EXCLUSIVE: BBC One has set the premiere date for Dancing Ledge Productions’ anticipated three-part miniseries, The Salisbury Poisonings. A dramatization of the 2018 Novichok poisonings that rocked the eponymous city and made global headlines, it will air from June 14-16 at 9PM locally. Rafe Spall, Anne-Marie Duff and MyAnna Buring star. Saul Dibb directs. Fremantle, which has a minority stake in Dancing Ledge, is handling global distribution. Check out the first trailer above.
We recently spoke with executive producers Laurence Bowen and Chris Carey as well as writers Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn about pulling together this intimate portrayal of hope and bravery in the face of terrible tragedy, as well as its resonance within the current state of the world and what it was like to get through post-production amid the coronavirus lockdown.
The real-life mini tells the story of how ordinary people and public services reacted to the Novichok crisis as their city became the focus of an unprecedented national emergency when Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned by Russian operatives. Police officer Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey (Spall) was contaminated at the Skripal’s home and required hospital treatment. Local woman, Dawn Sturgess (Buring), was also exposed to the nerve agent and subsequently died.
The Salisbury Poisonings represents Patterson and Lawn’s first major TV script together after a previous career in documentary making. They moved to the historic British city for more than a year as part of their research for the show, spending long hours with the subjects of the series: Tracy Daszkiewicz (Duff), the director of public health for Wiltshire, and Bailey, among others.
“The tie around for the show, from [BBC drama commissioner] Lucy Richer, was ‘ordinary heroism.’ This was a story about people coming together and showing the very best of British public service at a time when Britain felt very broken,” says Patterson, referring to a theme that could also be said of the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Lawn says their research process was “identical” to how they would go about making a BBC documentary. They knocked on peoples’ doors to encourage them to talk, and worked with the series’ journalistic consultant Caroline Bannock to get access to the right people. In some respects, it was easier than when they were journalists. “People were more receptive because we didn’t have to film them or record their voices. They didn’t have the scary prospect of going on record,” Lawn adds.
Producers wanted to capture the drama from the inside, says Bowen. The idea pitched to the BBC was “a dramatization of it, not as a spy thriller, or an assassination story, but more as a kind of experiential story: What it must have felt like for the key people both on the responder side but also in terms of the families who had been very directly affected by either Novichok or just by being close to the events.”
He adds, “Like most interesting stories, you don’t often know what you have in your hands until you start doing your research… Declan and Adam won the confidence of the main families they were talking to.” Was there any resistance to visit the subject so closely to the real events? Says Bowen, “There was a degree of caution… There had been some unwanted intrusion. What we found with the Sturgess family, they felt particularly that the way that the press had covered their daughter did not bear any relation to who she was and to her life, she had been misrepresented in a way that had been very painful. When they sat down with Adam and Declan and saw what the ambition was for the piece, they agreed to work with us. It’s been an intimate and important journey with all of them. From a filmmaker’s point of view, that’s the most important thing in factual drama, that for the key protagonists you have captured their truth and there’s an honesty there. If you get that right, then you feel you’ve done your job properly.”
Salisbury is the latest in a long line of dramas based on true events, and Lawn thinks they are popular because they help audiences make sense of the world. “The world is increasingly incomprehensible to people. If you have producers who, in really good faith, spend a big portion of their lives investigating a story and then telling it through the eyes of real people, there’s a certain satisfaction in that for the viewer. They are getting some measure of truth,” he explains.
Bowen notes that while The Salisbury Poisonings is at its heart “a very tragic story,” it’s also about the resilience of the wider community, the responders and the city. “We feel there’s a cathartic story there, particularly at a time when people are going through incredible pain and huge challenges with the current pandemic. The timing does give it additional meaning, about a community facing an invisible threat. There definitely are parallels, but it’s also about survival as a community coming together and overcoming. There is a story of hope in the end.”
The production itself had to overcome some unforeseen challenges given the outbreak of COVID-19 coincided with the end of filming. One of the last scenes to be shot involved the real-life characters on a day in early March. Says Carey, “If we’d chosen a later date, we never would have been able to film it. It felt like we just got home before the tornado hit.”
Post “has been challenging” and confinement “slowed everything down,” says Carey who commends collaborators for rising to those obstacles “magnificently.” While the pace of things was uncommon, Carey adds that the deceleration possibly gave one more time to reflect. “You watch a cut and you know if you want to make a note on it, it’s going to involve a big process because you can’t all be sitting in a room together… It makes giving a note more significant, so you have to think about it. You have to weigh it up and so there might be some critical judgments that are more nuanced because you have these additional factors. That said, I wouldn’t trade this way of working for sitting in a room with a director and the colorist or the audio mixer, all the key creative parts, because it’s a collaborative collegiate art form and that’s one of its joys.”
The Salisbury Poisonings also stars Johnny Harris, Annabel Scholey, Mark Addy, Stella Gonet and Ron Cook.
Here’s the first-look photo of Duff, Buring and Spall: