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Ruth Wilson's incredible family story of espionage and polygamy

Mrs Wilson, Friday.

Giving birth to her father was just part of the weirdness for Ruth Wilson in dramatising her family history.

Most people write memoirs, but when Ruth Wilson discovered the real story of her paternal grandparents, she thought it deserved dramatising. Not only that, she wanted to play her grandmother.

The result is Mrs Wilson (TVNZ OnDemand, from Friday), a three-part series based on the life of Wilson’s grandmother, Alison, and her husband, Alec (who is played by Iain Glen).

It’s like the best, or perhaps worst, episode of Who Do You Think You Are? ever. The story began when Alison revealed in a memoir that Alec was in fact the author Alexander Wilson, who wrote 27 spy thrillers during the 1920s and 30s.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

There was more. Alec, who had served in World War I, worked for MI6 during World War II. But by far the most personally devastating revelation was that Alec had four wives at the same time and seven children. He saw all the children until his death in 1963, apart from one son who was told his father had died at El Alamein.

Wilson and writer Anna Symon decided the best way into the story was via Alison and the series begins with Alec’s death and works backwards, “like a detective story from Alison’s point of view”, Wilson told the Guardian.

Symon could at least use Alison’s memoir, as much of Alec’s life is still a mystery; MI6 won’t release any information about him and by the time the Wilson family started unravelling the truth, three of his wives had died and the fourth had Alzheimer’s.

Surprisingly, Wilson thinks it was easier to dramatise the story rather than, say, make a documentary.

“Because it is a drama, we are not judging them,” she says. “It would actually be more exposing to make a documentary, because 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.”

Wilson says it was daunting playing her grandmother, especially when she had to fake going into labour with her father.

“Halfway through I did think, ‘Why didn’t I get someone else to do this? Claire Foy?’” she told the Radio Times. “But I didn’t want her white-washed; I knew I could show all sides of her, because she was complex. She was guarded and I now know why.”

This article was first published in the February 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.