‘The Salisbury Poisonings’: Death at a Touch

There are those who have said that airing The Salisbury Poisonings now, in the middle of the coronavirus lockdown, feels a little too close to the bone [but] while a drama about a deadly nerve agent may feel like the last thing we need in these strange times, [it] has proven itself to be more relevant and watchable than ever.      
                                                                                  —Kayleigh Dray, Stylist

With COVID-19 on everyone’s face-masked lips at the moment, most references you see in the media draw parallels with the Spanish Flu of the 1910s or the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. But we don’t have to go that far back to find an instructive comparison with the present crisis.

The Salisbury Poisonings is a three-part television series about the 2018 Novichok nerve-agent poisoning in Salisbury, England. The program was produced by Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn for Dancing Ledge Productions, directed by Saul Dibb and broadcast on BBC One. Lucy Mangan of the Guardian said, “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.”

The story begins in March 2018, when an elderly man and a young woman are discovered convulsing on a bench in centre of Salisbury. Sergei Skripal (played by Wayne Swann), a Soviet GRU agent, also a double agent for MI6, and his daughter, Yulia (Jill Winternitz), have been poisoned with a deadly neurotoxin. Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff), director of public health for the Wiltshire Council, is put in charge of containing the potential spread of the unknown pathogen, which she later identifies as Novichok (Russian for newcomer). Her main areas of expertise are food poisoning, hospital infections and outbreaks of nits, so this is a formidable challenge for her. But she rises to the task, determining that Novichok stays active on hard surfaces for fifty years.

During the preliminary investigation, one of the first responders, Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall) becomes seriously ill and is put into intensive care. A massive quarantine of the area is immediately initiated, with park benches unbolted and carted away and vehicles and other public objects removed to a secure facility for examination. A “sealed frame” is built over the Skripals’ house and the roof is removed. After a thorough lockdown of the city centre, twelve contagious hot spots are identified and cleansed. Prime Minister Theresa May says in a press statement that the agent is believed to have been developed in the 1980s by the Soviet Union, and has no known antidote. 

A year passes with lockdown restrictions in place and, in March 2019, the Ministry of Defence declares Salisbury decontaminated. Several months later, after the media and public have moved on to other news, Dawn Sturgess (MyAnna Buring) and her companion, Charlie Rowley (Johnny Harris) develop symptoms of Novichok poisoning. Rowley had given Sturgess (the unfortunate couple are pictured below)  a bottle of perfume that he found in a charity dumpster. She unwittingly applies it to her face, becomes sick and later dies. Rowley also falls ill, but survives.

Tracy Daszkiewicz is summoned for advice and is perplexed, as it has been a year since the original crisis and this couple lived nine miles from the city centre. The perfume bottle is discovered in the Sturgess’s flat, still containing enough nerve agent to kill thousands. Two Russian men suspected of the poisonings, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, are thought to have travelled to Salisbury, where they used the weaponised perfume bottle to apply the Novichok to the front door handle of Skripals’ home and then discarded it.

Rachel Cooke said in the New Statesman:

Here was the coronavirus crisis in microcosm. The only difference between Salisbury in 2018, and the UK in 2020, it seemed by this telling, has to do with public acceptance. As they were portrayed on screen, the people of Salisbury were angry rather than obedient. At public meetings, they raged at those in charge. Fear made them vocal.

Novichok was identified at the Porton Down Science Campus near Salisbury as the chemical used in the poisoning. For over a century Porton Down has been one of the UK’s most secretive military research stations. Stretching over 7000 acres, it opened in 1916 for the testing of chemical weapons—chlorine, mustard gas and phosgene—used by Germany during the First World War. At the end of the Second World War, Porton Down identified the previously unfamiliar Sarin gas from abandoned stockpiles in Nazi Germany. The VX nerve agent was first developed at Porton Down in the 1950s by a British scientist, based on research done by Gerhard Schrader, a chemist working for IG Farben in Germany during the 1930s. During the 1970s and 1980s, Porton Down studied the alleged chemical warfare used by Iraq against Iran and was the laboratory where the first samples of Ebola virus were sent in 1976. It is the foremost UK research facility into viral inoculations.

Neil Withers wrote in Chemistry World:

With tens of thousands of UK citizens dead from a coronavirus, it’s hard to avoid the temptation to wonder: What if the UK’s response to the current crisis had been as swift, firm and thorough as Salisbury’s appeared to have been two years ago?

According to the ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) in Atlanta, Georgia, Novichok is “a class of organic chemicals that disrupt the mechanisms by which nerves transfer messages to organs. Rapidly fatal systemic effects may occur. They are known to be included in military stockpiles of several nations, including the United States.”

Novichok is said to be the deadliest chemical warfare agent ever made, readily absorbed from the skin and eyes (hence the death of Sturgess after she applied it to her face), designed as part of a Soviet program codenamed “Foliant”. Five variations of Novichok have been adapted for military use, with several objectives: to be undetectable using standard NATO chemical detection equipment, to defeat NATO’s chemical protective gear, and to find a way around the list of controlled chemical weapons listed in the international Chemical Weapons Convention.

The director of The Salisbury Poisonings, Saul Dibb, was born in London and also directed The Duchess. His film adaptation of R.C. Sherriff’s 1928 play Journey’s End in 2017 was called by the Times “the best ever film about the Great War”.

The co-producer, Adam Patterson, had previously been a photojournalist, and his partner, Declan Lawn, an investigative journalist for the BBC. Lawn told BBC Writersroom:

Towards the very end of the process, the team who had made the series went to visit the people whose lives we had put on screen, including Tracy Daszkiewicz, Ross and Mo Cassidy, the Bailey and Sturgess families, and Charlie Rowley. Some of these viewings were deeply emotional, for everyone involved. They all told us, after the credits rolled, that we had captured their stories. There was no better accolade than that.

Stuart McGurk of GQ wrote:

Still, one question jumps out at you from the get-go here: what is [The Salisbury Poisonings] about? It is, quite literally of course, about the terror that took over a Wiltshire city when it became clear a nerve agent had not only spread—notably from the door handle of Sergei Skripal’s house to the police officer …  who touched it and nearly died as a result—but that the source might still be out there somewhere. But even dramatic real-life tales need to be more than just the facts sausaged into drama. What is the perspective? What are the themes? What is [it] about underneath the hood? Well, turns out, not a lot. 

The series, unfortunately, does not conclude with an emotionally satisfying ending, because so much key information still remains classified. Nothing conclusive was ever determined as to whether Russia or Vladimir Putin was involved, directly or indirectly. Adam Sweeting of The Arts Desk said:

The problem with constructing the story only from the observable facts meant that there couldn’t be a dramatically satisfying solution, since the culprits were never brought to book and the mystery just gradually fizzled out. There was no effort here to probe behind the headlines, and the Russian suspects were merely glimpsed in passing on a TV in the background.

No one knows for certain what happened to the Skripals. Sergei Skripal had been turned into a double-agent in the late 1990s, in Madrid, by a British MI6 spy. He passed Soviet secrets to his UK handlers until he was caught in 2004 and accused of high treason, spending six years in a Russian prison. He was released and exchanged in a 2010 spy swap and permitted to return to England. He and his daughter have dual citizenship of Russia and Britain.

After the attempted assassination, the Skripals lived for two years in an MI5 safe house and are now thought to be living in New Zealand under new identities. In 2019, the Sunday Times reported that Sergei Skripal “has suffered a deterioration in his health and is being treated by doctors”.

Even without factoring in the continuing expense of guarding the Skripals, the Novichok crisis cost UK taxpayers £30 million.

Sweeting remarked: “The missing pieces of the jigsaw meant that it was impossible to derive any meaningful message from [the series], other than that terrible things can happen to innocent people.” I partially disagree with this, as I found the series inspiring. In any case, these unresolved questions could indicate a potential second series in the future, once the classified and redacted information is released (if ever).

Tracy Daszkiewicz is now deputy director of public health for South West England and is involved with the response to the coronavirus pandemic. Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey and his family moved out of their home. All their possessions were destroyed, and they received no compensation from the government. Dawn Sturgess’s flat was demolished. Her parents told the Guardian: “Everyone’s voice needs to be heard. Dawn never had a voice.” They have initiated legal action in the hope of uncovering more information about the circumstances that led to their daughter’s death.

The first victims, Sergei and Yulia Skripal, and their alleged attempted assassins, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov (both pictured at left), only had a minor presence in the series but this was a choice by the producers to focus on the ordinary people affected and not make another Spooks. This was because the whereabouts of the Skripals. Everything in the Skripals’ home was removed and destroyed after the attack. Petrov and Boshirov returned to Russia, out of reach of British authorities.

The Russian Foreign Minister at the time, Sergey Lavrov, denied allegations that the poisoning was a Soviet-sponsored assassination attempt, calling it UK propaganda, but the international community supported Britain’s expulsion of twenty-three Russian diplomats as “undeclared intelligence agents”. Russia responded by expelling twenty-three British diplomats and closing the UK consulate in St Petersburg. 

President Trump ordered the expulsion of sixty Russian diplomats and the closure of the Seattle consulate. Australia, Canada, Norway, Ukraine, sixteen other EU countries and NATO followed suit. In total, 150 Russian diplomats were sent home in what the BBC called “the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history”.

There are dozens of films and television series that revolve around the theme of out-of-control parasites; viruses being the smallest. Even the invading Martians in H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds are killed by earth bacteria, to which their alien immune systems have no defence. Annie Goldsmith of Town & Country magazine wrote: “COVID-19 has made us see [these] pandemic movies in a whole new light.”

In 1971, Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain described an outbreak of an extraterrestrial micro-organism brought back in a satellite. The Infectious Diseases Society of America called it “the most significant, scientifically accurate, and prototypic of all films of this [killer virus] genre”.

Killer viruses appear regularly in disaster movies, from Outbreak (1995—Motaba), 12 Monkeys (1995—Kalavirus), I Am Legend (2007—Krippin Virus), Blindness (2008—White Sickness), Contagion (2011—MEV-1), Hot Zone (2019—Ebola) and World War Z (2013—Solanum Virus), the latter a contemporary zombie film. Zombi was a word first recorded in 1819 by Robert Southey to describe a Brazilian deity. In Haitian folklore it refers to a dead slave’s body, reanimated through voodoo. But modern-day fictional zombies come back to life from radiation, parasites and pathogens.

The most recent viral nightmares are the dour “post-apocalyptic romance” film Only (2019) and the compelling German series Sløborn (2020). In Only, a passing asteroid scatters a viral dust (HNV-21) that only kills women. The remaining few that survive are highly prized (up to $2 million to bounty hunters) and daily news reports announce breakthroughs in extracorporeal pregnancy technology to attempt to preserve the human race—a sort of viral Handmaid’s Tale. Not recommended.

In Sløborn, an outbreak of deadly Pigeon Flu occurs on an island. All the familiar things we see around us today are in force: face-masks, quarantines, lockdowns, border checks and overcrowded hospitals. The series rolls along quite well until the final episodes, unfortunately, when it ham-fistedly segues into a dark conspiracy thriller, where the military is brought in, martial law is declared, and the sick are experimented on, unwittingly, in secret government facilities, in the quest for an antidote. All those irritating juvenile rebels and “anti-mask” protesters, in the beginning of the story, that you wish would just grow up (so prevalent on today’s social media) are finally shown to be the sane ones, and the government, the corrupt villains. Not a good model for how to handle the present crisis.

But these films are typical due to the film industry having to ramp up worst-case scenarios, to scare the blazes out of viewers, to keep them eating that popcorn and not changing the channel. Compared to this kind of cinematic rollercoaster ride, COVID-19 and even Novichok are quite tame. No wonder everyone is so panicky in this current health challenge—Hollywood and European movies over the decades have fed us a consistent diet of cliffhanger negative outcomes where the characters are pretty much powerless.

The director of The Salisbury Poisonings, Saul Dibb, said in an interview with the Guardian:

With Covid there are thousands and thousands of deaths. We’re talking here [in Wiltshire] about one death. I think it shows through looking at one individual’s death how significant all of those individual stories are. They often get glossed over. 

James Walton wrote in the Spectator:

Above all, the drama paid a characteristically honourable tribute to the only person who died in the Salisbury poisonings, but has since been so overlooked that she rates only the most passing of mentions … to my shame, in fact, I’d forgotten about her too. As Dawn [Sturgess] and her family now took centre-stage, her life and death were movingly reclaimed from footnote status in the final act of a programme that both championed and embodied a commitment to old-school civic decency. (So perhaps it was pretty well timed after all.)

 The Salisbury Poisonings is the highest-rating drama on British television since 2018.

One thought on “‘The Salisbury Poisonings’: Death at a Touch

  • Geoffrey Luck says:

    This programme, re-broadcast in Australia, evinced a disappointing lack of drama, notwithstanding the subject matter. It was long-winded and flat. Perhaps because it was all old news by the time it was shown, the main protagonists seemed slow, if not stupid, in failing to pick up the main clues after the toxin had been quickly identified. It was very late in the day before the door handle of the Skripov house was found to be the prime site where the Novichok was planted. If there is a similarity to the recent epidemic measure in Australia it is the gormless chief health inspector who was completely out of her depth.

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