TV blog: Mrs Wilson

Benjie Goodhart / 22 November 2018

Powerful new drama Mrs Wilson is based on a reality that is stranger than fiction. Plus, the best of the rest of the week’s TV.

A Very British Country House 1/4, Sunday 25th November, 9pm, Channel 4

I’ve taken my wife to a few delightful hotels in our time. The one with the coffee cup ring on the sheets. The one with the headless doll in the communal bathroom. The one in Slough which doubled as a parole house. But, I’ll be honest here, unless Saga gets taken over by a mystery sheikh who decides the TV blog is the best thing he’s ever read, my wife is unlikely to ever see the inside of Cliveden House. The true Cliveden experience would see a guest slipping into a towelling robe after a steam bath and sipping champagne in an oak-panelled room. I suppose we could recreate it at home by standing close to the kettle and popping on a bath towel, necking cans of lager while we watch this series on TV.

My mum’s been there, though. And believe me, that’s indicative of a smart hotel. In the opening part of the programme, it emerges that luminaries such as John F Kennedy and Winston Churchill have stayed at Cliveden, but in terms of grandeur and status, I think my mum probably wins the day.

Cliveden House is a country house hotel in Berkshire. But it’s not really, is it? I mean, it’s indisputably in Berkshire, but it’s not like any country house I’ve ever seen. This is a palace. It’s ma-HU-ssive. It’s got 48 luxury bedrooms, it’s got function rooms, bars, restaurants, a spa, a gym, a wine cellar, 400-acres of manicured National Trust gardens, and its own massive international airport just down the road. (In theory Heathrow is there to serve London, but I suspect it was built to serve Cliveden and London’s proximity was a happy accident).

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And, heavens above, it’s beautiful. The building, the grounds, the rooms, it’s all picture-perfect. It’s impossible not to feel a tiny bit glamorous, watching the high-class clientele come and go in this noble old building. And the clientele doesn’t come much more high-class than the VIP who stays there at the start of episode one: A certain Meghan Markle, who checks in the night before her wedding. It’s pretty good advertising, what with around 2 billion people tuning in the next day to watch her leave the hotel for the church.

That, my friends, is what real class is about. That’s why hotels like this don’t need to scrabble around with the rest, in search of cheap publicity. Not for them the vulgar courting of social media influencers… Oh… Here are two vloggers and social media personalities (bleurgh!) Katy and Ben. And, of course, their toy dog. They have been given a complementary stay by the hotel, on condition that they post lots of photos of themselves having a good time. They go to the restaurant, where they aren’t just wined and dined, they are given filet steak in gravy for their dog. From. The. Dog. Only. Menu. We have officially slipped into a world beyond parody.

Meanwhile, another wedding is on the agenda. This time it doesn’t come with an audience of 2 billion, but wedding planner Lydia, possibly the soppiest romantic on the planet, can’t wait to get swept up in the nuptials for Andy and Garfield. She’s seen a few weddings in her time at Cliveden, including the guest who wanted to ride into their wedding on an elephant, and another who wanted a road built across the gardens to accommodate their arrival.

Cliveden House is very nice. I’d quite happily get married there, if (a) I wasn’t already and (b) someone else was footing the bill. But, in all honestly, in televisual terms, this is familiar fare, a fly-on-the-wall doc watching people do their jobs. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Cliveden House or a Premier Inn, a job is a job, whether the sheets you’re washing are Egyptian cotton or not. It’s fun and flashy, but it’s unlikely to leave much in the way of a lasting impression.

Mrs Wilson 1/3, Tuesday 27th November, 9pm, BBC One

This is something of a first. This new three-part drama sees Ruth Wilson playing her real-life grandmother. If I made a three-part drama about my grandmother, it would involve quite a lot of dinner parties, some excellent work for the Women’s Institute, and an aversion to rich foods. I’m not convinced that would excite a drama commissioning editor at the BBC, and even if it did, I’m not sure they’d let me play Mrs Goodhart (annoyingly, she wasn’t 6’1” and bald). Ruth Wilson’s grandmother, on the other hand, lived quite the life. Or, rather, her grandfather did – and she was left to pick up the pieces and try to make some semblance of sense from the wreckage.

The drama begins in 1963. Alison Wilson (Ruth Wilson) is making lunch for her husband Alec (Iain Glen), a successful novelist, when he falls to the floor in their bedroom, irrevocably and indubitably dead. That’s a surprisingly short role for Iain Glen: A couple of lines and then make like a mannequin.

That night, while Alison and her son comfort each other, there’s a knock on the door. It’s a woman called Gladys Wilson, who introduces herself as Alec’s wife. Neither, it seems, knew about the other. ‘Hashtag awks’ as people under 30 stopped saying about three years ago. That is definitely what you call a bad day.

The story then hops back to 1940. Alison is getting a job with the Secret Intelligence Service, under the auspices of a severe woman called Coleman (the excellent Fiona Shaw). That’s pretty exciting!! I wonder what she’ll be. A spy? An assassin? Oh… she’s a typist. She’s assigned to work on a desk with a certain Alexander Wilson (hurrah, Iain Glen is back). They go for dinner, and drink champagne.

And so begins a story that isn’t so much bizarre as utterly implausible. And yet, absurdly, it’s all true. As events progress, the tale becomes ever more labyrinthine and extraordinary. The end of episode one contains a twist that Dan Brown would find embarrassingly far-fetched.

This, then, is pretty gripping stuff. Ruth Wilson is brilliant as Alison. I’d only ever seen her before playing the psychotic serial killer Alice in Luther, so I kept waiting for her to turn scene-chewingly bonkers and start murdering people with her hat pin. But instead, her performance is a powerful study of grief and confusion, as she searches for answers and tries to shield her heartbroken sons from an increasingly bitter truth.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 24th November

John and Yoko: Above Us Only Sky, 8:30pm, Channel 4: Feature-length documentary from Michael Epstein, about the making of Lennon’s iconic Imagine album. Featuring interviews with Ono and Julian Lennon.

Evita: The Making of a Superstar, 9pm, BBC Two: Suzy Klein travels to Argentina to separate fact from fiction as she investigates the life of one of musical theatre’s most enduring characters.

Monday 26th November

Warship: Life at Sea 1/4, 9pm, Channel 5: New series looking at life aboard a new £1 billion destroyer HMS Duncan. Tonight, a posting on the Black Sea sees a close encounter with the Russian navy.

The Truth About, 9pm, BBC One: Mariella Frostrup examines the latest research into menopause, and shares her own experiences, as she asks what can be done to alleviate the symptoms.

Visit our menopause section for helpful tips and guides

Tuesday 27th November

Our Yorkshire Farm 1/4, 8pm, Channel 5: Amanda and Clive Owen (not that one) have nine kids. As if that weren’t enough, they run a remote hill farm in Yorkshire. As if that weren’t enough, tonight they have to contend with The Beast from the East, as the snow hits hard.

How to Spend It Well at Christmas 1/3, ITV, 8pm: With This Morning buddy Holly Willoughby gallivanting about down under, good old Schofe ploughs his own slightly more mundane furrow, looking at some of the most popular and exciting new things available in the shops this Christmas.

Visit our Christmas section for everything you need for peaceful and enjoyable festivities

Egyptian Tomb Hunting 1/3, 9pm, Channel 5: Tony Robinson resumes the archaeology work he did for years on Time Team, only somewhere warmer, and with actual stuff worth finding.

Feel the dry desert breeze from the Sahara and contemplate 5,000 years of human history in the magical land of the pharaohs. Find out more here

Wednesday 28th November

Death and Nightingales 1/3, 9pm, BBC Two: Matthew Rhys, Ann Skelly and Jamie Dornan star in a three-part story of love, betrayal, deception and revenge set in Fermanagh in 1895.

Thursday 29th November

A Hotel for the Super Rich & Famous 1/2, 8pm, BBC One: Much like the Cliveden programme, only in London.

Kirstie’s Handmade Christmas, 8pm, Channel 4: The seemingly endlessly talented Kirstie Allsopp manages to create a full Christmas meal from twigs, and build an igloo of Christmas cards. Or something. Probably. Look, it’s all crafty Xmas stuff anyhow.

Find more Christmas craft ideas here

Oxford Street 24/7 1/4, 9pm Channel 5: New four-part series looking at everyday life in Oxford Street, from the insanely busy tube station to the bustling streets, packed with shoppers, commuters… and pickpockets.

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