parliamentary secretary. It is so surreal that it is almost unbelievable – but the story is true. It’s funny, sad, and fascinating. When my 16 year old asked me about what I was doing, I gave the outline to him, and he said, ‘Oh dad, that’s got to be made up’, and I had to convince him that it was indeed, based on verifiable fact!” He laughs: “I kept on going back and wondering why he thought that he could get away with this completely lunatic thing, when a little voice of common sense in his brain would have told him that it was all going to unravel at some point. I suppose that, inside his head, he was telling himself that he was a very romantic and dashing character.
Although Macfadyen did spend time researching Stonehouse, his background and the incredible story, “there is a point when you have to leave all of that behind, and to rely on the script. As an actor, the last thing that you want to do is an impersonation – when I played Major Charles Ingram in Quiz, the story of how he cheated on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, I looked at the footage of the TV show, for sure, and what I hoped I delivered was the ‘flavour’ of the man. Martin (Sheen), who played Chris Tarrant, the host of the programme, had a far more difficult task, because everyone knows Tarrant, and few knew anything about the Major and his mannerisms and lifestyle.”
He and Keeley Hawes met, and fell in love, on the set of Spooks, the long-running spy drama created by David Wolstencraft, and which ran for many series on BBC TV. They married – but Stonehouse is the first time that they have played husband and wife on screen. “Of course, there’s a ‘shorthand’,” he laughs, “but you have to be true to the person that you are playing. Keeley is wonderful as Barbara Stonehouse, but if we had a scene together (and there are plenty) as soon as our director shouted ‘cut’, we’d go straight back into discussing the important things – like who would walk the dog that night, and how the children were doing at school”.
If that beach scene had to be Spain (“a Miami location simply wasn’t possible, for budget reasons, but I have to tell you that was definitely me in my swimming shorts, there was no stunt double involved, and all the crew and the director had those insulating dry suits on, to prevent them from getting hypothermia – I did not have that luxury. Two takes were quite enough for me”) then the ones in the House of Commons were equally fake, but are incredibly convincing. “I think that’s where the money went,” ponders Macfadyen, “because if they didn’t look true to life, then I’m afraid you’d be in trouble with your audience. Let’s just say that we had an absolutely fantastic designer. I loved the scene where Stonehouse was declaiming about his achievements in the Commons – I was giving it my all.”
When he’d served his sentence (Stonehouse was sent to prison for seven years, had a heart attack inside, and came out after three) the disgraced ex-minister wrote thrillers, to try to make some money. “I didn’t read any of them. I’ve been told that they are sub-Jeffrey Archer, so that’s quite enough. He was, underneath it all, a very frail and flawed human being. He was so naïve – when he fled Miami, his ‘disguise’ was to part his hair on the other side of his head, and he thought that would fool everyone. He was a serial betrayer of women – but one of the good things about him was that he did genuinely fall in love with Sheila, and that they stayed together. She really loved him, too. You simply cannot play a one-dimensional villain, there must be sympathy somewhere, and empathy, as well. I think that, in a lot of ways, he was rather like a David Niven character in one of the early Pink Panther movies. A bit of a cad, and to use the old-fashioned word, a ‘bounder’” No-one could ever see John Stonehouse as heroic.”
Stonehouse, ITV 1, January 2023