TV

'Life is so comic. It's so ludicrous. Look at Matt Hancock!' Succession star Matthew Macfadyen on his new role as disgraced MP John Stonehouse

Succession star Matthew Macfadyen brings the story of rogue 1970s MP John Stonehouse to ITV1, and finds parallels with the ex-Health Secretary

Matthew Macfadyen, who stars in Stonehouse

Matthew Macfadyen. Photo: © Pal Hansen /Guardian / eyevine

Matthew Macfadyen is in a hotel in Soho – and the star of Succession, Pride and Prejudice, Quiz and Spooks is guffawing.  He has a great guffaw, as fans of Tom Wambsgans will know. It bursts out of him, loud and sudden as he ponders his latest role as disgraced 1970s MP John Stonehouse. The parallels in the story to the recent antics of former Health Secretary Matt Hancock are just too funny.

“Life is so comic. It’s so ludicrous. Look at Matt Hancock!” grins Macfadyen, before unleashing another guffaw. 

Stonehouse’s story is extraordinary. You wouldn’t get a sitting MP disappearing to Australia in the middle of a parliamentary session – when he arguably should be being investigated by the police – in search of reinvention and a new identity these days, now would you? And… we are back to Matt Hancock

“Even before Australia and all the rest, it’s bonkers, isn’t it?” says Macfadyen. “There is a vanity about Stonehouse. Which you are able to see in certain modern politicians, and not only in this country. I’ll leave the names up to the readers but that’s certainly a thing, isn’t it?” 

In 1974, Labour MP Stonehouse disappeared while swimming in Miami in 1974 and was presumed dead, only to turn up in Australia 34 days later having faked his own death. Despite this resolutely unparliamentary behaviour, he remained an MP for a further two years – propping up Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s slim majority in the House of Commons before defecting to the English National Party (effectively bringing down the government in the process) and ending up in Wormwood Scrubs.  

There is so much to digest in the story.  

“There is always something slightly eggy and you feel slightly queasy about playing a real person,” says Macfadyen. “But at some point, you have to go, ‘Fuck that, I can only play what’s in the script.’ You know if something is a hatchet job.  

“So I just jumped in. And he is sympathetic, John Stonehouse. It’s ludicrous, often, but it’s also quite sad. Even though it was clearly self-inflicted, he was struggling. He is flawed and weak but by all accounts, he was very personable, good company, quite dishy and all the rest of it – a funny, interesting chap, quite garrulous.  

“He was a rising star, tipped for the top early in his political career, and did a lot of good work in Africa. But then it just unravels.” 

And what an unravelling. Whether it was the ‘honey trap’ that led to him moonlighting for the Czech Secret Service, his complicated love life – Stonehouse planned to start a new life Down Under with his assistant, the money hidden in his shoe cupboard, the financial mismanagement or a combination of the lot, Stonehouse was not in a good place when he faked his death. 

“He was switched on enough to be able to plan it,” notes Macfadyen. “It would be impossible now – the idea of disappearing, falling off the grid. But he really planned it, getting a fake passport from a dead constituent.” 

Matthew Macfadyen as John Stonehouse
As the disgraced Labour and Co-operative Party MP John Stonehouse. Photo: ITV

Perhaps the biggest mystery is how it has taken almost 50 years for Stonehouse’s story to be adapted for the screen. 

“It’s such a destructive and drastic thing to do – but he was highly stressed by the end,” says Macfadyen. “He thought he would be exposed as a spy, so in the days when it was easier to disappear, that’s what he did. But I don’t believe he didn’t love his children. The scene where he says goodbye to them is heartbreaking.” 

Stonehouse’s home life with wife Barbara and their kids initially seems strong and stable. Then the money from the Czech spying comes in. There’s a massive country mansion, private schooling for the kids, a sports car – which may remind some viewers of Superman II.  

“Ha! Richard Pryor!” says Macfadyen, unleashing another trademark guffaw. “Yeah, he certainly liked the trappings of wealth and power.” 

In Stonehouse, Barbara is played – brilliantly, of course – by Macfadyen’s real-life wife (and Line of Duty superstar) Keeley Hawes. How was it working together first the first time in more than a decade? 

“Lovely. Really nice,” says Macfadyen. “The last time we worked together was Ashes to Ashes, I think. I did a little guest role on her series quite a long time ago.  

“You think, will this be strange? And of course, it isn’t. Because we’re both actors and that’s where we operate. So it was just a bonus because we got a chance to be together. And she’s a brilliant actress, so it was a real treat. 

“We were shooting Stonehouse in Birmingham, so we got a little Airbnb, and it was really fun. We took the dog! It was quite lovely.”  

Macfadyen is back in London for one week only. One of the many joys of working on Succession, an American production, is that it stops for Thanksgiving – “a really civilised holiday, like Christmas without the stress. No presents, just let’s eat a lot and hang out.”

When the first season was coming out, we wondered how people were going to take to it because they’re all revolting

Matthew Macfadyen on Succession

Home Macfadyen still London. But Macfadyen has been back and forth to New York a lot since Succession began in 2018. 

“I don’t know how I would have done had it been Vancouver or Los Angeles,” he says. “Keeley and I try to have a three-week maximum time that we’re away. The kids are older teenagers now, so that’s easier. But you still feel a bit scattered.”  

And Succession’s success? The cult status of Tom Wambsgans – who, in a classic twist to end season three, shocked fans by selling out his wife, Shiv, to get closer to the seat of power (her dad, Logan Roy)? The awards? 

“We didn’t know how the show would land,” he says. “We knew it was a good script and interesting and spiky and funny. Even when the first season was coming out, we wondered how people were going to take to it because they’re all revolting. They’re really foul. But it’s gratifying.” 

And what about the power that comes with a hit like Succession – for which he has won a Bafta and a Primetime Emmy? 

“I’m in awe of actors who create their own work and direct and write and produce and all the rest of it. But I just bumble along, really. And that’s not being self-deprecating, I really do,” says Macfadyen (who is an executive producer on Stonehouse, “but only in name, it’s bollocks”). 

Succession was totally good fortune. Jesse [Armstrong, the show’s creator] had seen me in a Trollope thing [The Way We Live Now] on the BBC in early 2000s. It happened that I was free. And it worked. 

“Actors careers do that.” He swoops his hand up and down like a dragon in flight. “And now and again, you’ll get lucky. But it’s just luck. You’ve just got to be available to ride that wave when it comes, I suppose.” 

He has, he says, learnt this from previous peaks in his career. Whether on Spooks or opposite Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice.

“The truth is, you get offered a lot of jobs similar to the part you’re playing,” he says. “And you don’t want to play a lesser version of a spy you’ve just played, or Mr Darcy or Tom Wambsgans. That’s the thing to guard against. But I’m lucky to be working. It’s nice to keep the show on the road. 

“I’m in the wilderness again after February when I finish Succession. So it’ll be nice to have a bit of time at home. The dog will be pleased. Buster is great. He’s a good boy.” 

If he were able, Macfadyen would use his power to create a less dramatic political landscape in 2023.  

“I’d like to return to a calmer politics of government. I’d like things to stop being so chaotic,” he says.  

“It would be nice if it was a bit less personality-driven and a bit more competence driven. I don’t want to go for a drink with them. I don’t care if people are good fun to be with or great on a panel show.  

“But maybe the pendulum is swinging back the other way. I hope so.” 

Would he enjoy a life in politics himself? He’s mightily impressive giving a speech in Parliament as John Stonehouse. 

“That was great fun,” he grins. “We were filming at a school in North London where they built a brilliant set for the House of Commons. What would I be like as an MP? Dreadful. I’m not clever enough.” 

It is possible to make the argument that some of the present crop of MPs are not quite up to snuff, either. Mentioning no Matt Hancocks…  

“True,” says Macfadyen. “Maybe I’m just clever enough to know I couldn’t do the job…”  

Stonehouse is on ITV1 on 2, 3 and 4 January at 9pm, and on ITVX

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