From John Stonehouse to Britney Spears, a compelling true-life tale is worth retelling time and time again.
Elizabeth Holmes, a Silicon Valley scammer, was going to be played by Jennifer Lawrence in the upcoming film Bad Blood, which is being directed by Adam McKay and in which Lawrence also featured in Don’t Look Up. Then she saw Amanda Seyfried portray Elizabeth Holmes in The Dropout on the online platform Hulu. “She was fantastic, in my opinion. We don’t need to redo it, I thought. Lawrence declared, “She did it,” and then quickly left Bad Blood.
Lawrence’s opinion is not shared by the firms that produce “based on” television shows and movies. When a project about a certain topic was already in the works, broadcasters, and streamers used to hesitate. They are now encouraged since another person also believes there is a market for it. Since the “true” prefix is such a lucrative industry, it has become commonplace to find numerous TV shows, movies, or podcasts that focus on the same subject.
Consider the “Woodstock” celebration in 1999. Burn it Down!, a feature-length documentary by Dorothy St. Pictures, Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage, an HBO documentary, and Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 on Netflix followed. The BBC and Netflix both produced documentaries about the Carlos Ghosn case within a short period of time. Regarding famous people like Britney Spears, there are countless variations on the same narrative.
This is fantastic in some ways. Why not if the last attempt was unsuccessful or if there is a fresh approach to storytelling, such as having exclusive access to your subject? The Puppet Master, a Netflix original film on the con artist Robert Hendy-Freegard, illustrates what transpired. There have been prior documentaries including a true play starring James Norton called Rogue Agent, but this new narrative from the perspective of a victim’s children was unique.
In the domain of movies, there is more room to experiment with the rules of narrative. The Loudest Voice, starring Russell Crowe and Naomi Watts, and Bombshell, starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Margot Robbie, each gave the Roger Ailes case very distinct approaches. Regardless of their differences, the fact that there were two such well-known films on the same subject emphasizes the significance of the “based on” genre.
As for the inventor, it’s tough if you’re the first to adopt the topic and then everyone else jumps on board. You cannot, and should not, claim ownership of something that actually occurred. Consider the case of John Stonehouse, a Labour minister who faked his own death and was also a fraudster and spy for the Soviet Union. When I was a development producer, when my only job was to come up with fresh program ideas, I first learned about it. It was a great way to pass the time and get paid. After learning that the Philippines is the world capital if you want to do it properly, I was researching the idea of self-immolation when I came across a man who hadn’t done it at all.
In 1974, Stonehouse used a passport that was fraudulently issued in the name of a deceased constituent and vanished from a Miami Beach beach. But he was discovered after remaking himself in Melbourne, Australia, adopting a third identity—yes, another dead constituent; such a charmer. Even before you start looking at the original documents in the UK and Czech state archives, the tale is breathtaking and jaw-dropping.
Stonehouse performed worse than “Canoe Man” in the death faker game (John Darwin, a life insurance fraudster who recently became the subject of an ITV drama and “companion” documentary). But neither a book nor a documentary existed about Stonehouse. It remained wide open.
Years ago, knowing that someone else was probably doing the same thing because it was such a terrific narrative, I nurtured numerous therapies in various ways. I ran upon Julian Hayes, Stonehouse’s great-nephew, who stated he was writing a book about his uncle during this time. In addition, I learned that John Preston, who wrote A Very English Scandal on Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Lib-Dems, had begun a new book. I also spoke with the MP’s daughter, Julia Stonehouse, who was sure that her father was the victim of a government cover-up.
In the end, it was decided that the Stonehouse tale wasn’t infamous enough to warrant a multi-part documentary series. The commissioners concurred that it needed a dramatic makeover so that a well-known actor could carry it as Hugh Grant did in Russell T. Davies’ masterful dramatization of A Very English Scandal. As a result, the Succession actor Matthew Macfadyen was eventually announced as the huge name to handle Preston’s Stonehouse book. Tomorrow, he will appear on television alongside his real-life wife Keeley Hawes as Stonehouse and Barbara, Stonehouse’s wife.
Meanwhile, Philip Augar and I turned my documentary idea into the book Agent Twister: John Stonehouse and the Scandal That Gripped the Nation. After a competitive proposal stage, Simon & Schuster decided to commission it. Following this, Hayes and Julia Stonehouse received book offers; they had already finished writing theirs. To cap it off, I finally succeeded in getting a documentary version made into a single movie. There were no accounts of Stonehouse’s disappearance at the beginning of 2021, but by the beginning of 2023, there were many. In May 2022, Channel 4 broadcast The Spy Who Died Twice, a film about Stonehouse’s career as an agent and his disappearance.
There seems to be enough information in the story thus far. It never ceases to amaze me how differently different people perceive the same things. Since the drama is “inspired by” rather than “based on” the other two books, which are authored by family members with their own agendas, everyone will be treated differently in this instance.
Diverse authors, content producers, and scouts will continue to dive into the same pool in the meantime, looking for the next major controversy that will be ripe for a retrospective recounting and no longer deterred by opposing viewpoints. Fortunately, we chose not to give the ITV drama the rights to our book, so Agent Twister might still be showing in a theater near you.