When John Stonehouse, a stylish cabinet minister in Harold Wilson’s Labor government, piled up his clothes on a beach in Miami in 1974 and disappeared, he left many unsolved questions behind him.
Even today, almost 50 years after he was discovered to have 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 that unfounded accusations are to be thrown at her father’s memory in a high-profile new ITV drama, starring the real-life husband-and-wife actors Matthew Macfadyen and Keeley Hawes as Stonehouse and her mother, Barbara , the late Black Country MP’s then wife.
“ITV have told me they’ve looked at various sources and that it is a fictionalized account. Because the principal character, my father, is dead, no one can sue,” she said this weekend. “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’s being polite.”
The producers of the three part series stone housewhich has just finished filming in Birmingham and Coventry, were helped by Julian Hayes, author of a recent book about the case which maintains 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 took regular payments 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 Twicewhich came to similarly damning conclusions.
“Sadly, ITV are undoubtedly taking the same line,” she said. “I have sent emails to them and a letter to Channel 4 about their documentary. Theirs was based on a book called Agent Twister, which they assumed was reliable. I have a major issue with its research on the Czech documents. Letters of complaint have also been sent to Hayes’s publisher, including one from my mother.”
Keely Winstone, the director of the Channel 4 documentary and co-author of Agent Twister, said the assertions of both were “based on the meticulous translation and examination of thousands of pages of contemporary government documents in both the Czech and UK archives”.
A spokeswoman for ITV said it was not able to comment as the drama is still in production.
Hayes, the author of Stonehouse: Cabinet Minister, Fraudster, Spyis convinced by evidence of the MP’s treachery, apparent proof of which was originally 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, arguing that the Czechs “advanced him in excess of £5,000 (equivalent to over £76,000 today)”.
But Julia Stonehouse, who brought out her own book about her father last year, John Stonehouse, My Father: The True Story of the Runaway MPis certain the terrible events of 1974 were prompted by her father’s reliance on mood-altering prescription drugs and his mental ill health.
“He was crazy. Bonkers,” she said this weekend. “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.”
She does not believe he planned his disappearance in cahoots with his constituency secretary and lover, Sheila Buckley, and she says that contemporary newspaper stories claiming he had sent Buckley’s clothes out ahead to Australia, before staging his own fake drowning in Florida, are untrue.
“The idea he planned it rests on the contents of the trunk my father sent,” she said. “We know where it went and who opened it, and it is not true that her clothes were inside. But it set a story going that has lasted decades.”
Stonehouse was arrested in Melbourne later in 1974, and Buckley received a suspended sentence for her alleged involvement. The pair later married.
Stonehouse’s daughter, 71, has earned her living as a ghostwriter since her family found themselves in the middle of an infamous national storm. “I was 24 when it all kicked off,” she said this weekend. “I knew Sheila well because she was in my father’s office, but obviously not well enough! My mother is 91 now and will have to watch all this crap again. It’s horrific.”
But John Preston, the acclaimed screenwriter of the new ITV drama, said this weekend he hopes viewers will be sympathetic to Stonehouse. He said he could not comment on Julia’s fears but has, he said, put the painful love affair at the center of his version.
“It seemed to me that the heart of the story was a love triangle. And that is something people are going to identify with,” said Preston, who wrote the book A Very English Scandal, which was later adapted for television starring Hugh Grant as the disgraced Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe. Preston also wrote The Dig, the story of the Sutton Hoo hoard, and a study of Robert Maxwell’s life, which is due to be filmed. Time, Preston feels, gives perspective to real events.
“Your biggest responsibility is to tell the story in an arresting and entertaining way as possible. If you have to rid yourself of a few tangents to do that, you must. I started writing stone house before either Hayes’s or Julia’s books came out. So I was not influenced by them,” he said.
Julia Stonehouse wanted to share documents with the team making the drama but was not welcomed, she claims. She believes the Czech handlers who said they paid her father were simply boasting to please their Soviet masters.
Preston sees echoes of the 1970s in today’s politics, which may explain the interest in re-examining these stories. “The parallels are coincidental, and I hope our drama is a funny and a poignant story. I don’t want to tell the audience that this guy is a dreadful person. I want them to decide,” he said.
Looking back at photographs of the politicians of the 1970s, Preston thinks that Stonehouse and Thorpe stand out. “They were both suave and glamorous and they performed very well on television.
“The rest of them look like gray donuts.”