Award-winning actress Ruth Wilson leads an all-British cast in Mrs Wilson, a new original three-part drama for BBC One, co-produced with Masterpiece, based on the life of her own grandmother.
It’s 1963, and Alison Wilson (Ruth Wilson) returns home to find husband Alexander (Iain Glen) dead. Blinded by grief, Alison is bewildered when a woman unexpectedly arrives at the door, claiming to be Alec’s ‘real wife’ Gladys (Elizabeth Rider).
Alison embarks on a mission to discover who her husband really was. But by dissecting their wartime romance whilst working for the secret service, and learning about his mysterious past in India, it soon becomes clear to Alison that Alec died holding his secrets close to his chest.
Alison is left craving the truth as she makes discoveries that threaten to tear her carefully crafted world apart.
Finding the team
Ruth Wilson, the award-winning actress and star of the popular U.S. hit TV series The Affair, had been carrying around a story with her for several years, wondering whether she should, or could, tell it on the screen. This unique story was a complex tale of espionage, betrayal and polygamy that was based on the life of her own grandfather – Alexander Wilson.
“I would tell various people the story, and they all said to me, you’ve got to get this made,” she says. “My family all said to me, you’ve got to get this made. I didn’t necessarily want to get it made, but it was an amazing story and the more I told it the more it became fascinating, and the more things we kept finding out about my grandfather.”
Wilson began approaching producers to see if the extraordinary story could indeed find its way to a wider audience than just family and close friends. Her grandmother, Alison Wilson, had written at great length about her experiences during the Second World War, her relationship with Alec, his death and her ultimate embrace of religion.
Wilson explains the genesis: “I met (Exec Producer) Neil Blair, who said to me we could get the books published, but we could also make a drama out of this. So, we started discussing and collaborating with Snowed-In and Ruth Kenley-Letts (Executive Producer) who runs the production company with Neil.”
Ruth Kenley-Letts says: “I remember Ruth met with Neil Blair at the theatre and they got chatting about Ruth’s grandfather and how he had been a very successful novelist in the 1920s and 30s. Neil set about getting his novels republished. Now, nine of his novels have been republished. But subsequently our production company Snowed-In approached the BBC with Alison Wilson’s memoir, and once they got on board, we set about looking for a writer.”
Ruth Wilson adds: “We had this memoir that my grandmother had written, which was really the emotional truth of the story and from a female perspective. It made sense that if you focused on her, you could still tell his story but through her eyes.”
The main concern for Ruth Wilson was finding a writer she knew she could trust to approach the various family members with intuitive sensitivity, who could both serve the interests of the family and those of the drama.
Ruth says: “We needed someone who had a journalistic air about them. Someone who would make it into a thriller about who this man was. But also, someone who had an emotional attachment to Alison and all of the members of the family. When we met Anna Symon, she had such a clear perspective on the story. She had so much empathy for Alison Wilson and understood the responsibility that went with it.”
Symon read Wilson’s memoir and found the story compelling. She began talking to Wilson and other members of the family to build more of an understanding of the events of Alison’s life and how this had impacted on the family.
Symon says: “Literally from the moment I started reading it, I thought, this is an incredible story. It was one of those stories where truth is stranger than fiction.”
Ruth says: “Anna was amazing. She really has an enormous amount of empathy and love for the individuals involved, she cared that their opinion of their father was served in the piece. I think she did an amazing job of making this not only a page turner, but something that the family would be happy with.”
Developing the script
Wilson sent draft versions of the scripts to key family members in the early stages of development to make sure that the details chimed with Symon’s research and that the content was something they would accept.
Symon’s first point of contact was naturally Ruth Wilson, but her primary source of information was Alison Wilson’s memoir.
Symon then met Gordon and Nigel Wilson, Ruth Wilson’s uncle and father. She took note of many personal memories from them, some of which were difficult to come to terms with and were often, as Symon describes them, “incredibly emotional”.
Symon also had to face the fact that because she was drilling down into a story that had been told numerous times before among family members, memories were often remembered differently.
“As in many of these stories, we have had to fill in some of the gaps, because we don’t know exactly how some scenes played out,” Symon explains. “The family was very generous in allowing me to use the truth of what we did know and the truth of the characters, to come to a story that was inspired by the reality, but in fact had to be imagined.”
Symon endeavoured to contact everyone who was still alive and/or who had a direct connection with Alexander Wilson, Alison Wilson, or one of their children. From these meetings she was able to piece together fragments of Alexander’s life during the war. He had written many books that were based almost exclusively around the British spy network during WWII. Symon was able to see what she describes as “parallels between what he was writing and what we know he was experiencing in his life as a spy”.
But Symon hit a wall when the British government refused her access to some files that are still being held under lock and key in the archives. “Because the intelligence services still won’t release all the documents pertaining to his work there has constantly been a sense of intrigue at the heart of the story, which I found fascinating,” she says.
For director Richard Laxton, the whole process was a balancing act. During production, the responsibility for honouring the story and the lives it portrays weighed heavily on everyone.
Richard says: “When, as a director, you tell the story, you have to make choices based on the story, but you also have to bear in mind compassion and kindness for the subjects. If you prepare the family in the way we did from the beginning to understand that decisions have to be made in terms of plot and narrative, you are already on a positive footing.
“I’ve told a few stories about real people and there’s always a recalibration that those people have to take when they see it.”
Ruth as Alison
Executive producer Ruth Kenley-Letts has watched with fascination as Ruth Wilson has evolved the references and memories of her own grandmother into a fully rounded character for Mrs Wilson.
Ruth says: “It’s doubly complex because she knew the woman that she was playing from her perspective as both a child and a granddaughter, but which is completely separate from her grandmother’s own personal story.
“Watching Ruth play that part over nine weeks makes you realise how difficult it must have been for Alison after her husband died and the pressure she must have faced as the revelations began to leak out. I think for any woman who loses a husband, especially a man who is 30 years older than her, it’s going to be really difficult.
“Being a housewife, having to tackle new and unfamiliar paperwork, bills and everything that goes with taking over the reins when someone has gone is traumatic. This woman had to deal with all of that as well as her two young sons who were still at school and naval college. The pressure must have been huge. I think Ruth’s portrayal of her grandmother is utterly mesmerising and brilliant to watch. I think she does an incredible job in a role that I think has been really hard for her to dig out from within and dramatise.”