Ruth Wilson: why my Magdalene Laundries drama The Woman in the Wall is ‘really vital’

Ruth Wilson and Daryl McCormack in The Woman in the Wall  (BBC/Motive Pictures/Chris Barr)
Ruth Wilson and Daryl McCormack in The Woman in the Wall (BBC/Motive Pictures/Chris Barr)

Ruth Wilson has opened up about her “really vital” new show BBC The Woman in the Wall, and her own Catholic past.

The series, which is now just two weeks away from its final, stars Wilson as Lorna Brady, a woman suffering from severe trauma as a result of the time she spent in a Magdalene laundry in Ireland when she was younger. As a result, she suffers from bouts of sleepwalking – and the show starts with her waking up to a dead body in her house, with no memory of how it got there.

The show is written by Joe Murtagh – when his script landed on Wilson’s desk three years ago, it was only one episode long and looking for funding. But, she says, it gripped her right away.

“It was about something really vital,” Wilson explained at a screening of the first episode, adding that she didn’t know a “huge amount” about the issue of the Magdalene laundries.

“I thought, this is a really interesting and creative way of bringing this story to a wider audience… Joe is dramatising trauma in a really interesting way, through sort of psychological horror; through a comedy crime caper. [It was] like, wow, I’ve not seen this before. So I'm interested in where this is going. And I think it should have money behind it to at least explore what it could be.”

Wilson duly came on board as an executive producer on the show, which also stars Daryl McCormack as Detective Colman Akande, the police officer charged with investigating the body.

“I love the character of Lorna, she’s mad and she’s brilliant,” Wilson added. “She’s really funny. And she reminds me a bit of Martin McDonagh’s characters, and it reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe, and it reminded me of The Keepers, the documentary on Netflix.”

Daryl McCormack plays Colman (BBC/Motive Pictures/Colin Barr)
Daryl McCormack plays Colman (BBC/Motive Pictures/Colin Barr)

The laundries (read our explainer on what they are here) were essentially church-run institutions that took in women considered wayward such as those who became pregnant out of wedlock, and used them as a form of free slave labour. Unmarried mothers often had their babies taken away from them. The last of the laundries shut in 1996 – something that, as scriptwriter Joe Murtagh explained, was part of the reason he wrote the story in the first place.

“It was an eye-opening experience realising how this horrific thing had happened,” he said. “But the thing that was more horrifying was to realise that I hadn’t known about this and every single person that I mentioned this to had never heard of this and that’s still true today outside of Ireland.”

During the screening, Wilson also talked about her own experience of growing up in the Catholic Church – though she isn’t Irish herself, her great-grandmother was.

“I grew up Catholic. I went to church every week, I was an altar girl,” she said. “Catholicism doesn’t leave you, there’s so much great stuff about it.

“But also, I remember sitting in church aged 16, and hearing some of the sermons and at that point going, I don’t quite believe [this] or, this makes me angry. And it was usually about something about women, actually… I have a complicated relationship with my own faith, and my Catholicism.”

“I’m very interested in people’s associations or attachment to faith and religion, and what it gives people as well as the negatives of it, too. I’m fascinated by that complexity.”

The Woman in the Wall is available on BBC iPlayer