The story of Alison Wilson’s relationship with British spy novelist and actual spy, Alexander Wilson, almost seems too wild for reality and too bizarre for the author’s own fiction. But the history, beautifully brought to life by Wilson’s granddaughter, Ruth Wilson, was real. It’s a genre-busting journey where series writer Anna Symon always sought to highlight the power of family joy in this rather dark true tale.
Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to a special bonus episode of MASTERPIECE Studio.
After years of unexpected and unwelcome revelations about her secret agent husband’s past, Alison Wilson has finally committed herself — to the truth, yes, but also to a spiritual life as a nun.
Alison: Therefore I, Alison Wilson vow to live in chastity, in poverty, and obedience.
Jace: Alec Wilson’s elaborate romantic pursuits and extensive family have left Alison bereft multiple times over, but she finally feels empowered to expose the truth about her husband to their sons.
Alison: You must decide for yourselves who your father really was. But you should know that, with God’s help, I have forgiven him. I hope one day that you may be able to do the same.
Jace: Series writer Anna Symon is a former journalist and documentary filmmaker, and that approach to factual details lends her series, Mrs. Wilson, a particularly deft touch. She and series star and executive producer Ruth Wilson worked together to blur the genre of the series: it’s a domestic drama, an espionage thriller and a family tragedy, all in one.
Anna Symon: I mean, one of the key themes of the show is how do you live with lies? And I did feel that all the women had made different decisions consciously or unconsciously about how to do that.
Jace: Symon joins us to explore the challenges and choices behind telling a personal true story like the Wilson family’s on screen, and to probe the boundaries of what still remains unknown about the mysterious Alexander Wilson.
Jace: And this week we are joined by Mrs. Wilson writer Anna Symon. Welcome.
Anna: Thank you.
Jace: You came from the world of documentaries before segwaying into screenwriting. How did your background serve you in terms of adapting this project?
Anna: I think it was really helpful in the initial stages because it was quite a lot of research that I did when I first got the job of writing this story. There was such a wealth of material, and I really wanted to find out exactly who Alexander Wilson was. So I took quite a journalistic approach when I first saw the material. I read as much as I could. And I went and interviewed all the family members. But then kind of in quite an interesting way I think I actually once I’d kind of gathered all the information, I realized there was no one true story. And so I then felt liberated from telling the most sort of journalistically accurate version of the story and I sort of focused on the emotional truth of Alison’s journey. And so it was kind of a combination of my background and my journalistic skills married to the newer side of me of the drama writer and kind of combining both of those to hopefully come up with a screenplay that was both a kind of an emotional rollercoaster but also stuck to the really key story points of of the true story.
Jace: One of the things I love about Mrs. Wilson is how it blurs the lines between genres. It’s a romance, it’s an espionage mystery, it’s a family drama, it’s a Rashomon-like reconstruction of the past. Were you conscious at all in in terms of the development about genre?
Anna: I really wasn’t conscious about genre. I think I just thought, ‘This is an amazing story, what is the best way to tell the story?’ Because it’s a true story, you know, people’s lives don’t follow particular patterns, people fall in love. People have careers. People have families and we needed to reflect all those different sides of the story. My guiding light with it always was, I wanted the audience to feel that they were on Alison’s shoulder so that everything she. Everything they’re discovering she’s discovering at the same time so that they would really empathize with her. So we are on her journey. She’s the detective so I guess if anything I see it as a detective story but a kind of emotionally invested detective. So Alison’s the detective, her husband is the crime that she’s investigating if you like. And so we’re on that journey of investigation with her and obviously it’s a very emotional journey. But that if it’s any genre I’d say that’s the kind of genre that I was looking for.
Jace: I mean does that decision then sort of inform the format of it, to tell it in sort of a nonlinear fashion?
Anna: Absolutely, yeah it did inform it. And I think with the flashbacks that was kind of one of the toughest things when I was writing it, because it’s quite difficult with flashbacks to kind of always take the audience with you and not feel like you’re kind of stopping the present day story. So we had a kind of rule that we developed that every time you went to the past, it had to be to answer a question, a mystery, so we sort of set little puzzles within it as to you know, ‘Right. This will be when she remembers that she was shown the divorce papers. This will be the bit when she remembers she saw Dorothy at the house,’ so that we were using her present and her memory to inform the investigation in the present day.
Jace: And I love that because we do get to see certain scenes from multiple perspectives. When we go to the Author’s Club we see it one way with Alison, and when Dorothy tells her story later on we get her sort of version of that.
Dorothy: And then he took you out to lunch at the Author’s Club –
Alison: Yeah, we bumped into each other —
Dorothy: Bumped into each other? You think that was a coincidence?
Alison: I don’t know, I don’t know I—
Dorothy: I was watching him, Alison.
Alison: Spying on him?
Dorothy: Yes. I was following him to work, I was waiting for him at lunch, I was tracking his every move.
Anna: It happened because when I started talking to all the family members people who were at the same event like the funeral, for example, remember the event slightly differently. And I think that’s just so true in life, that you kind of feel like your memory of an event is the truth. And Alec’s life seemed to be always about him playing a character in a different situation. So I wanted to kind of replicate what it was like for those women to just see it from their point of view but actually they haven’t seen the whole picture that we in the audience at that point had seen more than the made themselves heard.
Jace: There’s a great moment in this week’s episode where Allison uses iodine to uncover a hidden message and the business card concealed within Alec’s wallet. Is this moment meant to fuse together spy tradecraft with the domestic secrets uncovered from household cleaners?
Anna: Absolutely. I always felt with Alison that she as a character was a kind of wonderful fusion of the domestic and this you know heightened world of intelligence and of course she met Alec you know in that world and I think you know if it was today she may well have gone on to be a spy herself because she was obviously a totally smart woman that could undoubtedly have had a career. But as was the way in those days once she got married and pregnant she she gave up work. And so she watched him and she knew a lot of stuff but she also was the housewife who was cleaning and so yes you’re right that moment was very much the time where she could put those two sides of her life together and solve a puzzle.
Jace: I man it really does reinforce the notion of Alison as detective but also just as equally she’s proficient at forgery. She could be a master liar just like her husband was. It seems as she goes on this journey that she’s discovering elements of herself that might be more simpatico with Alec than she believed.
Anna: Yeah I mean one of the key themes of the show is how do you live with lies? And I did feel that all the women had made different decisions consciously or unconsciously about how to do that. And Gladys, the first wife, I think she was in a sort of state of self-denial because so much of her married life Alec wasn’t there. And she must have suspected strongly that there was at least another woman if not another family. So I feel that she sort of lied to herself and then Dorothy, the second wife, played by Keeley Hawes, made this what seems to me extraordinary decision to tell her son that his father had died because she just couldn’t bear to have him in her life anymore. And so she sort of wholesale started lying to to sort of protect him from lies which you know is just your head starts to get fried around this point and you start thinking, you know, what would you do in that situation? And I think Alison was sort of torn because she was she was a very she was a person with a huge amount of integrity and a really dear and deep love for her husband and her sons and she wanted to do the best thing by both of them. And I guess it led her down a path in our story of lying to protect them from the truth.
Jace: And I do think it is almost an infection.
Anna Yeah. Absolutely.
Jace: His lies rub off on her and she spreads…
Jace: This disease to her sons.
Anna: Absolutely. And I mean in in reality, we don’t know how far Alison went to protect her sons from the truth. But we know that you know, she kept it all from them and she shouldered that responsibility, particularly around the funeral and all those scenes were absolutely taken from her memoir. And it was only when she handed this memoir over to them sort of several years later that she told the truth, because she just didn’t want them to feel the sense of shame and this disappointment that she felt.
Jace: Before this next question, a quick word from our sponsors…
Jace: There was a haunting brutality to the scene in the church where Alison punches the pillar until her hands bleed.
Alison: Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. I have been trusting…Forgive me, for I loved my husband, I believed him, I lied to my sons, forgive me for being weak, so weak, vain and stupid, so stupid…
Jace: Has this become a crisis of faith for Alison, a righteous anger not just in Alec but in God himself.
Anna: Allison talks in her memoir about the moment when she sort of discovered that her whole life had been a lie and the utter devastation of that feeling. And at the same time she had been over many years thinking about her faith and wanting to be closer to Alec through her faith. And should she adopt it. And she talks about this sort of incredible peace that she got when she found faith entirely. And so yes that moment in the church is a moment of utter devastation and of loss of faith in God as well as in him. And I think the choice to just to dedicate her life to God at the end of that episode is really because she she wanted to she wanted to choose faith. She wanted to love someone or something. She she couldn’t live with the fact that this had all been for nothing. And so I think she constructed the narrative and she talked about this in her memoir where everything that happened with Alec sort of happened for a purpose to take her closer to God gave her that sort of rock bottom if you will that led her to open herself up to this kind of deeper more profound love with God.
Jace: There’s a horror like feeling to the scene where eight-year-old Douglas shows up said to Gerry and the Pacemakers “How Do You Do It?”. Alison has finally found her equilibrium. Even joy in everything comes crashing down around her. How painful a revelation is this for Alison that there is yet another one?
Anna: I think it is the worst betrayal of all because I think the fact that Elizabeth was a wife after her the other two wives. OK. They were going on at the same time. But I think Allison felt that once he found her he’d found the real wife and the other ones have been mistakes and he had to be a good husband and father and sort of keep sending money to them and keep going to visit them. But I think until she meets Elizabeth she thinks like but then he met me and you know I was the final wife. So I think finding out that you’re three out of four is devastating and I mean there were other things I couldn’t put in like Elizabeth only lived five streets away. So yeah. And they got married like the local register office. It wasn’t like the wives all lived in different city. Dorothy was obviously from India so you could kind of were not from India but he met her in India so you could kind of understand how that might have happened. And Gladys lived in Southampton which is quite a long way from London but yeah Elizabeth was just a few streets away and that he met her you know while he was a porter in the hospital and she was a nurse and she believed he was a heart surgeon. I mean the mind boggles how he got away with all this stuff is incredible.
Jace: I love the final scene between Alison and Dennis as they come to some sort of understanding. Why was it essential to bring back Dennis’s character and give them this moment of clarity in the final installment?
Anna: I was very moved when I met Dennis the real Dennis who’s 97. You know he’s had this incredible life and quite late in his life you know in his old old years to discover this whole other family to discover the truths that he held about his father weren’t weren’t true and he just dealt with it so with such dignity really and and such compassion. And so I just loved the real man and then felt a real need to bring his character back to kind of give Alison that peace and to make her feel that it was OK. And also I think to kind of remind the audience that’s you know this story didn’t go away for those other characters. We followed Alison all the way through. But but you know the other the other people have been shaken by this and have their own journey. And then of course we’re leading towards the end where we see in real life all the family members come together. So it was kind of useful for for all those reasons.
Jace: We push into reality with the Wilson family reunion at the end of Mrs Wilson seeing the legacy that Alec wrought with not only clarity but with love. Whose idea was it to bring the real life Wilsons, Ruth included, into this final moment?
Anna: I was always very keen to bring the story up to date A, because I love that when I watch a film and you’ve been following characters and then you see the real people and I just really love that. I just enjoy that always and then also because it’s such a dark story I felt like all the people I’d met the family members were so generous and such lovely people. And it was such a nice end to a dark story that it hadn’t ended in recriminations it had ended in love and it ended in family and it ended in forgiveness. And it’s just a really simple moving way to just show the way that life goes on. This incredibly large happy family has kind of sprung out of all of this and yeah I find it really moving.
Jace: I love the dedication at the end as well: in memory of Gladys, Dorothy, Alison, and Elizabeth Wilson. Why was it crucial that we end on this note on the four Mrs Wilsons?
Anna: I think I felt that’s however much joy has come out from these families and seeing those those those children and grandchildren and great grandchildren now obviously looking happy and healthy and not sort of traumatized by the story was really important. I also felt like those children have survived the story because of the sacrifice made by their mothers and that those four women each in their own way did their absolute best to protect their children and love their children and make sure that those decisions that Alec made, wittingly or unwittingly to complicate their lives and hurt those women so so badly that you know they protect their children from that. I felt like we needed to recognize that those women were the real sort of heroes of our story.
Jace: Anna Symon, thank you so very much.
Anna: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.
Jace: Coming up next on MASTERPIECE, a brand-new production of Victor Hugo’s epic novel, Les Miserables. The classic story of revolution, poverty and personal grace comes to television in a sweeping new adaptation by Andrew Davies.
Javert: You have your name back, Monsieur 24601. I wonder if you can remember what it is?
Valjean: Jean Valjean.
Javert: You sure about that?
Valjean: JEAN VALJEAN.
Jace: Actor Dominic West plays the superhumanly-strong convict Jean Valjean, and he joins us to discuss the first episode, in which Valjean is released from the prison hulks and must decide whether to return to a life of crime, or to begin a quest for personal redemption.
Dominic West: He’s been brutalized for 19 years and he’s quite happy to kill anybody and certainly kill his tormentors.
Jace: That’s April 14 in your podcast feeds.
MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Susanne Simpson is our executive producer. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.
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