The Salisbury Poisonings review – Novichok drama with lessons for now

While it also focuses on an unbelievable, deadly emergency, this dramatisation of the poisoning of the Skripal family is a far cry from the chaos of life during the Covid crisis

Those involved with the making of The Salisbury Poisonings cannot have known that, as well as rendering a true story, they were making an allegory. This is, of course, the story of the public health crisis and criminal investigation that followed the 2018 poisoning of MI6 agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, based on first-hand accounts and extensive interviews with the people caught up in it. However, as this three-part series unfolds, our mass experience under the Covid cloud seems distilled into this tale of the havoc wreaked by one tiny toxin.

Father and daughter are found slipping into unconsciousness on a bench outside the Maltings shopping centre. It looks like an overdose but, in the words of the policewoman first on the scene: “It just feels a bit off.” As the ambulance arrives and the Skripals’ vomit is powerhosed off the bench, she calls in CID. Det Sgt Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall) attends. He agrees with the officer that they are unlikely candidates for drug addiction, but it is only when a colleague Googles the name they find in the father’s wallet and discover he was part of a spy swap deal between Russia and the UK eight years before that they realise the scope of the possible explanations.

The machinery of the state grinds into gear. The director of public health for Wiltshire, Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff), is alerted and the case is kicked as high up the police chain as it can go as the security services move in. Tests on the hospitalised Skripals are moved from ordinary laboratories to Porton Down, where the hunt begins in earnest for the unknown toxin destroying them.

Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn’s script, together with Saul Dibb’s direction, are admirably restrained. They avoid what must have been an almost irresistible compulsion to indulge in scenes of military-grade labs, armed police filling hospitals and fearful Salisburians being banished from the streets by ever-widening, ever-strengthening cordons as the worsening news comes in.

Instead they have (in a feat of imagination, unless they had greater advance warning of the current pandemic than most) conjured something we now know, absolutely, to be much closer to the truth. Instead of hysteria and frantic Drama-with-a-capital-D in the face of an unknown contagion, it shows the disbelief giving way to hard acceptance, the sense of ordinary life suddenly intruded upon and a new normal mandated. The slight disbelief and disorientation among the authorities suddenly confronted by the need to turn theory rapidly into practice resonates as the makers must never have envisaged. The oppressive scale, unwieldiness and essential unknowability of the developing problem is – we can say now with unwanted certainty – perfectly evoked.

Their toxin is soon discovered to be synthetic (“Novichok,” pronounces Porton Down. It’s Russian for “newcomer” and one of the deadliest substances on Earth) and Covid-19 is of course biological, but the tracking, tracing and containment strategies called for by Daszkiewicz are all the same. Despite their similarities, the speed and efficiency with which they are implemented differ notably. It comes to something when you find yourself pawing at the screen moaning: “If only!” as competent authorities gradually impose order on chaos, and limits on suffering.

Back in Salisbury, we follow the forlorn figure of Dawn Sturgess. She struggles to control her addiction to alcohol, while her endlessly patient, cruelly disappointed mother looks after her daughter, Grace. It is Dawn and her partner who will become the victims of the vial of novichok discarded after the assassination attempt, seven miles away in Amesbury. Bailey, meanwhile, is poisoned during his search of the Skripals’ home, despite a full bodysuit and every other protection. Maybe he should have been told to stay alert.

Mark Addy plays Ross Cassidy, the friend of Skripals who informs the counter-terrorist officers that Sergei was afraid that Putin was out to get him. Really, though, the spy aspect is not the focus of this particular drama. Instead, it centres on the efforts to protect the innocent and save the infected, who number – after the nerve agent is powerhosed off the bench into the local watercourse by a well-meaning officer – in the tens of thousands. It is also about the responses of ordinary people when extraordinary things are asked of them. It should, ideally, come with a warning: “Contains scenes of genuine courage and competence.”


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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