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TV review: Mrs Wilson, and Darcy Bussell: Dancing to happiness

07 December 2018

BBC/WP Films/Steffan Hill

Mrs Wilson

Mrs Wilson

OF ALL the terrible things that can make the day of your beloved husband’s sudden death even more unbearable, I suspect that fairly high on the list is a complete stranger’s ringing the doorbell to announce that she, and not you, was in fact his wife.

This is the spring that sets off BBC1’s compelling new drama series Mrs Wilson (Tuesdays). Not only is it “inspired by real events”: it gains an extra, surely unique frisson in that the splendid Ruth Wilson, in the lead role, is living out her real-life grandmother’s story.

This first episode proceeded magnificently as flashback after flashback set a scene far murkier than the lovingly recreated milieu of 1963 suburbia, when all was clear and above board, implied. Our Mrs Wilson had met her husband in wartime counter-espionage: thereafter, their lives were constrained by the Official Secrets Act.

Unexplained absence was central to his life. From the start, she must not to ask where he was, or what he was doing. His other profession was as a (highly successful) writer: work that he described as “making things up”. So evasion and pretence are not an aberration, but the norm.

Successive scenes hinted at far more unsettling realities to be uncovered. The story, although far removed from the home life of you or me, raised pregnant existential challenges. How well do we really know each other? Indeed, as we see the morally upright Mrs Wilson forging a Decree Absolute to prove that her own marriage was not bigamous, how well do we know ourselves?

Her overriding concern is to shield her sons from the truth about their father: better to live by a fiction than the degrading reality. It is a conviction that makes her cruel, and we know that it will not, in the end, work.

Interestingly for us, religion plays its acknowledged part. After their initial wartime lovemaking, she finds Wilson reciting his rosary; the other Mrs Wilson, as a practising Roman Catholic, could not have considered divorce. Here again, public profession and private truth interrogate each other: which is the more real?

One way to deal with the tricky stuff in your life is movingly promoted by Darcy Bussell: Dancing to happiness (BBC2, Saturdays). There is scientific evidence that dancing — however badly — with other people releases in our bodies chemicals that heal and restore. We saw this working for groups of young people suffering from depression and clinical anxiety; with elderly people suffering from Parkinson’s disease; with people living with dementia. It is not just the movement alone: the music and its rhythm are central to the process.

It seemed to me that we already possess most of the ingredients for this transformation: if, like so many Afro-Caribbean churches, we added congregational dance to the Sanctus, every eucharist would heal at every possible level.

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