Imagine finding out that your husband of 20 years is still legally married to the woman he was with before you. Imagine that, despite what he told you, they had never really divorced. Imagine you are just one of the wives with whom he has kids; kids who adore him as their own and have no idea about this other life he is leading with you. Okay, now imagine finding all this out in the aftermath of your husband’s sudden death…
Wild, extraordinary, traumatic – no word seems to do this scenario justice, does it? As unimaginable as it might seem, though, this is precisely what happened to Mrs Alison Wilson. One afternoon in 1963, Alison returned home to have lunch with her husband, Alexander "Alec" Wilson. She sent him upstairs to take his heart medication and when she went up to check on him, Alison found Alec unconscious on the floor. She was then whisked into a devastated frenzy of dealing with funeral arrangements, telling their two sons the awful news and managing her own grief.
This already difficult process was turned on its head, however, when a woman claiming also to be Alec’s wife – the real Mrs Wilson – turned up on Alison's doorstep in the days after his passing. This is where the BBC’s fascinating new drama Mrs Wilson picks up. Starring Ruth Wilson (The Affair, Luther, The Little Stranger), who is Alison Wilson’s IRL granddaughter, the three-part series attempts to uncover the who, what and why of her family’s incredible history.
"In this drama, we have amalgamated the truth with the memories," Ruth explained at the series' preview screening. Inspiration for the drama came from the book that her grandmother wrote about her experience, which was later passed down to her children and grandchildren when Ruth was growing up. But there are some gaps in the story, which Ruth and her family were only able to fill in after her grandmother died in 2005.
Ready for another curveball? Ruth’s grandfather, Alec, was a spy. He met Alison in the last few years of the second world war when she took a job as his secretary in the British intelligence agency. They eventually fell in love, moved in, married, had kids and built a life together. However, his inherently shady career made the puzzle of the multiple lives he was leading even more difficult to piece together. Ruth explained that her grandmother had destroyed anything that had any mention of Alec. All they had to go on was the memoir that was written poignantly from her one perspective, and was passed on to the family in two parts – one half to be read while Alison was still alive, the other only to be read after her death.
It was only then that other secrets were made known to the Wilson family. Ruth explained: "When she died, we had correspondence from two more people to my uncle saying they also had the same father. So we found out more stuff that my granny never knew about. My granny only knew about one wife and we as a family found out about two more after she died. And thank god she didn’t know about those two." But they made the decision for the Alison we meet in the BBC series to uncover the truth about all of Alec's parallel relationships, to tell that side of the wider family story too.
Through years of investigation, meeting of step-families and ultimately playing Alison in the upcoming series, Ruth seems to have as measured an understanding of Alison's side of things as I'm sure any of us could imagine at this point, which was crucial in her decision to play her own grandmother in the programme. "I knew if I were to play her, I could play all the complexity of her," she said. "She was complicit in this denial as much as Alec was responsible for the betrayal." But resolving Alec’s motivations, or even clearing up his own story, still proves pretty difficult.
"We haven’t come to a conclusion," Ruth added. "MI5 still won’t release the records as to what he got up to as they are 'case sensitive', whatever that means. But after 70 years they still won’t release them, so we don’t really know what he was doing with the secret service ... We don’t know if the marriages were for work or love."
Four wives, seven children and an unimaginable number of secrets all kept by one cleverly elusive man. Mrs Wilson offers insight into how one of the Wilson wives uncovered the scandal rooted in her family name, and what unfolds is one of the most absorbing real life stories that Ruth and her family will likely only ever know so much about.
Mrs Wilson starts on BBC One on 27th November at 9pm