Mrs. Wilson, PBS’ latest Masterpiece effort, is a powerful three-part drama, starring, and executive produced by Ruth Wilson, inspired by the memoir of Ms. Wilson’s grandmother and family history. After the sudden death of novelist and former Secret Intelligence Service agent Alexander Wilson in 1960s London, his wife Alison is forced to investigate when mysteries from her late husband’s past come knocking.
Wilson, along with Ian Glen, who plays Alec Wilson, and writer Anna Symon, and executive producer Rebecca Eaton, talked about the show to a select group of journalists at the 2019 Winter TCAs.
The drama is a deeply personal project for Wilson, who discovered that her grandmother discovered that her husband had a completely other life, several other wives and an entire career that she didn’t know about. Wilson says the memoir covered her grandmother growing up, falling in love, and discovering that betrayal. However, Mrs. Wilson will not cover all of the affairs, in fact, Wilson’s grandmother only wrote about the one in her memoir.
That discovery came out when the other two grandchildren reached out to Wilson’s family. “So we worked out that she’s one of four wives, not one of two,” Wilson said. “And we have an inkling that she might have known the full story, but only chose to write about one of them in her memoir. So the piece then became an amalgamation of the memoir and things we have since found out about Alec and about his life and about my grandmother’s life.”
So there came a point where they had family reunions so big that everyone in attendance had to wear nametags. With so many different families in one room, there were many different stories to go around. This would serve as the basis for the upcoming drama. “Every time we told the story, it just more things were coming out, but it was just an extraordinary story,” Wilson said. “It was something that felt it had to be told. And me being in the business, it was sort of down to me to do it.”
Of course, there may be some things that some families still don’t know about Alec, considering that he worked in MI6. “So we’re still digging and asking what his involvement was with them and what he really got up to,” Wilson said. “We have sort of certain facts that we’ve laced into the drama.”
She added “He wrote 27 novels, so we have those. And we have things we know he got up to and where he was in India in the 20s and everything else. But we don’t know for certain, and we’re still asking those questions. There might be more women as well. Might be more families.”
Symon says when she started the project, she focused on Ruth’s dad and uncle first before she went out and expanded to talk to other family members. And even though Alec’s had secrets, the one common thing his children had was that they adored him. “I found that so fascinating, that, you know, whatever his faults, he was loving; he was compassionate; he was a good storyteller to his kids,” Symon said. “So in terms of building his character, I took a lot of that from the reality of what I was told.”
Soon these conversations delved into a project for Symon, who tracked Alec’s movements through a timeline she made. “I just tried to kind of find my best version of events,” Symon said.
While she admits that she does take some creative liberties on the show, she says it will represent the women and what they went through. It will be more about their strength and the emotional journey.
For someone who had a lot of ambiguities, it’s hard to tell what is truth and what is fiction. So Glen approached each scene with some nuance. “No one could comprehend him, and no one could comprehend his actions,” Glen said. “And those that had studied it for many, many years, and family members, couldn’t quite understand his motivation, or why so much had been hidden, and why he behaved in the way he had.”
He added, “So it felt wrong for me to try and rationalize it completely, and fully comprehend it. So you play each moment and each relationship for what it is, and you hope that it, you know, adds up to what it does, and people can take from it what they will.”
But the one thing that Glen was surprised by was that none of the British audiences dismissed Mr. Wilson as a cad who behaved abominably.
She adds, “But somehow the betrayal was so huge for her, that she could never imagine it. And then she felt loved by God. I mean, I think she wanted to be loved her whole life.”
So when it came to showing her family Mrs. Wilson, Wilson says it was huge and emotional. She adds that it was her responsibility to share the scripts with them so that they can share some of their concerns. Again, they weren’t surprised by any “don’t show that” suggestions but more of “he would not have done that.” She says “I don’t want to shortchange the characters and make them like victims or cads. It was about making three-dimensional to me, that’s the real truth, like, to get underneath these people and show every side of them.”
Furthermore, Wilson says she might not take on a role that is so personal, ever again. “I mean, there were weird moments as well, like giving birth to my dad, which was really bizarre,” Wilson said. “I thought to throw that in or kissing my dad my granddad, which was weird. This is going to really mess with anyone who watches it in my family. My poor dad, having to watch that. It was weird for them as well, having to watch themselves portrayed.”
However, Wilson says her uncle had a warm reception to the drama as it allowed him to see her grandmother’s memoir from a different point of view. Her point of view. “He’d always thought about his dad, but he hadn’t really seen it from his mother’s point of view, and he hadn’t really ever seen or understood quite the experience she must have gone through,” Wilson said. “And so for him and my dad and for everyone else watching it, and for my brothers, you know, seeing my grandmother, what she must have gone through, it was really moving, and it’s opened up a whole other discussion and understanding of her. It’s brought us all together. And now we do talk a bit more, which is lovely.”
Mrs. Wilson will premiere on PBS on March 31, 2019.