Imagine being asked to play your own granny in a drama. On the one hand, either through dint of DNA, physical resemblance or first-hand acquaintance, you might consider it an easier sort of assignment. On the other, it must be a bit weird: almost unbearably so if your gran finds herself subjected to a strange, posthumous form of emotional cruelty. That’s tough.
That is Ruth Wilson's outstanding achievement in Mrs Wilson (BBC1), a three-part dramatisation about her own family. Family and step-family, that is, because her granddad, Major Alexander Wilson, accumulated supplementary families rather like other people collect postage stamps or designer shoes – but with less benign consequences. Wilson’s grandmother Alison was unlucky enough to be one of his, well, victims, and the focus of this action-packed, superficially domestic tale.
It is London, 1963, and Mrs Alison Wilson comes home to prepare lunch for hubby Alexander, or Alec (played by Iain Glen). She calls him. No reply. Upstairs, she finds him dead of a heart attack.
It’s traumatic, of course, but it becomes yet more traumatic when an older woman arrives on her doorstep a day or two later, and declares herself to be “Mrs Gladys Wilson”. Mrs A Wilson, who is some 20 years younger than her late husband and a clerk in the spy establishment they work in, is aware of Mrs G Wilson – but had been under the impression that her husband had divorced Gladys back in 1940.
Mrs G Wilson, on the other hand, was under the impression that her (still) husband, though separated from her, had not remarried. There are shocks and tears all round – the first of many.
The saga of Alec’s earlier fornications, fantasies and forgeries (of divorce papers, for example) are told in “real time” in the Sixties, with flashbacks to the Forties that track Alec’s charming courtship and subsequent semi-abandonment of Alison. There are long, long absences from her and their two young sons “on war service”. How much truth there is in this is mostly unclear. He is skint, or mean, anyhow, and we don’t actually know why.
We do see that he did some spying, possibly out in India. He certainly picked up some skill at fabricating paperwork, and making up stories. He transmutes this into a talent for writing pot-boiler novels, an activity that brings his family(ies) some prosperity in peace time. Ruth and the boys, though, have to endure a lonely poverty before the royalty cheques start rolling in. The scene where Alison gives birth in a pre-NHS paupers’ maternity ward is especially moving.
The double life makes Alec’s funeral quite complicated. Thanks to some deft arrangements, and a sympathetic undertaker, Alison manages to combine a service for the benefit of one family, in Ealing, with a burial for the benefit of both, in Southsea. The cortege takes a 77-mile detour to the graveyard. She now finds herself inventing Alec-style fibs for her boys about the “cousins” they will see burying their dad.
Because of discrepancies about Alec’s date of birth, there is no headstone. No one seems to care.
So that’s two wives and four children – but the first episode is just the start of the revelations. We discover that there may be someone else – the mysterious Dorothy (Keeley Hawes). Another women in the cad’s life? A daughter? Wife? Girlfriend? Sister? Someone pretending to be one such? We are yet to know.
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Ruth Wilson is quite compelling as her own gran, both as the young bride and the older widow. I was utterly gripped by her performance and the revelations about this frankly loathsome man. As you watch her put a brave face on every fresh humiliation, you too feel that mix of anguish and bewilderment that the posthumous revelations heap upon her when she is at her most vulnerable, trying to hide everything from her boys, with no one to share the burden bar a priest. We feel it too, though fleetingly, from Elizabeth Rider, whose Gladys marries Alec (probably genuinely) in 1919.
For all concerned, including the one child in on the secret, Gladys’s elder son Dennis (Patrick Kennedy), there will never be any answers, or “closure” to use the modern term, because the only person who could supply them is six foot under, in an unmarked grave.
Searching for the truth, Alison certainly gets very little out of his secret service handler Coleman (played with aplomb by Fiona Shaw). Cameron (no first name given) busies herself preparing and consuming a fried egg whilst smoking, as she tells Alison to just stop asking questions. The contempt is horrid but, in its way, magnificent.
I cannot wait to meet the next skeletons that tumble out of the Wilson families’ unusually crowded closet. I wonder how anyone, even in the pre-computer, pre-internet, pre-smartphone age, could get away with leading quite so many existences so blatantly: “I’ve lived too many lives already,” says the younger Alec enigmatically. Mrs Wilson belies its prosaic title, just as its subject does: more outlandish than any soap plotline, but based on true events. Superb viewing.
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