Making and starring in a TV drama about your own family might sound a bit self-indulgent – but the real-life story behind Ruth Wilson's new series Mrs Wilson is so extraordinary that it's practically made for TV.
The three-part BBC drama introduces us to Alison Wilson (played by her granddaughter Ruth Wilson) and her husband, Alexander "Alec" Wilson (Iain Glen), a novelist and a spy who she met while working at MI6 during the war.
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But when her husband died suddenly of a heart attack at the family home in Ealing more than two decades later, Alison made a shocking discovery: she wasn't the only Mrs Wilson, and her two sons were not Alec's only kids.
Written by Anna Symon, the three-part drama is based on the true story of the Wilson family. Here is what we know about the real Alexander Wilson and his wives:
Who was the real Alexander Wilson?
Although some of the facts around Alexander Wilson are a bit murky thanks to MI6's classified files and Alec's own habit of telling lies and keeping secrets, we do know that Ruth Wilson's grandfather was born in 1893 and died in 1963. He was a novelist, a spy and an MI6 agent, and – most dramatically – he was a serial bigamist with four wives.
So what was he playing at?
"We haven't come to a conclusion," Ruth Wilson told press at a screening in London. "MI5 still won't release his records as to what he got up to there, they're 'case sensitive', whatever that means, but after 70 years they won't release them so we don't really know what he actually got up to or what he was doing with MI5, or MI6.
"We don't know if the marriages were partly - were they for work? Were they for love? We still don't have clarity on that. So he's a man of mystery."
Who were Alexander Wilson's wives?
Over the course of his life, Alexander Joseph Patrick Wilson married four women and fathered seven children between them.
He never divorced any of his wives, instead keeping the women ignorant of each other's existence as he juggled his many separate lives and parallel families.
Alec married his first (and only legal) wife Gladys in 1916, and she soon gave birth to their first child, Adrian, in 1917. They went on to have two more kids together: Dennis – who is still alive today at the age of 97 – and a daughter, Daphne.
At the start of the First World War he served in the Royal Naval Air Service, although he crashed his plane. He moved to the Royal Army Service Corps, escorting supplies to France, and received disabling injuries to his knee and shrapnel wounds to the left side of his body. Although he could not fight, he joined the merchant navy on a ship to Vancouver, where he was apparently prosecuted for theft and given a term of hard labour at Oakala Prison Farm in Canada.
Once the war had ended, Gladys and Alec ran a touring theatre company together, but in 1925 Alec suddenly took a job abroad in British India as a Professor of English Literature at the University of Punjab.
During his time in India he began writing spy novels, with the first (The Mystery of Tunnel 51) published in 1928. It has been impossible to confirm whether he was already working for the intelligence services while in India, but it has been speculated that his involvement began around this time – especially given the (fairly realistic) descriptions of his main character Sir Leonard Wallace, almost certainly a fictionalised version of real-life MI6 boss Mansfield Smith-Cumming (or "C").
Although he wrote sometimes under a pseudonym, Alec was in fact a prolific writer, producing three academic books and around 24 novels – the most popular being his Wallace of the Secret Service novels, now back in publication.
It was while he was in India that he met his second wife, Dorothy.
Dorothy Wick was a touring actress, and it believed they "married" in Lahore, although no certificate survives. Biographer Tim Crook writes: "It seems there was a marriage ceremony and ritual in the Cathedral, but no official documentation; something Dorothy no doubt would have been appalled, later, to find out."
Three years later he returned to England with Dorothy and their baby son Michael in tow, but he left the two of them to live in London while he secretly returned to Gladys in Southampton for 18 months.
After those 18 months he was back to Dorothy in London (telling Gladys he was looking for somewhere for the family to live), but it was only a temporary move. Over the next few years, Alec made sporadic appearances in Dorothy and Michael's lives, but he disappeared for good when Michael was only eight. Dorothy and her young son left Alec's London flat to live in Yorkshire.
To cover up his disappearance, Dorothy told her son that his father had been killed fighting in the Second World War at El Alamein in 1942. Astonishingly, Michael did not discover the truth until more than six decades later.
The truth was that Alec was still very much alive, but had already met and married his third wife, Alison McKelvie – Ruth Wilson's grandmother, and the central character in this BBC drama.
Alec had been recruited to work for MI6 by 1940, and he met Alison when she joined the intelligence service as his secretary at the age of only 20 or 21. After her flat was bombed in the Blitz, she went over to Alec's flat and (as her memoir euphemistically puts it) they "became lovers." The couple soon married and had two sons, Nigel (who is Ruth's dad) and Gordon.
It seems Alexander got away with his multiple marriages by inventing difference middle names. "He changed his middle names often so that it didn't have a record of a previous marriage, so that's how he got away with it," Ruth said. And so Alexander Joseph Patrick Wilson became Alexander Gordon Chesney Wilson, and nobody clocked that he was already married.
In the mid 1950s he met and married a young nurse called Elizabeth Hill – his fourth (and presumably final) wife. Together they had a boy called Douglas, although Elizabeth and her son soon moved to Scotland.
Was Alexander Wilson a spy or a fraud?
Thanks to the nature of Alexander's life and career, it is particularly difficult to tell for sure what is fact and what is fiction.
The big question is whether he was – or wasn't – fired from the secret service for good after 'The Affair of the Egyptian Ambassador' in 1942-43.
As biographer Tim Crook writes, the files show that his career in Section X of the Secret Intelligence Service as a translator and linguist ended in controversial circumstances, when he was investigated for fabricating his reports from the bugged telephone line at the Egyptian Embassy. He exited MI6 in disgrace.
But there are layers upon layers of intrigue here. The MI5 officer investigating the case, Alex Kellar, was actually working for KGB agent Anthony Blunt, so Alexander may not have been guilty after all. And Crook has suggested that not everything adds up.
So was his intelligence career really over, or was his firing an elaborate cover-up in itself?
Alexander insisted to Alison that he was still involved in the Intelligence Service. And while some of his stories were certainly invented to cover up his bigamy, it's plausible that others were (at least partly) true.
For example, when he was arrested after Sunday Mass for wearing a fake colonel's uniform and medals in 1944, he was able to argue that this was a part of his cover story. And when he was jailed in 1948 for embezzling takings at a cinema he managed in Hampstead, his excuse was that this was a cover story enabling him to infiltrate subversive and fascist groups in Brixton prison as part of an intelligence mission. Fact or fiction? It is still unclear.
As a novelist, however, his writing career came to an abrupt end in 1940. Despite his many previous publications, he seems only to have written four more (unpublished) spy novels in the post-war years. Was this a decision taken by British spymasters, or did his creativity simply dry up?
Even his family background was embellished: he claimed to have been educated at Repton Public School and then Cambridge and Oxford, and he also gave himself a family pedigree that made him a cousin of Winston Churchill, the son of a Colonel killed in action in 1914, and of a mother descended from the prestigious Marlborough family line.
In fact, none of this was true; Alec's mother was Irish, and his English father died in 1919 after a long career in the army, and there was no Churchill connection. Was he a liar or was this all part of his cover identity...? It's impossible to tell.
In the post-war years, Alec found work as a hospital porter and as a clerk at a wallpaper factory, still maintaining to Alison that he was an MI6 agent and that he was working undercover. But the family struggled financially and Alec and Alison's social standing had been damaged by his arrests and time in prison.
On 4th April 1963, Alexander Wilson died of a heart attack at home in Ealing, where he lived with Alison. It was only after his death that the secrets started to come out.
How did Alison find out about the other wives?
According to Ruth, Alison was sorting out her husband's papers after his death when she discovered he was already married – to Gladys.
She rang Gladys to inform her of Alec's death, and the two of them came to an arrangement between them about the funeral. Not wishing to upset her sons Gordon (21) and Nigel (18) by dropping this bombshell about their father so soon after his death, she asked Gladys and her son Dennis to pose as a distant relative at the funeral. They agreed.
The two widows met at the graveside, and then never saw each other again. Gordon and Nigel were kept in the dark for some time, as was Gladys and Alec's daughter Daphne – who didn't attend the funeral and only found out the truth more than four decades later.
But there is one major difference between what then happened in real life, compared to what happens in the TV drama: Alison actually only knew about ONE of Alec's other wives, Gladys.
Alison didn't know the truth about Dorothy (who actually died in 1965, two years after Alec). And she never knew about Elizabeth or her son Douglas.
Ruth Wilson explained: "We've made this Alison have much more agency, in a way, in going and searching for the truth. I'm not sure my granny wanted to search for the truth. She heard enough, early on. So that's a character change that we've put in place in order to serve the whole story."
How did Gordon and Nigel find out the truth about their dad?
Alison Wilson outlived her husband by several decades and wrote a memoir in two parts, which she gave to her children Gordon and Nigel. One part was to be read in her lifetime, and one to be read after her death – which came in 2005.
She writes of the realisation that her husband was "one vast lie. He had not only died, he had evaporated into nothing. He had destroyed himself, there was nothing left but a heap of ashes. My love was reduced to a heap of ashes.”
Her grandson, Sam Wilson, writes in The Times: "Shortly before her death, we grandchildren were allowed to read her memoir. Eloquent and reasoned, it told how, barely out of her teens, she had fallen deeply in love with a charismatic older man. He was known as 'Buddha' at the MI6 office at which they met in 1940 — for his supposed wisdom, his record in India and his proficiency at Urdu and other languages — and was a successful novelist.
"My grandmother admitted finding him mysterious and exotic. Despite knowing he was married and wrongly believing that a divorce was imminent, she betrayed her deeply held Christian principles and fell pregnant by him before they were married."
After a few years, Alison's suspicions about her husband grew, but Sam Wilson writes: "For the sake of her two boys, and terrified that the truth would destroy what remained of her love, she never confronted Alexander about his lies. But she became convinced that he was seeing other women. His woolly attempts to explain his periods of absence as intelligence missions seemed preposterous to her, even though she knew that he had worked for MI6."
Ruth Wilson's assessment is that Alison chose to turn a blind eye to her husband's suspicious behaviour. "She was complicit in this denial as much as Alex was responsible for all the betrayal," she said.
How was the truth about Alexander Wilson uncovered?
Had she lived just a little longer, Alison would have been incredibly shocked to find out about Alec's further two wives, Dorothy and Elizabeth, as the full story started to emerge. "Thank god she didn't know about those two," Ruth said.
In 2005, Alec's fourth son Michael, who had changed his name to Mike Shannon, wanted to know more about the father he'd last seen at a railway station as he left for the Front in his colonel's uniform, when he was lifted up to give his dad a goodbye kiss through the train window. “Don’t cry,” his father said, “there’s a brave chap. I won’t be away long, you know.” This was the last time he saw him; the following year, little Michael was told that his father had died at El Alamein.
Although he had no doubts about his father's death as a war hero, Mike was intrigued by memories of moments he'd witnessed as a child – including a meeting with a man who later turned out to be Hitler's foreign minister Joachim Ribbentrop at the German Embassy in 1938.
He enlisted the help of his son's friend, the journalist and historian Tim Crook, who quickly realised there was FAR more to this story – as he unearthed one surprising discovery after another.
While digging into Alexander Wilson's extraordinary life, Crook connected the dots and discovered that first marriage to Gladys.
Next, Gladys' son Dennis was able to tell him about the marriage to Alison and the weird funeral in Portsmouth, bringing the total number of marriages up to three.
And finally he met Alison's sons Gordon and Nigel, who revealed that Elizabeth's son Douglas Ansdell had been "on his own personal odyssey of family history investigation" and had recently contacted them to introduce himself as the child of Alexander's fourth marriage.
Crook went on to write a book titled The Secret Lives of a Secret Agent: the Mysterious Life and Times of Alexander Wilson. This hefty thousand-page book has provided plenty of source material for this drama, alongside Alison's personal memoirs.
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What do the real-life Wilsons think of this drama?
"It was a scary process, being so vulnerable and exposing the family in that way," Ruth Wilson admitted. "It's something that we have talked about a lot and tried to be very sensitive towards."
In recent years, the many descendants of Alexander Wilson have been getting to know each other as family. Second son Dennis hosted a party for 28 members of the Wilson family in 2007, where each guest wore a badge explaining how they were related to the man himself.
Sam Wilson writes: "Thanks to Crook’s detective work, the grandchildren from all four branches of his family have been connected. And it has been, for some, a life-defining experience. For Mike, in particular. An only child, he has — many decades too late — been suddenly gifted a huge extended family. His son, Richard, says that he has never known his father as happy as when he first spoke to his half-brother, Dennis."
Many also attended a press screening in London, including Alison's sons Nigel and Gordon.
Executive producer Ruth Kenley-Letts told the audience: "The family have been behind us, and the extended family, we've met all the surviving children, we've met all their children. We had an amazing day in July where we brought everybody together, and what's been really special is how the family relate to each other - how they've found each other, all these different children of Alexander Wilson, and how fond of each other they've become.
"Because they've only met each other in the last, 12 years ago they started to meet, they now try and meet quite regularly and that's been just such a privilege to meet them all. And we've tried to keep everybody in the loop as much as possible, so all Alexander's surviving children have read the scripts, and have just been terribly open and supportive and brilliant to work with."
Writer Anna Symon added: "The Wilson family, very very generously, talked to me about their memories. Gordon and Nigel, who are the young boys in the film, are alive and well, and I went and had very nice cups of tea and lunches with them, and they talked to me about the funeral and what that was like. As did Dennis, he gave me an incredible insight into who he thought his father was."
Speaking from the audience at the preview screening, Nigel Wilson told his daughter: "I just about got through it, Ruth."
He added: "What's come out I think is absolutely fantastic. I'm your dad – but I think you're pretty good."
This article was originally published in November 2018
All three episodes of Mrs Wilson are repeated back to back on PBS Masterpiece on Sunday 28 February 2021 from 8/7c.