How accurate is The Salisbury Poisonings? The true story behind the nerve agent attack

"Sometimes the truth was so extraordinary that we thought: if we write this, people won't believe it."

Anne-Marie Duff as Tracy in The Salisbury Poisonings

“In 2018 the people of Salisbury were faced with an unprecedented crisis,” runs the message that flashes up at the start of new BBC drama The Salisbury Poisonings. “A chemical weapons attack on a British city. Based on first-hand accounts and extensive interviews, this is their story.”

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But what exactly is the story of the Novichok nerve agent attack in Salisbury? Here’s everything you need to know…

How accurate is The Salisbury Poisonings?

This is about as accurate as you can get for a factual drama. Screenwriters Adam Pattison and Declan Lawn are actually former Panorama journalists, and they were determined to make this three-parter as true-to-life as possible.

“There’s always push and pull, but I think accuracy has to be fundamental or else you’ve lost your way,” Adam said. “Especially with something so recent, and where everyone is still alive to talk to.

“Of course it’s difficult to squash down a period of months into three hours of drama, and where we had to take any liberties we just consulted with the real people, and asked them, is this still accurate? Is this the way you’re happy for us to tell it? And when they said yes, we proceeded, and when they said no then we went back to the drawing board. So that was the only way we could do it, really.”

And as Declan told press, the core building blocks “like conflict and character arcs and progression” were already hardwired into the story. “It couldn’t have been any more dramatic,” he said. “And so there’s a few occasions where we have to take a bit of licence, say for example discussions that unfolded over a week, we might have it unfolding over a couple of days or a day just to fit.

“I mean the things people were telling us, about their lives and what happened to them over that period, sometimes it was so extraordinary that we thought: if we write this, people won’t believe it.”

What happened in Salisbury? 

On the afternoon of 4th March 2018, a man and a women were found unconscious on a public bench in the small city of Salisbury, England and were rushed to hospital by ambulance and air ambulance.

They were soon identified as Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal – and doctors didn’t know it yet, but they were suffering the effects of the nerve agent Novichok, a chemical weapon previously developed by the Soviet Union and Russia.

Former Russian military officer Sergei had worked as a double agent for the UK’s secret intelligence service until his arrest and conviction for high treason; but in 2010, he had been allowed to leave Russia and move to Salisbury as part of a spy swap.

Yulia, 33, had arrived from Russia the night before to visit her 66-year-old dad. The two of them had left Sergei’s house that morning and had been enjoying the delights of the city centre, visiting a pub and eating lunch at Zizzi’s. But now they were seriously ill and fighting for their lives at Salisbury District Hospital.

Once the authorities discovered Sergei’s identity and noted the Skripals’ strange symptoms, alarm bells quickly began to ring. The next morning the local NHS Trust declared a major incident, and Operation Fairline was established to coordinate the response.

Many emergency service workers, and some members of the public, had been in contact with the Skripals on 3rd March. Police officers had also been sent inside Sergei’s house, and DS Nick Bailey (played by Rafe Spall), now became extremely unwell. He was rushed to intensive care.

What did the police and public health do?

After discovering that the Skripals and DS Bailey had been poisoned with this extremely lethal nerve agent, the authorities in Salisbury had to take drastic measures to protect the public and trace the source of the poisoning. That involved blocking off huge chunks of the city, bringing in the army, and removing anything that could be contaminated – including whole ambulances and police cars.

Annabel Scholey plays Sarah Bailey in The Salisbury Poisonings

The Salisbury Poisonings’ executive producer Lawrence Bowen said: “Half a teaspoon full of Novichok can kill 20,000 people. And so as this story was unfolding, that was the pressure that the people that were trying to respond to it were living under. The population of Salisbury is about 50,000 and there was a fear when the Novichok was discovered that it could be in multiple locations all around Salisbury.

“So the scale of the disaster could have been enormous. And so now when we look back on it, it feels like it was more limited, but at the time as it was unfolding for the people involved, it felt like Chernobyl. It felt huge.”

All three victims of that initial poisoning incident ultimately survived the ordeal, against the odds.

Yulia Skripal was discharged from hospital on 9th April, and her father was able to leave hospital on 18th May after more than two months. Shortly after that, Yulia released a letter and a video statement to Reuters thanking hospital staff and talking about her experience.

Yulia and Sergei have (understandably) kept a low profile ever since, but are thought to have been relocated to New Zealand under new identities. But their good friends Mo and Ross Cassidy (played my Clare Burt and Mark Addy) did once receive a Christmas card with no return address.

And, in case you’re wondering: yes, Sergei’s two guinea pigs and cat did indeed die after the police sealed off his house. Sorry.

Who is Tracy Daszkiewicz?

The main protagonist in the BBC drama is Tracy Daszkiewicz, who most people won’t have even heard of. She’s the Director of Public Health for Wiltshire Council, and in 2018 she was thrust into the centre of an unprecedented operation to protect the citizens of Salisbury.

Anne-Marie Duff plays Tracy Daszkiewicz in The Salisbury Poisonings

Bowen explained: “Her job as director of public health for Wiltshire Council essentially would have been outbreaks of flu, nits in hair, unhygienic school kitchens – really just the day to day health stuff of keeping a city and a county on the right track.” But then the nerve agent attack happened, “and so within a couple of hours went from being an ordinary public servant doing a straightforward but difficult job, to finding herself right at the heart of the counterterrorism and police and health operation to try and deal with a nerve agent attack on a city.”

The production team worked closely with Tracy to find out exactly what happened during that extraordinary time, and to get all the details right – down to finding the exact same coat that she always wears.

What happened to Detective Sgt Nick Bailey?

Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey was one of three police officers to search the Skripal house a few hours after they were rushed to hospital, checking for any further casualties. He was the first into the house, touching the door handle (thought to have been poisoned with Novichok), and – even though he was dressed in a protective suit – he became unwell shortly after leaving the building. He went home, but was later rushed to hospital.

Nick Bailey in The Salisbury Poisonings

“My pupils were like pinpricks. And I was quite sweaty and hot,” he told BBC Panorama in November 2018. “Everything was juddering. I was very unsteady on my feet.”

Nick was badly affected, but somehow remained conscious in hospital, where he and the Skripals were guarded by police. His wife Sarah (planned by Annabel Scholey) was by his side.

“Physically, I think I bounced back pretty well,” Nick told Panorama – but of his emotional wellbeing, he said: “That’s a different kettle of fish. That’s taken longer. I describe it as emotional battering and psychological impact. It’s taken longer to deal with just because of everything that has happened to us.”

As we see in the drama, the decontamination operation also meant nothing could be left to chance; so authorities had to strip the Bailey family home. “Not only did we lose the house, we lost all of our possessions, including everything the kids owned,” Nick said. “We lost all that – the cars… we lost everything. And yeah, it’s been very difficult to kind of come to terms with that.”

But, thankfully, Sarah Bailey did go back into the house to fetch the cat – and she has confirmed that the cat (Pippin) is absolutely fine.

Who was Dawn Sturgess?

On 30th June, in a town just outside Salisbury called Amesbury, a British woman called Dawn Sturgess collapsed and was rushed to hospital. Hours later, her boyfriend Charlie Rowley also fell ill and was taken to hospital. They were later found to have been poisoned with Novichok.

MyAnna Buring plays Dawn Sturgess in The Salisbury Poisonings

However, when the pair arrived at the hospital, staff were still a long way from finding this out. Initially, doctors believed that their illness was cased by the use of contaminated illegal drugs; Dawn (played by MyAnna Buring) was struggling with alcoholism, and Charlie (played by Johnny Harris) had a background as a drug user.

On 2nd July, doctors became concerned about their unusual symptoms and sent off samples to Porton Down. On 4th July the lab confirmed that they’d been exposed to Novichok.

But – unlike with the Skripals – The Salisbury Poisonings gives us a lot more of an insight into the lives of Charlie and Dawn than just the day they were poisoned.

Bowen said: “What we’re telling with her story, leading up to her poisoning, is very much her story as a mother, her story in terms of her relationship with her new partner Charlie Rowley which is a love story, and also her story struggling with alcohol and trying to overcome that struggle. These all characterised her and made her a human being, and make a very, into a very special person.”

The Salisbury Poisonings - Dawn Sturgess (MYANNA BURING), Charlie Rowley (JOHNNY HARRIS)
BBC/Dancing Ledge/James Pardon

Who died in the Salisbury attack?

Dawn died on 8th July after doctors switched off her life support. Her funeral took place at the end of the month, where her young daughter Gracie gave a moving eulogy.

Charlie regained consciousness two days after Dawn died, and was discharged on 20th July. He continues to recover.

As soon as he was able to talk, Charlie explained that he’d given Dawn a perfume bottle he’d found in a charity bin; she sprayed her wrists with it shortly before she collapsed.

The perfume bottle found to be filled with enough Novichok to kill thousands, and police believe this is what the poisoners had used to spray Sergei Skripal’s door back in March before carelessly disposing of it in a bin.

What happened afterwards?

After a huge operation, British authorities identified two suspects. They were later identified as two men going by the names of ‘Alexander Petrov’ and ‘Ruslan Boshirov’.

“We had seized over 11,000 hours of CCTV – that was a massive task,” Deputy assistant commissioner Dean Haydon told BBC Panorama. “We were sifting through the CCTV and we had a kind of ‘gotcha’ moment when we identified the attackers. We were now on to them… I don’t think they expected to be captured on CCTV in the way that they were.”

However, when the two men were interviewed on Russia Today, they claimed to have been ordinary tourists checking out the “famous 123-metre spire” of Salisbury Cathedral.

The British government accused Russia of attempted murder and expelled its Russian diplomats, with the support of 28 other countries. Russia denied the accusations.

The Salisbury Poisonings aired on 14th-16th June 2020 at 9pm on BBC One. Check out what else is on with our TV Guide.

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The Salisbury Poisonings arrives on AMC’s new subscription service AMC+ on Thursday 1 October 2020.