UK TV review: The Salisbury Poisonings
Ivan Radford | On 14, Jun 2020
The words “Salisbury Poisonings” may well conjure up images of espionage and Russian foul play, unless, of course, you live in Salisbury, a community that descended into terror as a hidden lethal substance left the whole town at risk of contamination just two years ago. The Salisbury Poisonings, a three-part drama from the BBC, retells the 2018 events from the perspective of the local community, and the results brings to the fore the everyday humans who struggled through an unthinkable crisis.
It would be a tough watch at any time, but to air the programme during the coronavirus pandemic gives the whole thing a horribly close-to-home reality. We can all, now, relate to the worry of accidentally picking up an infection by touching the wrong surface in just the wrong place. And, in one of the most heart-wrenching scenes, the scariest thought of all: that you might have unwitting infected someone else, especially a loved one. These fears bubble away under the surface, adding an unintended resonance to the factual drama, but even without that context, this is a riveting piece of TV.
Written by Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn, the impressively detailed script begins with Sergei and Yulia Skripal being found unconscious on a park bench, with the identification of Novichok following swiftly. That raises the stakes significantly for Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff), Director of Public Health for Wiltshire Council, who immediately tries to lock down the town’s main sites. She works with Superintendent Dave Minty (Darren Boyd) to co-ordinate the required response of public services and local authorities, while also trying to keep concerned residents informed and calm.
That, however, means she has less time for her own family, including son Toby, even though she can’t tell them why. Also separated from his family but for very different reasons is DS Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall), whose attempts to help in the aftermath of the poisoning leads to him feeling ill. Spall hauntingly captures the paranoia of trying to determine whether his symptoms are just a cold or something more sinister, and, together with Annabel Scholey as Nick’s wife, Sarah, viscerally conveys the heart-churching agony of a loved one being sick.
Entering the story much later are Dawn Sturgess (MyAnna Buring) and her boyfriend, Charlie Rowley (Johnny Harris), who find themselves unwitting further victims of Novicok, with tragic results. Knowing what will happen, as with any factual drama, threatens to rob the show of its suspense, but it only amplifies the emotional impact of each person’s contribution during the crisis. From Nigel Lindsay as a dedicated Detective Chief Constable to Mark Addy as a friend of Sergei and Yulia, the cast are uniformly understated and sensitive as the real life people who helped contain the poisoning’s impact. Director Saul Dibbs moves each episode along with gripping precision, dark atmosphere and stylish pacing – in many ways, this is UK TV’s answer to Chernobyl – but there’s something reassuring about seeing people in positions of authority competently handling a crisis and being given the resources to manage and resolve it quickly and effectively.
This is, above all, a story of bravery and resilience, at a time when bravery and resilience are an inspiring example for us all. The relieved sight of someone sitting down with their family to have dinner has seldom been so powerfully moving.
The Salisbury Poisonings is available on BBC iPlayer.