The Salisbury Poisonings review: Like watching a Crimewatch reconstruction

The Salisbury Poisonings review: Like watching a Crimewatch reconstruction

The Salisbury Poisonings review: Like watching a Crimewatch reconstruction

The Salisbury Poisonings review: Like watching a Crimewatch reconstruction

The Salisbury Poisonings review: Like watching a Crimewatch reconstruction 1

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The BBC invites you to cast your mind back to the halcyon days of early 2018, long before All This, when the most the public had to worry about was a prolonged deep freeze, flooding, and a chemical attack by a foreign power on British soil. The Salisbury Poisonings (BBC One) is the three-part dramatisation of the events around the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in March of that year, which inadvertently led to the death of a British woman, Dawn Sturgess (MyAnna Buring). When it was commissioned, The Salisbury Poisonings must have seemed like a window into a dark time. These days it qualifies as breezy escapism.

For those of us who watched things unfold at a distance, it’s the trivia around the Salisbury case that lingers in the memory. The fateful trip to the Zizzi restaurant, and the “confessional” interview in which the suspects said they merely wanted to visit the city with its famous 123m cathedral spire. The drama is a reminder that it was terrifying at the time, especially for local residents, who saw their city on the news every night, with agents in hazmat suits spraying the town centre.

Our way in is DS Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall), the detective summoned to the scene when a man and his daughter collapse on a bench in the Maltings, and it doesn’t look like a normal overdose. Anne-Marie Duff plays Tracy Daszkiewicz, the director of public health for Wiltshire, who had to coordinate the public response. Long before “track and trace” was a household term, she initiated a system to identify those who might have come into contact with the poison.


Duff and Spall both give their characters the requisite humanity, Daszkiewicz rising to events far beyond anything she expected to encounter, Bailey bravely succumbing to the poison himself after being first into the Skripals’ house. Spall has carved out a real niche as the slightly-too-handsome Everyman and again performs the role to a high standard. Perhaps the most sympathetic character is Sturgess, an alcoholic whose boyfriend Charlie Rowley (Johnny Harris) finds a perfume bottle and gives it to her, not realising it was the delivery mechanism for the poison. The lesser-spotted Mark Addy even pops up as Sergei’s friend, Ross Cassidy.

These dramas are part of the national protocol for managing such events. No major news story has been dealt with until we have witnessed an ensemble of familiar character actors playing policemen, bystanders and other “everyday heroes” with quiet competence. The programmes have a deep-seated rhythm. First the protagonists are established in their family life, rushing through breakfast but not before demonstrating their love to wife/husband/kids. A kiss on the forehead, a fragment of humour. The Event happens. Gradually, the participants are sucked into proceedings. Setback, breakthrough, conclusion. No one is ever shown to be anything other than calm, confident and sympathetic. Incompetent maniacs and workshy morons must be working in British disaster response units, but they never seem to make it to prime time.

The Salisbury Poisonings is perfectly well written and acted and informative but you never quite escape the sense that you’re watching a particularly thorough Crimewatch reconstruction. Quiet competence is a wonderful quality in a public servant; less so in a Sunday night drama.

A long “where are they now” segment follows the final episode, showing the real-life characters and what has happened to them in the past two years. The most damning aspect of the whole affair, the sense that the Russians got away with it without serious repercussions, looms in the background. Just months after the murders, England cheered its football team to the semi-finals of the World Cup, forgetting all about what had happened. What good are everyday heroics when those in power are so toothless, and the public so quick to forget?


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