John Stonehouse: Separating fact from fiction in new ITV drama series on infamous MP
For three nights this week a new drama about one of the most infamous MPs of the 20th century plays out on ITV.
Stonehouse is a three-part series based on the incredible life of John Stonehouse, the former Wednesbury and Walsall North MP who faked his own death in the 1970s.
As ever, TV dramas can use artistic licence when telling stories such as these, so we've separated fact from fiction for you.
Was he really a cabinet minister?
In the ITV show, it's initially made clear that John Stonehouse was a rising star. It is true that he was given responsibility for aviation in the government, and he was indeed seen as a possible future prime minister. He was later made Postmaster General, which we'll discuss below.
Was he married?
In the show, Stonehouse is then presented as a family man, married to Barbara. This is very much how he was showcased to the public when he was running for election in the early days of his political career, as you can see by the below election leaflet. But there was a dark side to John Stonehouse when it came to family loyalty, as we'll discover shortly.
Was he a spy?
The ITV show sees Stonehouse caught in a "honeytrap" and forced to spy for Czechoslovakia. It is true that Stonehouse was quietly accused of being a spy. The accusations probably did ruin his career, as he was dropped from the front bench team by Harold Wilson, but this was reportedly done in a 'hush-hush' way. The allegations stuck with him forever and even resurfaced when Margaret Thatcher was in power, but they were never really proven. For more information on the spying allegations side of the story, you can check out our article here.
Did he have money problems?
Episode 1 of the show also focuses on Stonehouse's business activities. It can be argued that his lack of success in the business department was one of the catalysts for everything that went wrong in his life. He did indeed try to move money from business-to-business, he was once sued over his activities, and even became the subject of a Private Eye Magazine investigation.
Was he as "confident" or as "glamourous" as he seems in the TV show?
There's a fun moment in episode 1 when he returns home with a particularly flashy car. This is reportedly very reflective of his personality. “As a child at the time, I wasn’t to know that Stonehouse always insisted on the best of everything," wrote his great-nephew.
Did he really have extra-marital affairs?
When, in the TV show, Stonehouse recruits his secretary Sheila Buckley, it's made very clear that there's a spark between the two of them. The pair did have an affair and she became very integral to his story. They later married. Stonehouse probably was a bit of a repeat philanderer. His affair with his secretary was perhaps the most well-known but there were almost certainly others.
Was he really appointed Postmaster General after being accused of spying?
There's a very tense moment in the TV show when Prime Minister Harold Wilson accuses Stonehouse of passing information to the Czechoslovakian security services. The PM believes Stonehouse's explanation and appoints him Postmaster General. It's not known if he was given the job after answering espionage allegations, but it is very much true he was made Postmaster General. Stonehouse made a success of the role, overseeing the introduction of the 2nd class stamp, and the TV show hints at the fact that this was around the time the establishment started to consider him as a future prime minister. "It's not as if Wilson can go on forever," the character says.
Were there really tensions between Barbara Stonehouse and Sheila Buckley?
Towards the end of episode 1, there's some tension between Barbara Stonehouse (his wife) and Sheila Buckley (his secretary). It's not known how much tension, if any, there was between the two women. Barbara did reportedly later confront Shelia but this was after Stonehouse had gone missing, when some irregularities about his disappearance were beginning to emerge. When he was eventually found in Australia after faking his death, he apparently asked for both his wife and secretary to be at side without regard for the insensitivity of the request.
Did he really visit a widow in his constituency?
At the end of the episode ITV, we see Stonehouse visiting a widow in his constituency to glean information about her late husband. This happened, and why he did it is genuinely shocking. He essentially used the names of dead men from his constituency when he faked his death.
Did he really just walk into the sea and disappear?
Yes. This happened. But it's far more complicated than it sounds. At the end episode 1 Stonehouse flies to Miami and disappears. To find out what happened in real life in more detail than ever before, join us on us Express & Star + for a 30-day free trial to gain access to our True Crime series: https://www.expressandstar.com/series/
Did he really live under a false name in Melbourne, Australia after faking his own death?
Having swam up the beach to an unused Miami hotel to collect passports and clothing, John Stonehouse made his way to the airport and did indeed fly to Melbourne, Australia. There, he eventually lived under the name Clive Mildoon - one of the dead constituents - at Melbourne’s City Centre Club, a 10-storey luxury apartment run by Rod and Joan Wilcocks. The ITV series does not appear to use the real names of the constituents.
Stonehouse is also seen in episode 2 listening to classical music inside his new apartment. This is apparently a truism.
“He seemed a quiet, charming and reserved retired businessman,” Mrs Wilcocks is quoted as saying. “We often used to hear him playing Beethoven in his room at night."
Did the police really think he was the victim of a mafia hit?
In episode 2 of the TV show, a journalist reports that it was initially thought John Stonehouse had accidentally drowned, but there are now claims he was the victim of a mafia assassination.
In real life, when a body failed to turn up, the FBI did indeed consider the possibility that the mafia was involved in the disappearance.
"Mafia! Christ Alive," says Harold Wilson in the ITV drama. "he's the member for Walsall North, not Little Italy!" Who knows if he actually said this.
Some members of Stonehouse's family, meanwhile, thought he might have been eaten by sharks.
Was he really mistaken for Lord Lucan?
This might be the main reason he was eventually caught by police in Australia.
Lord Lucan disappeared following the murder of his children's nanny. Lucan, who was assumed to be the perpetrator, was an incredibly high-profile figure in the UK at the time, known for his lavish lifestyle and expensive taste.
The interest in finding him was astronomical and international. So when police in Melbourne were tipped off about a handsome, well-spoken Englishman shuttling large sums of money into a bank account from abroad, alarm bells rang.
Lord Lucan had a six-inch scar on his right inside thigh but Stonehouse didn't. That's how they quickly knew they weren't dealing with Lord Lucan. A dramatised version of this moment happens in the TV series (episode 2).
Did Barbara call Sheila Buckley about her missing husband?
It's unknown what phone conversations the two women had while John Stonehouse was "missing" but as we say in our long-read article on Express & Star +, Barbara did allegedly confront Sheila Buckley about a flat that a journalist discovered John was renting out. And Sheila was living in it.
As previous mentioned, the pair were both reportedly invited out to Australia when he was eventually caught. This no doubt caused some friction.
Was he arrested in Australia?
Yes. Express & Star reported it at the time. As mentioned above, to read or listen to the full story of John Stonehouse in depth, join us for a 30-day free trial on Express & Star +: https://www.expressandstar.com/series/