Stonehouse writer John Preston has revealed how the work of Russell T Davies was instrumental in helping him tackle his first ever screenplay.


The prolific author is known for penning bestselling books such as The Dig and A Very English Scandal, the latter of which chronicled the Thorpe affair and was adapted into a television miniseries by Davies in 2018.

When it came time to revisit another sensational political headline from the 1970s – that of Labour MP John Stonehouse, who faked his own death to start a new life abroad – Preston wanted to handle scripting duties personally.

Having no experience in the field of screenwriting, he dug out Davies's scripts for A Very English Scandal and used them as a learning resource to pick up the tricks of the trade.

"I had done A Very English Scandal and I was slightly wary of writing another non-fiction," began Preston at the Stonehouse press conference. "I thought, 'Oh God, people will think my whole life is a ceaseless trawl through 1970s reprobates'.

"But if the opportunity came up to do Stonehouse as a TV series – not as a book – for me, that was a very attractive idea because I'd never written a script before... I thought, well, at least if I can do it as a script then no one can accuse me of repeating myself."

Though Preston is a prolific author of fiction and non-fiction, writing a screenplay is a different skill entirely, so he required a considerable re-education to take on the challenge for Stonehouse. That's where Davies's work came in.

"I had Russell T Davies's scripts [for A Very English Scandal] at home so I could look at them and think, 'Oh, so that's how he did it'," continued Preston. "So it actually did teach me a lot."

Speaking more about Davies's influence, Preston exclusively told "I think that what struck me most of all was... you can actually convey an enormous amount of information in a very short space of time in a script; far more so than when you're writing a book."

Matthew Macfadyen in Stonehouse
Matthew Macfadyen in Stonehouse Joss Barratt / ITV

The novelist went on to describe this brevity as an essential part of writing for television, citing as an example a moment from the first episode of Stonehouse, which quickly cuts from a professional dinner to depicting an extramarital affair.

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"It's the easiest thing in the world [but] you can't do that in a book; you have to work in some rather laborious exposition as to how they got there," he continued.

"It's not that dissimilar to journalism. Whatever faults journalists may have as people, they basically tend not to waffle; they cut really quickly to the point and that's plainly something you need to do all the time when you're writing a script."

In addition to Davies, Preston credits Stonehouse producer Ellie Wood – who also worked on adapting his 2007 novel The Dig into a Netflix film – as a key figure in teaching him screenwriting, adding she was "incredibly patient".

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