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17 June 2020

The Salisbury Poisonings is gripping and exemplary TV

BBC One's latest blockbuster factual drama looks at the attempted assassination of Sergei and Yulia Skripal by Putin's Russia in 2018. 

By Rachel Cooke

We’ll get to the scary stuff in a minute. What I want to say first about The Salisbury Poisonings (14 June, 9pm), a gripping and exemplary drama inspired by the attempted assassination of Sergei and Yulia Skripal by Putin’s Russia in 2018, is how completely blown away I was by the decision of its writers, Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson, to put Tracy Daszkiewicz centre stage. Daszkiewicz, in case you don’t know (I certainly didn’t before watching), was Salisbury’s then director of public health, a woman more used to pondering food hygiene than nerve agents. And yet, it fell largely to her to make the city safe in the hours and days after the Skripals were found unconscious on a park bench. She issued the order to lock the place down. She organised the contact tracing. The police enacted her decisions rather than the other way round. To be honest, by the time episode three began, I had a pretty large crush on her. That lanyard! How it swung: her sword, and her shield.

Daskiewicz was played by Anne-Marie Duff in a performance that mingled self-confidence and self-doubt in equal parts. If the men around her – coppers, local politicians, an imperious visitor from the Cabinet Office – seemed to be made of Teflon (“a lethal nerve agent called Novichok, you say… and how much will those barricades cost?”), she was never quite sure she was up to the job. But as everyone surely knows (save, of course, for the smarmy pretenders currently running the country), it’s doubt, not self- assurance, that makes smart people effective. 

Traces of Novichok having been found in the Salisbury branch of Zizzi, our Tracy was on it faster than you can say salmonella. “Get the reservations book,” she said. “See if there have been any bad reviews on ­Tripadvisor.” (Impossible not to laugh darkly at this: “After my lasagne, I vomited for three days solid, all my hair fell out, and all my internal organs failed.”) 

Rafe Spall also offered a lovely, understated turn as DS Nick Bailey, the police officer who, contaminated by the poison when he touched a door handle at the Skripals’ home, spent three weeks in hospital and was lucky to live. MyAnna Buring made Dawn Sturgess, the only person killed by the poison, deeply sympathetic (her partner, Charlie Rowley, found a perfume bottle containing Novichok, which she subsequently used). Like all the cast, they worked hard to give the viewer a sense of regular, private people caught up in events that seemed to have come straight out of some particularly outlandish spy novel. At one point, a swan was seen behaving strangely. Were the birds contaminated? They weren’t, but they served as a neat symbol of the way that the quiet and the quotidian had been tipped upside down. Rather like a swan, Salisbury appeared outwardly to be serene. Just out of sight, though, feet were flapping frantically. 

Which brings us to the scary stuff. The Salisbury Poisonings must have been conceived and written long before any of us had even heard of Covid-19. But by the time we got to see it… Oh, boy. As Bailey walked through the Skripals’ house, my heart hammered in my chest. No, Nick! Don’t do it! Don’t lift your visor and rub your eye! The recognition was properly disquieting: a previously unknown contagion, face masks everywhere, the use of the term lockdown. A local councillor complained to Daszkiewicz about footfall on the newly closed high street. “Business is on its knees,” he said. 

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Here was the coronavirus crisis in microcosm. The only difference between Salisbury in 2018, and the UK in 2020, it seemed by this telling, has to do with public acceptance. As they were portrayed on screen, the people of Salisbury were angry rather than obedient. At public meetings, they raged at those in charge. Fear made them vocal. I’m still thinking about all this, just as I’m still thinking about Daszkiewicz’s quiet heroism (another foreshadowing). “What the fuck did we miss?” she asked when the news broke that Sturgess and Rowley had been poisoned. Inelegantly as she put it, this seems to be a question for now just as much as then – though answering it, I think, is going to take a bit more than another fact-based TV drama, however deftly done. 

The Salisbury Poisonings 

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This article appears in the 17 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The History Wars