Drama reveals how MP John Stonehouse ‘did a Reggie’
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Those of a certain age, whenever they hear of somebody who faked their own death, tend to automatically think of Reggie Perrin.
The fictional character played by Leonard Rossiter (and later Martin Clunes in an ill-advised revamp) appeared in a sitcom written by David Nobbs, who adapted the idea from his own series of novels.
The first book was published in 1975, shortly after MP John Stonehouse ‘did a Reggie’, by folding up his clothes on a quiet beach and disappearing into the sea. It seems incredible that neither event was inspired by the other (Nobbs had already written the book before Stonehouse tried the scam) – perhaps there was simply something in the air during the mid-1970s that made people want to vanish. After all, Lord Lucan did it highly successfully – in fact, when Stonehouse was eventually apprehended in Australia on Christmas Eve in 1974, it was because the local police thought he might be the missing aristocrat.
Now the politician’s extraordinary story is being brought to life by married duo Matthew Macfadyen and Keeley Hawes; the script is by John Preston whose book, A Very English Scandal, about Jeremy Thorpe, was turned into a wonderful TV series starring Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw by Russell T Davies.
“I was born the month before John Stonehouse faked his own death in November 1974, so I didn’t know much about the story before this project came along, just a vague memory of something I had read,” claims Macfadyen.
“John Preston’s scripts were brilliant, so there was no agonising over whether to take the role. It was such a blast to read. I found it very funny, odd, moving and English. It’s gripping, hilarious and sad, a similar feel to the TV drama Quiz I did in that it’s bizarre.”
While researching the role, the Succession star discovered that Stonehouse had been a good MP, a shining light in Harold Wilson’s government who may have become Foreign Secretary had Labour won the 1970 general election. However, he’d also worked for the Czech Secret Service and was having an affair with his secretary Sheila Buckley. As Macfadyen says, “eventually the wheels started to come off.”
He adds: “There’s a line where his wife Barbara says to him, ‘The trouble with you, John, is that you always want to be somebody you’re not.’ You cannot know what his motivations were. But there are parallels with current politicians…”
Hawes plays Barbara; it’s the fourth time the couple has worked together after Spooks, Ashes to Ashes and Death at a Funeral.
“We didn’t really have any qualms about working together again,” claims Macfadyen. “You hope it will be all right because you’re going to work and coming home together. But, of course, it was totally lovely. As natural as breathing. I think something happens anyway when you’re on set. Keeley is a brilliant actress so I’m lost in the scene when working with her. The bonus is that we get to hang out and spend time together.”
It sounds like they could have taught their real-life counterparts a thing or two – and that ‘doing a Reggie Perrin’ is the furthest thing from their minds.