Most families have secrets, Ruth Wilson figures. Most aren’t like the ones in her family.
There was her grandmother, who devoted her final decades to religion. “She was very reserved.”
And then she wrote a memoir for her family. As Rebecca Eaton, chief of PBS’ “Masterpiece,” explains it: “Ruth’s grandmother discovered – at the end of her husband’s life – that he had a completely other life, several other wives and an entire career she didn’t know about.”
Fortunately, Ruh Wilson is a prominent actress who could re-tell the story. In “Mrs. Wilson” — three hours, spread over two Sundays of “Masterpiece” — she plays her own grandmother.
“There were weird moments,” Wilson said. “Like giving birth to my dad, which was really bizarre …. Or kissing my granddad, which was weird.”
Or surprising her granddad by suddenly being naked. “I need to get to therapy now,” she joked.
That’s part of the landscape for Wilson. She’s done some of the best roles – Jane Eyre and Hedda Gabler and more. In one cable series (“Luther”), she’s been a sly killer; in another (“The Affair”), she had a marriage-wrecking romance.
So she produced “Mrs. Wilson,” with writer Anna Symon researching Alexander Wilson’s bizarre life.
“I went out to the wider family,” Symon said. His “children absolutely adored him. Whatever faults he’d had, … he was loving, he was compassionate, he was a good storyteller to his kids.”
And to the world. Wilson had 24 spy novels published between 1928 and 1940, nine of which were re-published in 2015-16. He wrote three academic books and had four more unpublished manuscripts. At various times, he was a professor, a porter and an officer in the MI6 spy service.
That’s where he met Alison McKelvie, a secretary, in 1940. They married two years later and had two sons (Ruth’s father and uncle). For the next 21 years (until his death in 1963, at 69), they had what seemed like a typical marriage.
Except that he was gone a lot, claiming to do spy things. After his death, Alison learned that this was all a muddle; she also learned about at least one of his other marriages.
Then she wrote about it. “I got to see a deeper layer to her,” Ruth recalled. “She was wildly passionate and sensitive and emotional, … with great creativity. Her memoir is beautifully written,.”
Ruth read that when she was 18. After Alison’s death (four years later), she said, the family found the second memoir, “all about her finding God.”
Those memoirs only mentioned one other wife, Ruth said. And then: “A year after she died, we had correspondence from two other people, saying, ‘I think we’ve got the same dad.’ So we worked out that she’s one of four wives, not two. And we have an inkling that she might have known the full story.”
That’s how Simon wrote it, including all four. Ruth, 37, plays Alison, with Iain Glen, 57, as Alexander.
In series, his roles have ranged from a cheating lover in “Delicious” to the heroic (eventually) Jorah in “Game of Thrones.” But for Alexander, he wanted something in-between: “If he had been so overtly a rascal … it would have thrown the wrong light on Ruth’s grandmother, who loved the man profoundly.”
Many people did, Ruth said. “We had these family reunions where we had nametags and met each other. We had a family screening. We had all 55 members there, from 6 months to 96, 97.”
The oldest person, Dennis Wilson, became a published poet at 87 and has been published four more times – including his World War II poems, 68 years after he wrote them. The Wilsons, it seems, are an odd and creative bunch.
— “Masterpiece: Mrs. Wilson,” three-part miniseries
— 9 and 10 p.m. March 31, then 9 p.m. April 7