It’s been two years since Salisbury became the site of an unprecedented national emergency.
In March 2018, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal – who lived in the outskirts of the city – and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with nerve agent Novichok.
They both survived but, in July, a local woman named Dawn Sturgess lost her life.
She had come into contact with a perfume bottle – found by her boyfriend Charlie Rowley – which was believed to have been used in the attack on the Skripals.
Now, a new BBC series tells the story of the response to the attacks, and the extraordinary heroism shown by local people.
Starring the likes of Ann-Marie Duff, Rafe Spall, MyAnna Buring and Johnny Harris, The Salisbury Poisonings is written by former BBC journalist Adam Patterson and producer/director Declan Lawn, who met when making a Panorama film together.
“The dialogue was really different,” Duff notes of the writers’ approach. “Sometimes when you read scripts, you can really feel boxes being ticked. And this really didn’t feel like this at all.”
Back in January, we chatted with Duff, her co-star MyAnna Buring, plus Patterson and Lawn, to hear about making the three-part drama.
Patterson and Lawn – who are both from Northern Ireland – spent a week in Salisbury in autumn 2018, knocking on doors, calling people, and talking to organisations.
“The first thing that really made us sit up and go, ‘okay, there probably is a drama in this’, was when we met Tracy Daszkiewicz, and her colleague, Alistair Cunningham,” says Lawn.
Daszkiewicz is the director of public health at Wiltshire Council who worked incredibly hard to try to combat this “lethal and invisible enemy”, as the writers call it. One of her responsibilities was to determine whether the people of Salisbury were safe.
“We had to force a lot of stuff out of her, about sleeping in her office and doing things where it was just a whole side of the response that we didn’t have a clue about,” recalls Patterson.
“It was the human cost for her that we learned about, over time, as we got to know her – the impact on her own family, and that level of sacrifice that isn’t often seen when representing public service.”
Daszkiewicz is played by Shameless star Ann-Marie Duff, who has more recently played roles in BBC’s His Dark Materials and Netflix hit Sex Education.
The Londoner, 49, was drawn to the role because of the lack of recognition Daszkiewicz was given in the press coverage around the poisonings.
“There could be lots of reasons for that, the obvious one being gender, but also just perhaps she comes from this other world; she’s not a bureaucrat, she’s not part of that club.”
And this series is a way of showing the important work her character and her colleagues did.
“I felt, as a storyteller, how often do you get the chance to really have a point to what you do?” follows Duff poignantly.
The actress sat down with Daszkiewicz, and they spoke in-depth about her experiences.
“I was blown away by her story, and by her as a woman when we got to meet her,” she elaborates.
“And her level of commitment… I always find commitment completely fascinating and very attractive in people.”
The way the role was written means you get “the sense of a real person and not some egghead that we can’t connect with”, she adds.
Sturgess – who was 44 when she died – is portrayed by Sweden-born MyAnna Buring.
The actress notes the mother-of-three “was very much dismissed by most media outlets as being a sort-of homeless drug addict”.
“Therefore, I am incredibly grateful to everyone for writing this, and bringing this back into everyone’s awareness again, because this was a woman who could not be dismissed, just with a simple phrase,” reflects the 40-year-old, star of series such as Ripper Street and The Witcher, as well as The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn films.
“She was not a homeless drug addict; she was a real human being who had real issues that a lot of people in this country face and go through.
“She came from an incredibly warm, beautiful, loving family but, yeah, she was struggling with demons. She was a three-dimensional human being, and we lost her.”
Ahead of the role, Buring met Dawn’s parents, Stan and Caroline, her sister Claire, and her daughter Gracie, who was 11 when her mother died.
However, she decided that she would just follow the script, rather than worry about being exactly like Dawn.
“I felt when I took on the job that to dig for lots of research about all the ins and outs of how she moved, how she spoke, who she was, actually would be insensitive,” she confides.
Buring becomes teary as she recalls how some of Dawn’s relatives, and also Charlie, visited set during filming. “It was incredibly moving. I have so much love and respect for that family. The love between them is extraordinary.”
Patterson and Lawn admit they did face some scepticism for wanting to make a drama about the poisonings.
They feature the story of Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey – played by Spall, who has previously featured in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. The detective almost died after he fell ill whilst investigating the Skripal poisoning.
While they’re happy with it now, his family were unsure about the series at first. “What Nick’s parents vocalised is absolutely a very valid opinion in Salisbury which is, ‘Let’s just move on’, ‘It’s too early’,” explains Lawn. “That exists, so we had to balance that with the fact that Nick really, really wanted his story told.”
It was only in March 2019 that the Wiltshire city was declared decontaminated, after an extensive military clean-up. But, as Duff points out, there’s something to be said for telling stories soon after an event happens.
“I remember when Paul Greengrass made United 93 (the 2006 film about the events on one of the planes hijacked on 9/11) and I was a bit like, ‘I think it’s too soon’.
“Then I was talking to a friend of mine, who’s very clever, and they said, ‘No it’s exactly the right time because when we have these conversations, you should be uncomfortable’. Without discomfort, we are not going to change anything.”
The Salisbury Poisonings will air on BBC One for three consecutive nights from Sunday, June 14. All episodes will be available as a boxset on BBC iPlayer after the first episode has aired.
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