Review: The Salisbury Poisonings

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Described as both “a crime watch reconstruction” and “this year’s Chernobyl” – there’s no denying that BBC’s new drama The Salisbury Poisonings has been gripping the nation by storm. Yet what’s even more harrowing is how close to home it feels.

This three-part dramatization centres around the real-life case of the Novichok poisonings, where ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia were the targets of a foreign chemical attack in Salisbury in March 2018. The horrifying effects of this deadly nerve agent start to unravel each episode, leaving viewers with a disturbing depiction of one of the darkest moments in recent British history. 

Many of us will only remember the event from the short flashes of news bulletins or infamous details such as the perfume bottle laced with Novichok and the vilification of the Russians, but the show rightly places emphasis on those ‘behind the scenes’. The audience is witness to Wiltshire’s Director of Public Health, Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff) working tirelessly to uncover the truth about the toxin, whilst also trying to prevent widespread panic. Duff expertly portrays someone feeling slightly out of depth in their job, yet always managing to persevere through the seemingly endless mental and physical exhaustion.

What makes this series so enticing is the intimate portrayal of the lives of those affected

Another notable aspect of the show is the performance of both Rafe Spall as DS Nick Bailey and Annabel Scholey as his wife Sarah – who both bring the emotional impact of the attack to the forefront. There is no denying that the love shared between them helped them to overcome their traumatic experience, making for an emotionally compelling viewing experience.  

In fact, what makes this series so enticing is the intimate portrayal of the lives of those affected – particularly with the story of Dawn Sturgess. Initially throughout the first couple of episodes, Sturgess’s own personal struggles in fighting bravely against her alcohol addiction and for custody of her daughter seems detached from the unfolding disaster in Salisbury at hand. Yet, that is what makes her story one of the most heart-breaking elements of the whole case. The agonising scenes of grief from the Sturgess family during her funeral are heightened after building up the intense bond between her daughter makes for a really distressing viewing experience. The show truly brings home the horrific nature of this attack on British soil.  

However, many viewers were quick to point out the similarities in thematic content and stylistic choices with the HBO series Chernobyl. Yet an important difference between the two is that the latter series has the benefit of hindsight. Enough time has passed and more evidence has been acquired, meaning that we can look back on the event as a whole and derive a meaningful message about the nature of secrecy within the Soviet Union and the determination of those who helped to stop the spread of radiation. The Salisbury Poisonings took place only two years ago with many aspects of the case still unresolved, thus the ending of the series feels incomplete. What we get instead is a depressing outlook on the world as a whole and whilst the heroism of certain people like Tracy Daszkiewicz and DS Nick Bailey is definitely prominent, it is overshadowed by misery.

However, The Salisbury Poisonings does pull through with an endearing depiction of people whose stories would have otherwise most likely remained untold. The stories of the many commendable acts, yet also the long-lasting memories of all these people, will now be ingrained in the public consciousness. It will unite us with a great message of solidarity, love and human resilience during unprecedented times. A feeling particularly prominent in 2020 as much as it was during 2018.

Image: Gerd Altman via Pixabay

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