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The Salisbury Poisonings (BBC) - Review

The Salisbury Poisonings

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 5 out of 5

GIVEN the BBC decided to show its three-part real-life drama The Salisbury Poisonings in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic [and the lockdown that ensued], it’s hard not to draw many frightening parallels between the nerve agent attack that devastated Salisbury and Covid-19.

But that would also be to potentially overlook the triumph that this three-parter represented on its own terms. For this absorbing, emotionally wrenching drama, meticulously researched by former Panorama journalists Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn, shone a very personal spotlight into what happened during those terrible months in 2018 when the poisoning of MI6 agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, triggered a massive health scare.

Given the complexity of the case, there were any number of ways the BBC could have taken the narrative. They could have focused on the principal victims themselves (one of them a spy), or the two men who orchestrated the assassination attempt.

Instead, they went for those that could be deemed the collateral damage: the men and women who represented the response to the attack, who became either unlikely heroes or unintentional victims [and sometimes both].

Principal among them were a trio of everyday people: Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall), who was among the first members of CID to investigate the incident, following the discovery of the Skripals on a park bench; the director of public health for Wiltshire, Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff), who oversaw the local response that would ultimately same many lives; and Dawn Sturgess (MyAnna Buring), a struggling single mother struggling to control her addiction to alcohol.

As the drama [and tragedy] unfolded, these three became intrinsic to our emotional response to the series, providing a very real insight into what it must have been life to live through the ordeal.

Saul Dibb’s direction started out as a procedural in the Chernobyl mode, offering a fascinating insight into how the enormity of the situation gradually dawned upon those investigating, as well as the effects on those first responders.

As it progressed, however, it veered away from the procedural elements and opted for a more personal approach, focusing on the emotional toll on the main three. This involved following Bailey and his family through their hospital ordeal, as the DS fought for his life; watching as Daszkiewicz worked around the clock, selflessly, to make well informed life or death decisions while attempting to maintain some semblance of family life [for the benefit of her son]; and – most tragically of all – Sturgess, as she unwittingly became the real victim of the poisonings, losing her life.

The final episode ended with a special tribute to Sturgess… one that offered something of an emotional gut punch to any sense of victory achieved by the remarkable response.

But again, this showed how the creative minds behind the series opted for a more restrained, respectful approach, rather than anything too celebratory. The responses depicted felt real and human… often courageous, sometimes bewildered and combining elements of grief, disbelief, resolve and anger.

Daszkiewicz was undoubtedly the biggest hero and her swift, decisive actions – supported by members of Salisbury’s police force (Nigel Lindsay’s DCC Paul Mills and Darren Boyd’s Supt. Dave Minty, both excellent) – saved many lives. Duff, for her part, never showboated… her portrayal of Daszkiewicz was measured, always articulate and thoughtful, yet so often humble. It was a tour-de-force.

But Spall was excellent, too, especially post-hospital as he attempted to come to terms with his experience and its effect – both physical and emotional – on him and his family.

The tragedy that befell Sturgess, meanwhile, was ultimately heart-breaking, especially when accompanied by the real-life footage of her dancing with her daughter in a home video. But the wider members of her family – including Johnny Harris’s boyfriend Charlie Rowley, Sophia Ally as her daughter Gracie (whose funeral reading proved devastating and so, so brave) and Ron Cook as her father – succeeded in really showing the enormity of the loss that resulted.

And it’s worth noting that, while suspects have been identified, owing to Russian policy on extraditing its own nationals, no prosecutions have been completed, even though the CPS has charged two men [Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov] with several offences.

It meant that, overall, The Salisbury Poisonings served as a compelling and moving tribute to the lives of those directly affected by the events. It has to rate as an unqualified success, worthy of mention in the same breath as the award-winning likes of the aforementioned Chernobyl.

Covid-19 comparisons

The Salisbury Poisonings

As mentioned, it was impossible not to view The Salisbury Poisonings without drawing parallels with the events surrounding the onset of Covid-19 in the UK.

True, one was a man-made nerve agent; the other a virus [of as-yet unknown origin]. But the mode of attack on an unsuspecting population was eerily similar: a silent killer, capable of remaining on surfaces for prolonged period, with an invisible but highly contagious incubation period, and a devastating effect on its victims and their organs.

The response, too, had a ring of familiarity about it. In order to contain the spread of the nerve agent, Daszkiewicz advocated an aggressive policy of track, trace and test. She was relentless and unapologetic in getting things done. And through her actions, the spread of the agent – known as Novichok – was contained – not once, but twice.

Had the response not been as swift or as decisive, it is widely acknowledged that many more lives would have been lost.

And yet, there were also repeated scenes of cost-conscious government figures offering false reassurances to a public seeking answers. Again, the comparisons were eerily familiar.

Patterson and Lawn could not have predicted that their drama would air in the middle of a pandemic, or that there would be so many similarities. But in terms of relevance, The Salisbury Poisonings could not have felt more timely.

In doing so, it also emerged as a show from which many lessons could – and hopefully should – be learned.

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