When John Stonehouse, Harold Wilson’s stylish cabinet minister Work government, folded his clothes on a beach in Miami in 1974 and disappeared, he left behind many unresolved questions.
Even today, almost 50 years after it was discovered that he faked his own death to try to start a new life in Australia, the facts of his story remain in question. Was he mentally ill? Was he a traitor? Did he act alone?
Now Stonehouse’s daughter, Julia, fears the baseless allegations will be thrown at her father’s memory in a high-profile new ITV drama starring the real-life husband and wife. Matthew Macfadyen and Keely Hawes as Stonehouse and her mother Barbara, the surviving widow of the late Black Country MP.
“ITV have told me that they have looked at various sources and that this is a fictitious account. Since the main character, my father, is dead, no one can sue,” she said this weekend. “The rest of us are just tubes of paint with which they can paint any story their imaginations can conjure up. And no one will know what is really behind all this. I call it distortion. It means being polite.’
Producers of the three-episode series Tenement housewhich has just finished shooting in Birmingham and Coventry, was assisted by Julian Hayes, author of a recent book about the case, which claims that Stonehouse, who was convicted of fraud, not only planned to abandon his wife and family with his lover, but was also a spy who regularly received money from the Czech security services.
His 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 the same damning conclusions.
“Unfortunately, ITV is certainly following the same line,” she said. “I sent them emails and a letter to Channel 4 about their documentary. Theirs is based on a book called Agent twister, which they believed to be reliable. I have a big problem with his research on Czech documents. Letters of complaint were also sent to Hayes’ publisher, including from my mother.’
An ITV spokeswoman said she was unable to comment as the drama was still in production.
Hayes, author Stonehouse: Cabinet Minister, Fraudster, Spyconvincing evidence of the MP’s betrayal, clear evidence of which was initially presented to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher by a Czech defector after Stonehouse’s death from 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, claiming that the Czechs “handed him over £5,000 (equivalent to over £76,000 today)”.
But Julia Stonehouse, who last year published her own book about her father, John Stonehouse, My Father: The True Story of a Fugitive MP, certain that the horrific events of 1974 were caused by her father’s addiction to mood-altering drugs and his mental illness.
“He was crazy. Bonkers,” she said this weekend. “We knew that. He had poor mental health combined with the effects of Mandrax, [a sedative] also known as Quaaludes, which he took in 1966 when he was a government minister, flying everywhere.”
She does not believe he planned his disappearance in collusion with his county secretary and lover, Sheila Buckley, and says contemporary newspaper stories that he sent Buckley’s clothes ahead to Australia before staging his own fake drowning in Florida are not correspond to reality.
“The idea he was planning is based on the contents of the trunk my father sent,” she said. “We know where it went and who opened it and it’s not true that her clothes were inside. But it started a story that lasted for decades.”
Stonehouse was arrested in Melbourne later in 1974 and Buckley received a suspended sentence for her alleged involvement. Later the couple got married.
Stonehouse’s 71-year-old daughter has been making a living as a ghostwriter since her family was at the center of the infamous national firestorm. “I was 24 when it all started,” she said this weekend. “I knew Sheila well because she was in my father’s office, but obviously not well enough! My mother is now 91 and will have to watch all this crap again. It’s horrible.”
But John Preston, the acclaimed screenwriter of the new ITV drama, said this weekend that he hoped viewers would take to Stonehouse with sympathy. He said he could not comment on Julia’s concerns, but he said he put the painful love affair at the center of his version.
“It seemed to me that the heart of the story is a love triangle. And that’s what people will identify with,” said Preston, the book’s author A very English scandal, which was later adapted for television with Hugh Grant as disgraced Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe. Preston also wrote To digthe story of the treasures of Sutton Hu and a a study of the life of Robert Maxwell, which is planned to be removed. Time, Preston believes, gives perspective to real events.
“Your biggest responsibility is to tell the story in as exciting and entertaining a way as possible. If you have to go off on a few tangents to do this, you should. I started writing Tenement house before Hayes or Julia’s books came out. So they didn’t affect me,” he said.
Julia Stonehouse wanted to share the documents with the drama’s production team but was not welcome, she claims. She believes that the Czech designers who said they paid her father were just bragging to please their Soviet masters.
Preston sees echoes of the 1970s in today’s politics, which may explain the interest in revisiting these stories. “The parallels are accidental, and I hope our drama is a funny and poignant story. I don’t want to tell the audience that this guy is a horrible person. I want them to decide,” he said.
Looking back at photos of politicians from the 1970s, Preston thinks Stonehouse and Thorpe stand out. “They were both demure and glamorous and they did very well on TV.
“The rest look like gray doughnuts.”