After ‘The Salisbury Poisonings,’ Locals Picked Up the Pieces
After ‘The Salisbury Poisonings,’ Locals Picked Up the Pieces
LONDON — After a former Russian spy was found convulsing on a park bench in the English city of Salisbury, the British prime minister at the time, Theresa May, stood before Parliament and the world and accused the Kremlin of “a brazen act to murder innocent civilians on our soil.”
The March 2018 speech, in which Mrs. May revealed that the former spy, Sergei V. Skripal, had been poisoned with a deadly nerve agent known as Novichok, shook the British public and set the stage for a geopolitical confrontation that continues to reverberate two and half years later.
But in “The Salisbury Poisonings,” an engrossing and deeply researched four-part drama about the attack that is set to premiere on Thursday on AMC, the speech is just background noise. It plays briefly on a blurred television screen before a character barks, “turn that [expletive] off.”
These are Britons that in my own reporting on Russian espionage I am guilty of overlooking. For the past two and a half years, I’ve traveled to a dozen countries to investigate the activities of Russian assassins from the military intelligence unit that British authorities say poisoned Mr. Skripal. My stories were part of a New York Times series that won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. Not once did I visit Salisbury.
This series is less a spy story than a cautionary tale about the collateral damage that can occur when international intrigue runs amok, said Declan Lawn, a former investigative journalist with the BBC who researched and wrote the series with the journalist and documentary filmmaker Adam Patterson. With Russia, such intrigues appear to be perennial, given the recent poisoning, also with a Novichok nerve agent, of the Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny.
“You know when you watch a James Bond movie and he drives through the city center wrecking everything around him and turning over market stalls and so on?” Mr. Lawn said in an interview. “This is a story of the people who have to pick up the pieces.”
Among those people are Tracy Daszkiewicz (played by Anne-Marie Duff), a public health official who potentially saved hundreds of lives by insisting that central Salisbury be locked down soon after Mr. Skripal first fell ill, and Detective Sgt. Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall), who nearly died after touching a door handle at Mr. Skripal’s home that had been tainted with Novichok.
The series spends a lot of time with Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess, a down-on-their-luck couple whose lives had begun to turn a corner before Mr. Rowley (Johnny Harris) stumbled upon a poison-laced perfume bottle the Russian assassins had recklessly tossed in a dumpster.
Mr. Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, who had been visiting from Moscow and was poisoned along with her father, are portrayed not as symbols of Kremlin vengeance, but through the lens of a touching friendship with their next-door neighbors, a brawny former submariner named Ross Cassidy and his wife, Mo.
“You watch the news and it’s spy this and secret agent that,” Mo, (Clare Burt), says in episode three. “To us, they’re just people, you know?”
Though heavily researched, “The Salisbury Poisonings” is not a documentary. The timing is compressed and the characters, while based on real people, are composites and consolidations.
Even so, the series serves as an effective counterpoint to the fake reports and conspiracy theories churned out by the Kremlin at the time. From the beginning, Russia was dismissive and mocking, at turns accusing British spy agencies and the C.I.A. of plotting to frame the Kremlin with the poisoning, or of making up the events entirely. The Russian government’s English language television station, RT, sent chocolate models of the Salisbury cathedral to news agencies. RT also broadcast an interview with the two men charged in Britain with carrying out the poisoning, in which they claimed implausibly to have traveled to Salisbury as tourists.
“The Salisbury Poisonings” is an earnest attempt to set the record straight.
Even for those who followed the saga closely, the series contains revelations. I never fully appreciated how widely the poison was spread around Salisbury. Traces of nerve agent were found at a pub the Skripals visited after they were exposed, as well as an Italian restaurant where they had lunch. At one point, the Skripals stopped to feed the ducks paddling in the River Avon and handed some bread to a boy so he could, too.
Sergeant Bailey exposed himself to the poison at Mr. Skripal’s house and then brought the substance to his own home, smearing it on light switches and countertops. Sergeant Bailey survived, but much of the series revolves around his guilt about having possibly exposed others to harm, including his wife and two daughters.
For months, Salisbury was effectively shut down, its cobblestone streets clogged with emergency vehicles as helicopters buzzed overhead. When Mr. Lawn and Mr. Patterson arrived in the city several months later to start their research, they said they found a town still nursing psychological wounds. Tourists were staying away, children were afraid to go to school and people were only slowly getting back to their normal lives.
“The biggest surprise was how consequential this was for so many people and how many lives it changed,” Mr. Lawn said. “There were hundreds if not thousands of people directly affected by this and traumatized by it.”
For the family and friends of Dawn Sturgess, the trauma has never gone away. She was the unlikeliest of victims to be poisoned by Russian spies. A 44-year-old mother of three, Ms. Sturgess had struggled with alcohol abuse for years. When she became violently ill, four months after the Skripals, doctors initially thought it was a drug overdose, though her family insisted she had never been a drug addict.
The source of her illness was eventually traced to a bottle of Nina Ricci Premier Jour perfume that her boyfriend, Mr. Riley, had pulled from a Salisbury trash can. Investigators later discovered that the bottle was filled with enough Novichok to kill thousands of people. Ms. Surgess, who had sprayed the substance on her body, was the only person to die in a spy operation that was most likely planned and approved at the highest levels of the Russian government.
She was collateral in a spy game that few of us, the Sturgess family included, fully understand, even today. Though fictionalized, the heartbreak in “The Salisbury Poisonings” is real, and it lingers.
The series ends with a cellphone video of the real Dawn Sturgess, in a pair of sunglasses, dancing with her daughter, Gracie. She was 11 years old when her mother died.