‘Mrs. Wilson’: Ruth Wilson Reflects on the Legacy and Ongoing Mystery of Her Grandfather’s Elaborate Deception

The PBS Masterpiece limited series may have ended, but the family’s questions haven’t.
Iain Glen, "Mrs. Wilson"
Iain Glen, "Mrs. Wilson"
BBC/©WP Films Ltd

[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “Mrs. Wilson” on Masterpiece, including the finale.]

It turns out that secret bigamist Alexander “Alec” Wilson had not just one, not two, but a total of four wives. This revelation came to light Sunday night during the finale for “Mrs. Wilson,” the Masterpiece limited series based on the scandalous life of actress Ruth Wilson’s grandfather. In the show, 1960s London housewife Alison Wilson (portrayed by her granddaughter Ruth) discovers her husband’s bigamy shortly after his death when another wife, Gladys, shows up, and the subsequent search for truth brings far more shocking answers than previously anticipated.

Co-star Fiona Shaw (“Killing Eve”), who plays Alec’s MI6 handler Coleman, wonders if there could be even more Wilson families that will be uncovered.

“How can the world be sure when your grandmother had no idea that there were four families? At least [four],” Shaw said in an interview with IndieWire. “We think to have two partners, three partners, would be exhausting. But the morality of it, or the immorality of it remains. Maybe we are frightened. Are we frightened of ourselves?”

Shaw has had time to reflect on this question because the story hit close to home.

“I know of somebody else who’s been a victim of a bigamist. A friend who was my boss at the National Theater had exactly the same situation,” said Shaw. “Her father also had two families because he met his wife at Bletchley Park. The secret service element of England produced a lot of hidden-ness, which is kind of what you think about England. So I think there is a lot of it. I think Ruth’s story is actually that of a lot of that generation because there was a get-out-of-jail card, which was, ‘I can’t tell you what I’m doing on Thursday.’”

Fiona Shaw, "Mrs. Wilson"
Fiona Shaw, “Mrs. Wilson”BBC/©WP Films Ltd.

Indeed, the clandestine nature of these intelligence agencies, especially during times of war, cannot be underestimated. The question of how much legitimate espionage work Alec had carried out — and how much of it was just a cover to be with another family — is still uncertain. In the series, Coleman claims that MI6 fired Alec for falsifying reports and then surveilled him the rest of his life for being a dangerous fabricator of lies, but his friend Karim (Anupam Kher) claims that Alec was set up and actually did continue his espionage work. In real life, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have labeled certain documents about Alec’s work as “classified” and will not release them. In essence, his only spy legacy has been documented in “Mrs. Wilson” and fictionalized in the spy novels he wrote.

“We don’t know truly what his involvement at MI5 and MI6 was when he left the service. They won’t release all records on him, and it’s still considered case-sensitive,” said Ruth Wilson. “We don’t really know why and we’re still asking them and hassling them to give us the answers. But maybe it’s a story that should never be told. There’s some mystery at the heart of it, and that’s him.”

On balance, learning that her grandfather was a cypher also led Ruth Wilson to learn more about her own  grandmother. Although the first part of Alison Wilson’s memoirs was dedicated to her own life and the discoveries she made about her husband, she released a second part upon her death in 2005. That’s when the family learned the true extent to which she dedicated her life to religion and finally found peace.

Screenwriter Anna Symon dramatized this new direction in Alison’s life by having her learn the truth about wives No. 3 and 4 — a discovery that she did not actually make in real life, since those two families came forth after her death — and having that news send her into a tailspin that only religion helped her recover from. “Alison may or may not have known about them, but I wanted the audience to go on that journey that actually finally led her to her very strong faith in God,” she said.

Ruth Wilson added, “The second part of her memoir was dedicated to God, and that was about the rest of her life. From the moment she found God, she believed that all their suffering led to a greater purpose, finding Jesus, and whatever else. Even though we knew she was religious, we didn’t know to the extent, that she had taken vows. It made her happy and it was survival for her, and everyone has their own way of surviving trauma. ”

Ruth Wilson, "Mrs. Wilson"
Ruth Wilson, “Mrs. Wilson”BBC/©WP Films Ltd.

“Mrs. Wilson” ends with a look at the real-life legacy of Alec Wilson’s many marriages. In an unscripted segment, his four living sons come onscreen all wearing matching ties. Then all the grandchildren, including Ruth Wilson, join them. Then the great-grandchildren, and so on.

“I was really keen to bring the story up to present day because I felt like it needed that uplifting thing to see that they’re all friends now. I found that so moving. I love it in films and things where you see the real people,” said Symon. “Then our brilliant director Richard Laxton had the idea of just filling the screen with the family members, which I think is so effective. It was very good visually.”

However, one family member is missing: Alec’s grown daughter Daphne with his first wife Gladys. Symon had also left her out of the series, out of respect for Daphne’s privacy.

“She, of all the children, found it hardest to cope and she didn’t actually go to the funeral at the time because she was so upset,” said Symon. “She’s 95 and she’s very close to the rest of the family, but she didn’t want to be involved. She’s a more private person.”

Despite Daphne’s reticence, the family did agree to make the limited series and have continued to have reunions similar to the one seen at the end of “Mrs. Wilson.”

“You see us all together, the good that’s come out of all this suffering in a way even though it was stressful for all the grannies,” said Ruth Wilson. “We first met about 12 years ago, and the family keeps growing. We try to get together probably once every two years. It’s been a really positive experience. We all get on; there’s no money to fight over, there’s no other thing to fight over.

“We had a family screening of the show. We booked a cinema near Dennis, who’s the oldest at 97. There were 55 of us in the room, and there was a sort of four-minute silence afterwards. People were crying. That’s the best thing about this show, that’s why it’s been worth it, for that experience. It’s been a bonding moment that we’ve all been in this together and we’re all the results of this one man’s actions.”

MASTERPIECEMrs WilsonSundays, March 31 & April 7, 2019 at 9pm ET on PBSEpisode OneSunday, March 31, 2019; 9-11pm ETMarried after meeting in the secret service during World War II, Alec and Alison Wilson live devotedly for two decades. Then he dies, and his real story starts to emerge. Alison tracks down Dorothy, Alec’s partner in espionage years earlier in India. Like Alison, she too wasdeceived by this charming author turned spy.Picture Shows: Alison (RUTH WILSON)©WP Films Ltd. - Photographer: Steffan Hill
Ruth Wilson, “Mrs. Wilson”BBC/©WP Films Ltd.

The actress also reflects on some clarity that it’s provided for her own father and uncle. “It’s completed people’s stories. Puzzles in their life have been solved, connecting dots that seem mysterious to them. They now make sense.”

For Ruth Wilson, learning more about her grandparents and the extended family has given her calling as an actress more context. “I discovered a creative strand in my family that I never knew existed. Finding out that my grandfather was this storyteller and wrote endless books, and he was telling stories his whole life, he was the greatest actor of us all,” she said. “Also, my grandmother was a beautiful writer too. I’ve discovered an uncle that was also an actor, another cousin is a writer, and the oldest, Dennis, writes poetry. So there is a real literary aspect to my family that we never really indulged in or knew about.

“So the creativity that I never grew up with — it wasn’t a natural or obvious choice to go into acting at all — was obviously something that was in my nature,” she concluded. “That’s validation and a relief. I was like, ‘Oh God, I’m not complete oddball, I’ve got a lot of oddballs in my family, so it’s fine.’ Some of the stars aligned. I went into acting the year after my grandmother died, so she never saw me act. I thinks that’s something sort of very beautiful in the cycle of life.”

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