You see masks and hazard suits, forensics teams bathed in showers of disinfectant. families unable to touch their sick loved ones, even with gloves. Government officials make stupid swerves away from panic, trying to keep the economy breathing. And you'll hear the ominously prescient phrases like ‘contagion’ and ‘locking down’, uttered by the series’ hero Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff), director of Public Health in Wiltshire. Given the scale of Salisbury’s outbreak, which is comparatively small, this feels like a three-part prequel to a seven-season box set.
It’s a story that most are familiar with. It's not only an enticing, post-cold war tale of violent espionage, but also has a calm, quiet and mostly harmless setting. The suburban absurdity is almost Lynchian: a nice city in the countryside with dark powers lurking underneath.
The series kicks off with the infamous park bench, where the former double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia have palpitations, vomit, and fall unconscious. DS Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall) arrives on the scene and touches the victims – exposing himself to the poison.
Tracy is soon tasked with containing the Novichok, navigating an overwhelming new existence as a fish out of tainted water, conflicting with police officers and government fixers. Duff plays her with imperative self-determination. Her job (which she can’t talk about) invades her family life, to the point where she sleeps in the police offices – causing an unbearable friction with her husband and son, who grow frustrated by her absence.
Rafe Spall is equally vivid as Nick Bailey, whose story traces the impact of Novichok on the body. Coronavirus anxieties can’t help themselves: as he enters his house after the poisoning, he hugs his daughters and kisses his wife on the mouth. You want to shout at him: Haven’t you heard of social distancing!? Obviously, that’s not a phrase yet. These scenes exist in a naïve, pre-Covid mental state that may never be completely resumed. The sharp shadows, sickly colours and invisible antagonist encourages a visual nausea, much like Chernobyl did last year.
MyAnna Buring plays the ill-fated Dawn Sturgess. Photo: BBC/Dancing Ledge/James Pardon
Running beneath these pressing threads is Dawn Sturgess (MyAnna Buring), the only casualty of the Poisonings. She drifts in and out of the first two episodes, struggling with alcoholism and motherhood. Lawn and Patterson clearly attempt to correct a warped perception of Dawn, whose parents have recently criticised various media outlets for demonising their daughter as a homeless drug addict.
In the series she’s far from perfect, but tries to better herself – Buring’s performance a fractured image of sadness and regret. Her life’s been shattered and she’s trying to glue the pieces back together. This culminates in a furiously upsetting final episode, which examines her pointless passing.
The fate of Dawn Sturgess and the way it's approached personalises the numbers that appear on our screens every day. All had names and lives and families. Given the easing of lockdown and fears of a second wave, The Salisbury Poisonings comes at a crucial time.
The Salisbury Poisonings airs on Sunday 14 June at 9pm, continuing on Monday and Tuesday at the same time.
|What||The Salisbury Poisonings, BBC review|
14 Jun 20 – 16 Jun 20, ON BBC ONE