Harold Wilson drama is first feature film to be shot in Commons chamber | Harold Wilson

A new drama about Harold Wilson has become the first feature film to be shot inside the House of Commons chamber after producers appealed directly to the Speaker as well as MPs and peers who knew the former Labor prime minister.

The Ghost of Harold Wilson is billed as a “tense political thriller” based on a meeting between Wilson and two journalists during the cold war.

The action is set in the 1970s, after Wilson unexpectedly resigned in 1976 amid claims he was a Russian asset.

According to the film-makers, the location shoot was greenlit following appeals to senior figures who had been MPs during Wilson’s tenure.

“It took a lot of grit and determination,” said Christopher Manley, who is co-producing the feature with Mick Southworth.

“We contacted [Commons Speaker] Sir Lindsay Hoyle in the first instance, because his father [Doug Hoyle, now Lord Hoyle] was a sitting member of parliament during the time of Wilson.

Dooley sporting the former PM's pipe in The Ghost of Harold Wilson.
Dooley sporting the former PM’s pipe in The Ghost of Harold Wilson. Photograph: The Ghost of Harold Wilson Productions

“We engaged with [Huddersfield MP] Barry Sheerman, who was influential in erecting the Harold Wilson statue in Huddersfield. We highlighted that this is a perfect kind of homage to Wilson.”

Each member they approached was even offered a walk-on role and set visits, which they “weren’t so interested in”, Manley said.

“Wilson was very keen on there being a British film industry. Today the UK thrives in the film industry … it seems fitting that it’s a Wilson film that’s been granted access to film in the Commons.”

Wilson, Labor PM from 1964 to 1970, and again from 1974 to 1976, came to power promising a break with the old establishment.

He believed his critics were plotting against him by working with MI5 and US and South African intelligence to forge claims of a pro-Soviet cell in Downing Street.

A few weeks after his resignation, he summoned two journalists to his home and told them democracy was under threat. At the time, headlines were dominated by the Watergate scandal in the US that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation.

The real Harold Wilson photographed in 1963.
The real Harold Wilson photographed in 1963. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

Though Wilson’s comments were widely dismissed and received as paranoid delusions, former intelligence officer Peter Wright later claimed in his book Spycatcher that there had been a rogue element in MI5 plotting to oust Wilson.

MI5 said Wright was not a credible source, while newspapers in England were gagged from reporting his claims.

“There’s a great mystery surrounding Wilson’s resignation, which is being explored in the film,” said the director, Samuel Martin.

“Wilson invited two young journalists … to offer them an exclusive and secrets of the state from the highest level. They had weekly meetings over the course of 18 months, which were supposed to be off the record.

“But he was saying such extraordinary things. He described himself as a great black spider in the corner of the room, and if you’re careful and listen to him, he might speak while he’s asleep. It starts out very metaphorical, but he’s very specific by the end, with names and claims of orchestration against him and his government.”

Much of the dialogue is based on real, covert recordings from the time. “Wilson said he was threatened that if he didn’t leave, he and his wife and his private secretary would be put in the Tower of London for the rest of his life without trial.”

Though the film is set in the 1970s, much of it will be relevant to modern audiences, Manley added. “It was a period of political animosity and unspoken conversations at the top level of politics that the general public weren’t aware of.

“We think that’s going to resonate strongly with audiences today. Unelected leaders, heatwaves, conflicts with Russia, industrial action … there are a lot of parallels.”

Shaun Dooley, previously seen in the hit Channel 4 show It’s a Sin and Netflix’s The Witcher, plays Wilson, while Fenella Woolgar steps into the shoes of Wilson’s political secretary, Lady Falkender.

Dooley will be the first actor to be allowed to cross the white line of the chamber for a feature film, and possibly “the first non-elected, non-appointed, individual to do so since Charles I”, the film-makers added.

The actor said it was an “absolute privilege” to walk in Wilson’s shoes, “and to do it inside the chamber is incredible. It will be our first day of shooting and my first time playing Harold, what a place to do it.”

A spokesperson for the House of Commons said: “Filming regularly takes place in and around the parliamentary estate, and each request is considered on a case by case basis; there is no change on policy regarding filming.”

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