BBC One drama Mrs Wilson is excellent: understated, beautifully acted and lovely to look at

Plus: David Attenborough’s Dynasties.

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Passion projects can go either way. Though they may bring with them deep commitment and wild originality, just as often they crest along on a wave of self-indulgence and narcissism. Mrs Wilson (9pm, 27 November), written by Anna Symon, in her first original series, and directed by Richard Laxton (The Night Watch, Effie Gray), owes its existence entirely to the actor Ruth Wilson. She pushed for it to be made and she is its star. The series is highly personal to her, being the story of her bigamist grandfather, Alex (Iain Glen), and his third wife and her grandmother, Alison (Wilson), who only discovered his secret lives in the hours and days after his death in 1963. But those expecting the worst (I must admit that I was) need have no fear. It’s excellent: understated, rather lovely to look at, beautifully acted. Above all, I think it has something quite subtle to say about the way we all make stories of our lives, sometimes with fatal consequences. Your truth is not necessarily mine: this sounds obvious to the point of inanity, and yet it seems to be something relatively few people understand.

“You must be his landlady,” says a woman on Alison’s doorstep, soon after Alex’s death from a heart attack – and so the two wives meet, eyeballing each other like women at a market who both want the same chicken. In the moments after this encounter, Alison appears to be in deep shock. But the viewer knows, too, that perhaps it isn’t quite so simple. Sometimes, a person both knows, and doesn’t know, something. Even as the priest was still in the house – Alex was a devout Catholic, as well as a novelist and, perhaps, a special agent – she was locking his wallet in a bureau, and hiding the key in her sewing basket. Wilson is very good at playing this emotional liminality; even when her face is at its hardest, set protectively against both the gossips and the invading force of his other family, you have a sense of the conflicting feelings beneath, certainty and confusion locked in a battle to the death. “A life used well brings a happy death,” she reads on a glib sign at the undertakers. But that word “used”: what does it mean? Setting aside all the lies, is loving more than one woman at once a sign of emptiness or of repletion? My hunch is this is a question that between them Symon and Wilson intend at least to attempt to answer.

I find Mrs Wilson utterly gripping, its period setting – here is a realm of typing pools, and little pillbox hats, and tea served in proper china cups – a wonderfully tight lid on the pressure cooker of the boiling emotions of its characters. Their stoicism and good manners enable us to feel all the more their pain and desperation; when Alison cries, it really means something, for ordinarily her lip is stiffer than her husband’s corpse. But if you want drama altogether more florid and incontinently wild, then of course there is always Dynasties (8pm, 25 November), the most talked-about big BBC wildlife series since, well, the last big BBC wildlife series.

In the third film, we were with a famous pride of lions – they are called the Marshes, which makes them sound like contestants on Family Fortunes ­– in the Masai Mara, Kenya. It would obviously be a bit dumb to describe Charm, the lioness temporarily in charge of this pride, as a feminist. But still, I couldn’t help but feel a certain amount of fierce gender solidarity as she set about hunting for dinner for the cubs in her care; when she abandoned one of them for the sake of the group – he had been poisoned and was dying – I felt more like cheering than crying (though I do see that I may be in the minority on this score).

My favourite moment of all, however, involved two male lion cubs, cousins called Tatu and Red, and their terrifying encounter with a huge pack of hyenas (Red arrived to save his close pal Tatu at the last moment). Tatu’s obvious terror, and the hideous and insistent cries of the ugly creatures that surrounded him, might have brought to mind various politicians at the dispatch box if he hadn’t looked so fantastically noble, so absolutely at home in his own beastly skin. 

Mrs Wilson
BBC One

Dynasties
BBC One

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 28 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexit fantasy died