CHRISTOPHER STEVENS ITVs take on the Stonehouse saga offers a

CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: ITV’s take on the Stonehouse saga offers a lighthearted portrait of the Chancellor

Nowadays, John Stonehouse MP would not have to fake his own death. With bankruptcy, his political career in tatters, and his marriage on the brink, he might redeem himself by simply going on I’m A Celebrity.

There’s a hint of Matt Hancock from I’m A Celeb in Stonehouse (ITV), with Matthew Macfadyen as the duplicitous Chancellor who was once touted as a future Labor Prime Minister.

He’s so unbearably smug, so egotistical and self-serving…not to mention horny.

One moment encapsulates him as he sits at the cinema with his stuffy secretary, Sheila (Emer Heatley), and greedily dives into her popcorn—until he picks up the box and she turns to hers without a single glance.

Matthew MacFadyen as John Stonehouse, Keeley Hawes as Barbara Stonehouse and Emer Heatley as Sheila Buckley

It’s hard to believe that Stonehouse has maintained a political career as long as he has. Don’t mind fooling the ghosts while he’s spying for the Czech security agency – a bunch of boy scouts could have spotted him for a fake ‘un.

This three-part drama, which continues tonight and tomorrow, is gleefully tongue-in-cheek, played for fun and giggles, with a hopping foxtrot soundtrack straight out of Jeeves and Wooster.

It’s something of a missed opportunity, as Mrs Stonehouse is played by Keeley Hawes, Macfadyen’s real-life wife — the first time they’ve been on TV together since Spooks, the noughties spy play they met in.

Both are actors of deceptive depth. Fans of HBO’s “Succession” know that Macfadyen is fascinating as pathetic, scheming manager Tom Wambsgans, who survives every radioactive scandal and scurries away like a cockroach.

Stonehouse with his wife Barbara, pictured at a press conference months after his escape

Stonehouse with his wife Barbara, pictured at a press conference months after his escape

And Hawes is unique in her ability to be motherly in one role like The Durrells’ matriarch Louisa, and icy glamor in the next — as the oversexed Home Secretary in Bodyguard, for example.

Together they could have painted a grim portrayal of a political marriage: the unspoken blackmail, the delicate balance of power, like two little dancers spinning on a dynamite-filled music box.

None of that is attempted here. Barbara Stonehouse is clearly a lot smarter than her husband, but she prefers not to know what he’s up to. When she catches him stashing suitcases in the bedroom closet or arguing in a hushed voice with the police on the phone, she remains silent…even though the clouds of suspicion on her face speak volumes.

Keeley’s best silence comes when she is first introduced to Sheila. Stonehouse looks awkwardly guilty for a moment, then decides he got away with it. The frost in his wife’s eyes tells us she knows exactly what’s going on.

We have to feel sorry for her because Stonehouse is such a pompous jerk that it’s hard for us to care what happens to him. His downfall begins in the 1960s on a trade mission to Czechoslovakia, when his spirited translator declares over dinner that she is amazed by his unbridled masculine charisma.

The next morning, Czech secret agents take Stonehouse aside and show him explicit footage from the hotel room, apparently filmed through a peephole in the ceiling. The Soviets had a word for such films: kompromat. Mr. Stonehouse didn’t need a translation.

But his reaction to her suggestion betrayed both his stupidity and cheapness: “You want me to spy for you? Would I get paid?’

Whether for legal reasons or simply because it’s more amusing, the drama makes it clear that Stonehouse didn’t reveal anything important for the Eastern bloc. His best discovery were the plans for the Concorde, which had already been announced by the French media.

“You’re the worst spy I’ve ever met,” complains his Czech handler. He’s certainly no Kim Philby. When he arrives at the Czech embassy to deliver another batch of non-secrets, he yells into the front door intercom, “This is John Stonehouse. Agent Twister!’

Premier Harold Wilson (Kevin McNally) is also pretty clueless. He has some stunning lines – one about the Queen’s views on socialist Tony Benn (“Frankly, I’ve never heard her so upset”) and one about the general lack of sexiness in the Labor Party front bench.

His wife, Mary, thinks most men look like battered saucepans. That must be why Private Eye referred to the government as Harold’s cupboard in the 1970s.

Margaret Thatcher has a cameo appearance with only one line of dialogue. At least she’s being played by a woman, actress Devon Black. That’s an improvement on C4’s abominable Prince Andrew: The Musical last week… when the Iron Lady was portrayed by drag queen Baga Chipz.