tv

Days after Alison Wilson's husband died, she learned she wasn't his only wife.

At the funeral of Alexander Wilson in Portsmouth England, in 1963, two widows grieved by his graveside. Alison and Gladys. Each shared his last name, each had given him children and, until just a few days prior, each had believed herself to be his only current wife.

Alison Wilson had made the discovery when sorting through the 69-year-old’s papers after he was felled by a heart attack.

She had pulled the first thread to unravel the mysterious, duplicitous existence her beloved ‘Alec’ had led: one involving British intelligence, a criminal history, best-selling novels, and yet two more wives.

The father of seven’s tangled story has been dramatised in the three-part BBC drama, Mrs. Wilson, currently streaming in Australia on Stan.

Ruth Wilson plays her own grandmother in the drama series, Mrs. Wilson.

Video by BBC

While the full truth of his strange life remains patchy, the series explores his journey through the gaze of his third wife Alison, who is played by her real-life granddaughter, British actor Ruth Wilson (Jane Eyre, Luther).

This is her family’s story.

Gladys

Alexander married his first wife, Gladys, in 1916, and together they had two sons — Adrian and Dennis — and a daughter named Daphne.

After WWI, during which Alexander had served as a naval pilot and in the army, the couple operated a touring theatre company together. But in 1925, when Alexander was 32, he made the stunning move to British India to accept a job as a Professor of English Literature at the University of Punjab, leaving Gladys behind.

It was during his time in India, that Alexander’s biographer, journalist and academic Tim Crooke, believes he may have been recruited by British Secret Intelligence Services.

ADVERTISEMENT

He travelled broadly around the country as well as to Arabia, Palestine and Ceylon, learnt Urdu and Persian, and became an honorary Major in the Indian Army Reserve, The Independent reported.

Most intriguing though was the series of successful spy novels he penned during the period, many with references and characters alarmingly similar to real-life members of British intelligence.

“What was remarkable about these books was their uncanny portrayal of the original ‘C’ – Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the first head of MI6 — fictionalised as ‘Sir Leonard’,” Crooke told the outlet. “Only someone who knew Smith-Cumming could have written those books.”

Dorothy

While abroad, Alexander met and married touring actress named Dorothy Wick in Pakistan. Or so she believed.

As Crook wrote in The Secret Lives Of A Secret Agent: The Mysterious Life and Times of Alexander Wilson, “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.”

The couple had a son, Michael, and the trio returned to England in 1931. However, Alexander left his new wife and child in London, and for a period of 18 months resumed his former life with his original family in Southampton.

“My father had been this rather glamorous figure who would turn up on leave, driving a flash hired car and bringing us loads of presents before leaving again,” Gladys and Alexander’s son Dennis told The Independent. “The 18 months he lived with us after he returned from India were the only time we were a family.”

After that, it was back to London and Dorothy.

Michael had snapshot memories of his time with his father: of being taken to a meeting with the captain of the Queen Mary, and another with a tall German man who he later learned was Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, The Standard reported. Finally, of kissing him goodbye in 1941 as he boarded a train wearing a military uniform — that was the last time they saw each other.

Michael’s family told him Alexander had died a war hero in the Battle of El Alamein in 1942.

But it wasn’t the truth. In fact, by then Alexander had already married his third wife.

Alison

While Alexander’s intelligence career is murky, according to Crooke, official records show he worked for the Secret Intelligence Service from 1939, where he was tasked with eavesdropping on foreign embassy phone calls.

ADVERTISEMENT

There, in 1940, he met and married MI6 secretary Alison McKelvie.

Alexander is played by Iain Glen in the mini-series. Image: BBC.

A redacted file obtained by Crooke in 2013, suggested that Alexander was sacked in 1942 after faking a burglary at his flat, and that he had previously been investigated by MI5 for fabricating reports.

However, Alexander reportedly assured his new wife it was an operational matter, and that was allowed to continue as an agent doing 'field work'.

The couple soon became destitute. By 1944, with two young children, they were bankrupt, according to The Independent.

Over the next four years, Alexander ended up in front of the courts twice: for posing as a Colonel in the Indian Army and wearing false decorations, and for embezzling takings at a cinema he managed in Hampstead, which saw him briefly jailed.

We're these covers, part of his continuing intelligence work, as he claimed?

Alison was suspicious.

Her grandson Sam Wilson wrote for The Times that, “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.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Elizabeth

In the mid-1950s, while working as a hospital porter, Alexander found his fourth wife. A nurse named Elizabeth Hill. Together they had a son — Douglas.

Alexander spent two years living a life between the two households. But something compelled Elizabeth to return with her son to Scotland.

And so, the poverty-stricken author, former military man and spy lived out his final days alongside Alison.

According to Radio Times, while Alison made the discovery that Alec had never divorced Gladys, she didn't tell her children, then 18 and 20. To shield the grieving children, the two women struck an arrangement: Gladys and her son would attend Alec's funeral posing as distant relatives. And that was it; they never saw each other again.

"What's incredible is that these women fell for and were duped by Alex, but kept his secrets," Ruth Wilson told The Evening Standard. "Each of the mothers preserved the heroic mystery of their father for the kids."

But the truth emerged eventually.

Alison, who outlived Alexander by two decades, penned a two-part memoir, the first of which was given to her children and the second held to be read after her death.

ADVERTISEMENT

In it, she wrote, “I realised there was not a single thing [he] had ever told me that I could put my finger on and now say ‘that is true’. Just one thing I knew – he had written intelligence stories. This indeed was the supreme irony: the only reality in a mountain of fiction was fiction itself.

“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.”

Unravelling the truth.

The BBC series tells of Alison later learning about the two other Mrs. Wilsons, Dorothy and Elizabeth, but that's dramatic license — she didn't know the truth about either.

That was uncovered by Tim Crooke as he researched Alexander's biography. It was he who helped the man's various families connect.

In 2007, Alexander's second son Dennis (then aged in his mid-80s) even held a party for 28 of Alexander's relatives in Hampshire at which each wore a badge outlining how they were related to him, The Evening Standard reported.

While the extended Wilson family are united, there are still significant gaps in the story of the man who connects them.

Crooke was denied access to Alexander's Secret Intelligence Service files, despite several applications and appeals, and couldn't verify why records held by Alexander's publisher were missing nor why so little of his work survived him. Had British Secret Intelligence Service deliberately his expunged his public record? That's one theory.

“We haven’t come to a conclusion,” Ruth Wilson told press at a 2018 screening of Mrs. Wilson. “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."

As for his four wives, Alison's granddaughter Ruth Wilson told the press screening that he changed his middle name each time so it wouldn't match records of his previous marriage. That's the 'how'... But what about the 'why' of it all?

“Were they for work? Were they for love? We still don’t have clarity on that," Ruth said. "So he’s a man of mystery.”

Mrs. Wilson is available to stream on Stan.

Feature image: BBC.

00:00 / ???