Ruth Wilson plays the wife of her grandpa, a lying, bigamist MI6 agent

TV review: Mrs Wilson delves into story of pretence and betrayal

Mrs Wilson: Ruth Wilson in the period drama about her own family’s history

Mrs Wilson: Ruth Wilson in the period drama about her own family’s history

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Shortly after the death of Alexander Wilson (Iain Glen), a learned military man who worked for the British Foreign Office (or MI6, depending strictly on who needed to know) someone remarks on his prodigious output as a spy fiction novelist.

“Yes,” says his widow, Alison, currently contending with the hornet’s nest of secrets dislodged by his passing. “The stories just kind of fell out of him.” Boy, did they.

When, early in Mrs Wilson (BBC One, Tuesday, 9pm), Alison answers the door to another distraught woman, Gladys, who introduces herself as Mrs Wilson, it turns out the man’s capacity for easily dispensed fictions may have been bigger than she realised. They are not, we discover, the only Mrs Wilsons who believed themselves married to a secret agent.

What does it say that Alison Wilson, a woman who met her future husband as a clerk in MI6 during the second World War, should now be played by her own granddaughter, the enigmatic performer Ruth Wilson?

Also serving as producer of Anna Symon’s adaptation of her staggering family history, Ruth’s involvement in this story of ever-deepening pretence and betrayal brings its own piquancy. As an actor, she too is an accomplished dispenser of fictions, a professional imposter. Though her affinities must lie with a family rocked to its foundation, it’s hard not to imagine a certain regard for her grandfather, this wearer of many guises.

Whether he wore them honourably is the concern of Mrs Wilson and, to this day, his family. Alec’s explanation to Alison for his long absences and meagre pay was that he must go deep undercover and be whisked off to Egypt on a secret mission. Some of this is buttressed by the equivocal suggestions of Fiona Shaw, as a chain-smoking MI6 officer. But the notion that Alec was a fantasist, a pathological liar and a serial bigamist is never far from anyone’s mind.

Although based on investigations, memoirs and family records (MI5 were less helpful), the show is viewed from Alison’s dogged and frantic perspective, the duped rather than the duper. Rationing out its details slowly along a chain of new revelations, which may test your patience, the programme is allowed to gather in fetching period detail. Wartime and post-war Britain seem like willing accomplices to anyone who might pursue a double – or in this case quadruple – life.

Early, Alison even apologises to a visitor for her young son’s unmanly tears upon learning of his father’s death: “They were very close, you see.” British stoicism, with its legendarily stiff upper lip, is its own kind of concealment. When Alison is approached by the son from Alec’s other marriage, now aware that he has half-brothers, and asked if he can keep in touch, she shakes her head briskly. “Sorry, we can’t see each other again.”

No wonder betrayal is such a time-honoured British subject. Everybody is very good at keeping secrets.

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