Se­cret lives ‘It’s daunt­ing, mak­ing a drama out of my fam­ily’s mys­ter­ies’

Her grand­fa­ther was a bigamist and a spy. Now Ruth Wil­son tells Vanessa Thorpe what it’s like to play her own grand­mother in a TV se­ries about their ex­tra­or­di­nary mar­riage

The Observer - - Focus - Mrs Wil­son will be screened next year

When Ruth Wil­son found out the remarkable truth about her fa­ther’s par­ents, one thing was ev­i­dent: the level of in­trigue was way beyond the imag­in­ings of the aver­age fam­ily his­to­rian. The sheer scale of the se­crets in­volved was dizzy­ing.

Cer­tainly this sur­passed the kind of mi­nor rev­e­la­tion of­ten fea­tured in Who Do You Think You Are? It was a hu­man drama with such power that the Bri­tish ac­tress felt com­pelled to bring it to a wider au­di­ence and ex­am­ine the emo­tional con­flict at its core. “I’d been talk­ing about th­ese events to peo­ple, to pro­duc­ers, to friends, to peo­ple I met, ever since we all found out, won­der­ing how you might struc­ture it as a drama,” the star of the tele­vi­sion se­ries Luther and The Af­fair told the Ob­server.

Now she is to ap­pear in a three­part drama on BBC1 that un­rav­els the ex­tra­or­di­nary tale of a mar­riage built on lay­ers of de­cep­tion, as well as on a com­pli­cated kind of love. The key facts, re­vealed sud­denly to the fam­ily in a mem­oir by her grand­mother, Ali­son Wil­son, showed that the grand­fa­ther Ruth had never known was not sim­ply “Alec”, a much-mourned hus­band, but also Alexan­der Wil­son, the ac­claimed au­thor of 27 thrillers, a se­rial bigamist and an MI6 agent.

In a suit­ably baroque twist, Wil­son, 36, will be play­ing her own grand­mother in Mrs Wil­son, giv­ing a per­for­mance that con­veys all the con­fu­sion and sur­prise Ali­son must have felt when, on Alec’s death at 70 in 1963, she dis­cov­ered his other lives. “It was daunt­ing play­ing my own fam­ily mem­ber, even a bit scary,” Wil­son said. “But be­cause it is a drama we are not judg­ing them. It would ac­tu­ally be more ex­pos­ing to make a doc­u­men­tary be­cause it would be me, Ruth, and you would have to give an­swers and per­haps make a call on it.

“But I have never judged them and nei­ther has the rest of the fam­ily. I find them both cu­ri­ous and com­plex. So it is safer to drama­tise it, get un­der­neath the char­ac­ters more, and fully serve the story.”

Whether Alec was a na­tional hero or just an extremely en­ter­pris­ing con­man, some res­o­lu­tion for the wider Wil­son fam­ily has come with the late, happy dis­cov­ery of half-si­b­lings. Yet the ac­tress, who grew up in Sur­rey, wants tele­vi­sion au­di­ences to quickly for­get her close con­nec­tion to the plot. “I hope peo­ple will not con­stantly be think­ing, ‘Oh, it’s Ruth play­ing her own grand­mother’. This is fic­tion and isn’t re­ally me, or even my real grand­mother.”

The elu­sive Alec is played by Iain Glen, and while his char­ac­ter re­mains the quick­sil­ver run­ning through the nar­ra­tive, the ex­pe­ri­ence of his widow is its real fo­cus.

“Iain has done a bril­liant job with such a dif­fi­cult part. Peo­ple may well judge my grand­fa­ther, but it is not about that in the end. It is about fam­ily unity and about what has come out of all this for us. If view­ers watch all three parts that is what they will be left with,” said Wil­son.

Meet­ing last week with Anna Sy­mon, who has adapted the story for the screen, Wil­son said she was grate­ful for the writer’s early in­stincts. “We just aligned when Anna talked to me. It was ac­tu­ally

val­i­dat­ing to hear her come to me with the same idea of go­ing with the clear jour­ney of my grand­mother’s story. It is the right emo­tional jour­ney for the au­di­ence be­cause you can at­tach to her feel­ings and I feel that is where the heart of all this is.”

Sy­mon was ini­tially over­whelmed by all the avail­able the­o­ries about Alec, but she even­tu­ally felt the more in­ter­est­ing route was to con­cen­trate on Ali­son’s “less flam­boy­ant” life.

“There is a long book about him and all the MI6 in­trigue. Some­one could do a whole six-part se­ries on him, there is so much there. But we start it at the end, when he dies, and tell it like a de­tec­tive story from Ali­son’s point of view. She was some­one who had joined the For­eign Of­fice her­self at the age of 20, and had then be­come a sub- ur­ban housewife, be­fore be­ing changed again by all that she dis­cov­ers.”

Ali­son McKelvie had met her hus­band dur­ing the sec­ond world war in MI6, where she worked as his sec­re­tary while he eaves­dropped on over­seas em­bassies’ tele­phone calls. Ruth Wil­son be­lieves there is still not enough known to make sense of his life. The en­tire truth may only come out when govern­ment doc­u­ments are re­leased in years to come.

“He re­mains a mystery,” she said. “He is still a con­struct of the mem­o­ries of him. We don’t have any­thing sub­stan­tial from his per­spec­tive. But we do have the blue­print of Ali­son’s mem­oir, which is some­thing very per­sonal and hon­est.”

The mem­oir came to Ali­son Wil­son’s sons Gor­don and Nigel, who is Ruth’s fa­ther, in two parts, the first about Ali­son’s youth. The drama mines both sec­tions.

“She died when I was 22 and it was only then we saw the sec­ond part,” said Wil­son. “It seems she only knew about one other wife. She may even have con­flated two of them. She meets his first wife, Gla­dys, at the fu­neral and sees three kids there, though she had been told his ex had only had one child.

Sy­mon is not so sure. She sus­pects Ali­son knew of a sec­ond “wife”, an ac­tress called Dorothy, played by Kee­ley Hawes. “She worked out some things from a sheaf of let­ters. She wrote she had “found out the full ex­tent of his in­fi­delity”.

Wil­son’s fa­ther was 18 when Alec died of a heart at­tack and he was rarely men­tioned as the ac­tress grew up. “We never saw any pic­tures, al­though it is funny, as a cu­ri­ous daugh­ter look­ing through my dad’s chest of draw­ers I did find one pho­to­graph I re­mem­ber.”

Nigel has since told her that he knew as a child not to talk about his fa­ther’s work. “You weren’t al­lowed to talk about the For­eign Of­fice. Both boys learned to di­vert the ques­tion and come up with some­thing else,” said Wil­son.

The ac­tress can de­tect lit­tle fam­ily re­sem­blance from pho­to­graphs. “He is bald with a pipe for a start,” she said. “I look more like my ma­ter­nal grand­mother, but my dad did say that, once in cos­tume, at mo­ments he saw his mother in me.”

Even her grand­fa­ther’s lit­er­ary ca­reer was a rev­e­la­tion. His suc­cess­ful books, in­clud­ing The Mystery of Tun­nel 51, The Devil’s Cock­tail

and Wal­lace In­ter­venes, fol­lowed the ad­ven­tures of a se­cret ser­vice hero, Sir Leonard Wal­lace. In Jan­uary 1940 an Ob­server re­viewer Mau­rice Richard­son de­scribed this last ti­tle as “an­other spy story fea­tur­ing Hitler in per­son, if not name. This time he is kid­napped, put in a trunk, and suc­cess­fully im­per­son­ated by Sir Leonard Wal­lace, chief of the in­tel­li­gence ser­vice. This comes at the end of an ex­cit­ing love duel in which one of our younger agents has to se­duce a beau­ti­ful Aus­trian baroness.”

Sy­mon be­lieves Alexan­der Wil­son’s writ­ing holds the key. “I gave him a line where he says, ‘I just sit at my type­writer and make things up’ and I think he took that into every part of his life,” she said.

His grand­daugh­ter has her own the­ory. She de­tects a link be­tween Wil­son’s risk-taking and her own choice of an act­ing ca­reer. “There is a risk in­volved. You are not in dan­ger, but it is adren­a­line. I stress out. I feel the risk,” she said. “The ap­ple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

‘My grand­mother died when I was 22. It seems she only knew about one other wife …’

Ruth Wil­son

Pho­to­graph by Phil Fisk for the Ob­server

Ruth Wil­son: ‘I never judged my grand­par­ents.’

BBC/WP Films

Ruth Wil­son as her grand­mother, Ali­son Wil­son, a sec­re­tary at MI6.

Iain Glen plays the elu­sive Alec Wil­son in the BBC se­ries.

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