Look, I’ll admit it. When the BBC first announced a new drama about the Salisbury Novichok attack that would focus on “how ordinary people reacted to a crisis on their doorstep, displaying extraordinary heroism”, I rolled my eyes just a little.
Here was a chance to dramatise a remarkable real-life story involving Russian spies and lethal poison and a huge diplomatic falling-out, with the added absurdity of two would-be assassins going on TV to proclaim their love of Salisbury Cathedral. But instead, producers had decided to sidestep all of that and make a show about the civil servants, the neighbours, the police officers, and the nerve agent’s unintended victims. It sounded worthy – but would it actually make for good drama?
The answer is: yes! The Salisbury Poisonings is a deeply affecting piece of television – and as it turns out, the obvious story was not the most interesting story after all.
At the heart of the three-part drama is someone you probably haven’t heard of: Wiltshire’s Director of Public Health, Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff). When we meet her, she’s just starting to unwind at home after seeing the city through a major snowstorm (the “Beast from the East”) when she gets a call summoning her urgently back to work.
A man and a woman have been found unconscious on a public bench in Salisbury city centre and… well you probably know the rest from the news headlines back in March 2018. They are Sergei and Yulia Skripal, and (as scientists later discover) they have been poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. Just a spoonful could kill tens of thousands.
Tracy is more used to dealing with food poisoning outbreaks and public drainage issues. But now she has a very urgent job to do: she must protect the people of Salisbury from an invisible, lethal substance that could be anywhere in the city. All it would take for more fatalities would be a teeny-tiny amount on a railing, or a napkin, or a doorknob. Danger is all around. (And yes, it is a strange coincidence of timing that this show is going out on TV during the coronavirus pandemic.)
As Anne-Marie Duff plays her, Tracy is a brilliant protagonist: warm and engaging, extremely competent, utterly determined, but privately weighed down by her sense of responsibility and self-doubt. Plus she has a kid at home, Toby, who is fed up of playing second fiddle to his mum’s work – and can’t quite understand why she’s sleeping in her office at work and forgetting about the school run.
Despite Tracy and her team’s best efforts, however, the Novichok does find three more victims. DS Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall) is the first. (He’s the police officer who went into Sergei Skripal’s house in the hours after the attack and had to be rushed to intensive care, though he ultimately survived.) We see his story play out almost like a zombie thriller at first, with Nick downplaying his sickness while he goes home, hugs his kids, kisses his wife and makes the tea; nobody realises he’s been bitten (as it were) until it’s almost too late.
The final strand of the story belongs to Dawn Sturgess (MyAnna Buring) and Charlie Rowley (Johnny Harris). If you remember reports from the time you’ll already know what happens to them, but *spoiler alert*: Dawn is the sole fatality of the Novichok attack, and Charlie ends up seriously ill in hospital. For Tracy and her team, this is another nightmare: several months on from the Skripals, nine miles away, two more people have been poisoned. How? Why? It also feels like a personal failing for Tracy: what did she miss? Has she failed the people she was meant to protect?
Seeing as the second poisoning incident comes so long after the first, the culmination of that storyline arrives in the final episode. But writers Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson have opted to do something important with this arc, which is humanise Dawn and Charlie by including them in the drama from the beginning – even though they’re not your usual heroes. Dawn is living in sheltered accommodation, battling alcoholism, trying to be a good mum to her daughter Gracie, and trying to mend fences with her father; Charlie has a police record, but he’s a caring partner who finds a fancy-looking perfume in a bin and gives it to Dawn as an act of love.
In this drama, the Skripals fade into the background; Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley and Nick Bailey and Tracy Daszkiewicz are the real people who got swept up into something entirely unexpected as the original crime rippled outwards. The two Russian men who planted the poison are another footnote; the political story plays out in short archive clips or on TV screens and radios in the background. And that’s the point, really. Because the biggest story of the Salisbury nerve agent poisonings was what the “ordinary people” went through, after all.
The Salisbury Poisonings aired on 14th- 16th June at 9pm on BBC One. Check out what else is on with our TV Guide.
The Salisbury Poisonings arrives on AMC’s new subscription service AMC+ on Thursday 1 October 2020.