Keeley Hawes interview: ‘The Durrells’ star chats about ‘Stonehouse’ role

Keeley Hawes is back on our screens this week in Stonehouse!

Written by A Very English Scandal author John Preston and inspired by the extraordinary true story, ITV’s new mini-series dramatises the life and times of disgraced politician John Stonehouse.

The three-part drama tells the story of how Stonehouse, a high-flying member of Harold Wilson’s Government, disappeared from a beach in 1974, intending to fake his own death.

Keeley Hawes (The Durrells) plays Stonehouse’s wife, acting alongside her real-life partner Matthew Macfadyen (Pride & Prejudice) as John Stonehouse.

Watch the trailer here:

Stonehouse is airing at 9pm from Monday to Wednesday this week on ITV1, with a documentary about the real John Stonehouse following on Thursday night.

The series will be released in the US and internationally later this year on BritBox.

Here star Keeley Hawes chats about her role as Barbara Stonehouse, and what it was like working on screen with Matthew Macfayden:


Did you know about the disappearance of John Stonehouse?

“No, I hadn’t heard about John Stonehouse. It’s quite a story. Matthew was sent the script when he was approached about playing John Stonehouse and he suggested I should also read it. So I did. I said, ‘It’s fantastic and the part of Barbara is really good too.’ But that was the first I knew of this story. It’s the kind of thing where you think, ‘Why hasn’t this been done before?’ Because it’s so brilliant dramatically, unusual and true. Which is quite often where the best stories come from.

“John Preston’s scripts tell a tragic story but it’s also both funny and moving. It is a heightened version of the truth. We are dealing with a real person and other people who are still alive. Everybody wanted to be very respectful to the memory of John Stonehouse. There is always all of that to consider, but you are making a TV show – a three-part drama not a documentary.”


Can you tell us about Barbara Stonehouse?

“In our story we meet Barbara when she has been married to John for a number of years and they have three children. She was an intelligent woman who was very ambitious for her husband. It was a very male dominated world back then. “As the wife of an MP she was used to a certain amount of press and being in the public eye. This was nothing compared to what happened after John went missing and then when he was subsequently found in Australia. It was a huge story.

“Barbara was incredibly bright, confident and savvy. Barbara did an amazing job of navigating her way through it all and then quietly divorcing him and leaving him to it, while keeping that ‘politician’s wife face’ on things. Keeping up that front.

“The whole thing must have been horrendous, humiliating and deeply upsetting for her and the family. All of their dirty linen being aired in the newspapers. I think she was very strong and brave under the circumstances.”


How would you describe John Stonehouse?

“By all accounts he was an incredibly charismatic man and attractive to women. He was much liked and his family adored him. It was just a case of somebody who dug himself into a deeper and deeper hole and couldn’t see a way out. I don’t think he was a bad person. He just found himself out of his depth.”


You and Matthew first acted together in Spooks, then in Ashes To Ashes and played husband and wife in Death At A Funeral. What was it like reuniting on screen?

“Working with Matthew was delightful. We’d talked about doing something together again. This was perfect. Because it’s based on true events – we’re very much playing other people this is so far removed from our lives. So this felt right. It was so interesting, the writing was brilliant and the parts were so wonderful that it just seemed to tick all of the boxes.

“We both loved working with the director Jon S. Baird. I’ve also worked with Ruth Kenley-Letts of Snowed-In Productions a number of times now and so I knew we would be in safe hands there.

“Matthew was obviously on set every day and I just went in and out. It was always going to be slightly odd. I think probably stranger for the people around us on set, knowing that we are married and how that might work and how that dynamic might play out. But actually, for us, it was just really normal. And having worked together before, we knew that it would be OK. “We also both look different in Stonehouse. I wear various wigs for different time periods. While Matthew has contact lenses, lots of facial hair, different wigs and false teeth. Everything about him that I’m used to seeing had been changed.

“Matthew and I had already had make up calls and tests before filming so we had an idea of what it would be like. Then we would have the daily reveal of him as John Stonehouse and every time it would be slightly different because of the process of ageing across the time periods.

“Barbara’s costumes are on another level. Just brilliant. Our costume designer is so clever. I just loved Barbara’s look. She was a stylish woman. Really well put together. And the 1970s was such a great period in terms of fashion. We had a lot of original pieces because the fabrics from that time period survive anything.

“So it was easy. Matthew is also a really good actor! We would drive in together and then his teeth would go in, we’d do the scenes and then have lunch. It was a lovely experience. And that was down to the director Jon and the crew and the other cast. It was a very happy job, people enjoyed it.”


What are your thoughts about why John Stonehouse staged his own death?

“It’s very hard to get your head around what he did. You couldn’t even attempt it now. Today we have a digital footprint and trail. Although it’s possible, it’s very difficult to just disappear now. Especially someone with such a high profile.
“John Stonehouse found himself in all sorts of trouble. Politically, financially and emotionally. He’d been having an affair with his secretary Sheila Buckley for a long time and had money troubles. So he was under a huge amount of pressure. To do what he did is not something someone in their right mind would try to get away with. It was quite a saga.

“There’s a scene where he is saying goodbye to Barbara and their children. Him knowing that if his plan worked this would be the last time he would ever see them. While they, of course, have no idea about it. The whole thing is heartbreaking and really moving.

“He used other people’s identities to vanish and start a new life. That’s quite extraordinary. But it was a different world back then with no mobile phones or internet. Making a landline call abroad was a big thing. Even later in the 1980s. We had some relatives in Australia and you would make a call at Christmas. The delay on the line would be horrendous. You would have to speak and then wait for them to say something. It was a different world of waiting weeks for a letter to arrive from the other side of the globe.

“The fact he thought he would get away with it is astonishing in itself. That Sheila Buckley was also going to disappear to be with him. Was no-one going to question that? It was as if they hadn’t really given it much thought beyond the initial few weeks. And then the fall out when he was discovered in Australia was horrendous. For five weeks his wife and children thought he was dead. And then he suddenly turns up again. It’s just unimaginable. The way he went about it is mind boggling.

“Mental health wasn’t really talked about in those days. I think he did have a breakdown. That was a huge part of why he did what he did. Someone losing control of their life and having a breakdown. Which is far from funny.”


Can you tell us about the scene where Labour’s assistant chief whip Betty Boothroyd (Dorothy Atkinson) visits Barbara after her husband is found alive?

“Barbara already knows Betty wants her to go to Australia to see her husband and why. But, of course, she has to go. I did a play when I was 12 with Dorothy Atkinson and we hadn’t seen each other since then. Until that day when she came in as Betty Boothroyd for that scene together. It was brilliant.”


Barbara finds herself living with both John and Sheila in Australia?

“In our story John asked Barbara to come out to Australia. And then they lived together with Sheila.

“We filmed the Australian scenes in Malaga which also doubled for Miami. There was a mini heatwave with sunshine and glorious blue skies in England when we left and then when we got to Malaga it rained every day with storms and the palm trees blowing around. But somehow it worked out OK.”


Once back in Britain, Barbara initially took her husband back. Why?

“I think she took him back for the sake of the family, the children and for appearances. But Barbara probably knew that once the dust had settled that would be that for their relationship. She wasn’t going to be humiliated anymore.”


What was it like working with Emer Heatley as Sheila Buckley?

“Poor Emer, coming in with Matthew and I being actual husband and wife and then playing that character of Sheila. We laughed all the way through. We adored Emer. And this is one of her first jobs. She gave a brilliant performance. So professional. I really enjoyed working with her.”


What did director Jon S. Baird bring to this drama?

“Jon brought so much enthusiasm and energy to the project. It was really exciting working with him.

“The atmosphere on set comes from the director and from number one on the call sheet, which was Matthew. Between them they created an atmosphere where people were happy to be at work every day. It was such a lovely project to be part of.”