LONDON – After a former Russian spy was convulsively found on a park bench in the English city of Salisbury, then British Prime Minister Theresa May stood before Parliament and the world accusing the Kremlin of “a brazen act of murdering innocent civilians on our soil. “
The March 2018 speech in which Ms. May revealed that ex-spy Sergei V. Skripal had been poisoned with a deadly nerve agent named Novichok shook the UK public and set the stage for a geopolitical confrontation that continues to reverberate two and a half Year later.
But in “The Salisbury Poisonings,” an exciting and well-researched four-part drama about the attack that is slated to premiere on AMC on Thursday, the talk is just background noise. It will play briefly on a blurry TV screen before a character barks [expletive] out.”
These are British people I have overlooked in my own coverage of Russian espionage. Over the past two and a half years I have traveled to a dozen countries to investigate the activities of Russian military intelligence unit assassins who the British authorities claim had poisoned Mr Skripal. My stories were part of a series from the New York Times that won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for International Coverage. I have never visited Salisbury once.
This series is less of a spy tale than a cautionary tale about the collateral damage that can occur when international intrigues run amok, said Declan Lawn, a former investigative journalist at the BBC who researched and wrote the series with journalist and documentary filmmaker Adam Patterson. With Russia, such intrigues seem to persist in the face of the recent poisoning of Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, also with a novichok nerve agent.
“You know, when you see a James Bond movie and it drives downtown, destroys everything around it and flips market stalls and so on?” Mr Lawn said in an interview. “This is a story of the people who must keep the pieces.”
Among those people are Tracy Daszkiewicz (played by Anne-Marie Duff), a public health officer who may have saved hundreds of lives by insisting that the center of Salisbury be closed soon after Mr Skripal’s first illness, and Detective Sgt. Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall), who nearly died after touching a door handle in Mr. Skripal’s house that was stained with novichok.
The series spends much of its time with Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess, a married couple whose lives had turned a corner before Mr. Rowley (Johnny Harris) came across a poison-laced perfume bottle from the Russian assassins was ruthlessly dumped in a dumpster.
Mr Skripal and his daughter Julia, who was visiting from Moscow and was poisoned along with her father, are not portrayed as symbols of Kremlin vengeance, but through the lens of a touching friendship with their neighbors, a muscular former submarine named Ross Cassidy and his wife Mo.
“You watch the news and it’s this spy and secret agent who,” says Mo (Clare Burt) in episode three. “They’re just human to us, you know?”
Although the Salisbury Poisonings is heavily researched, it is not a documentary. The timing is compressed and the characters are based on real people but are composite and consolidated.
Even so, the series serves as an effective counterpoint to the fake reports and conspiracy theories that the Kremlin then put forward. From the start, Russia was dismissive and derisive, alternately accusing British espionage agencies and the CIA of linking the Kremlin to the poisoning or of completely catching up on the events. The Russian government’s English language television channel RT sent chocolate models of Salisbury Cathedral to news outlets. RT also broadcast an interview with the two men charged in the UK with carrying out the poisoning, in which they alleged implausibly traveled to Salisbury as tourists.
“The Salisbury Poisonings” is a serious attempt to improve the record.
Even for those who’ve followed the saga closely, the series contains revelations. I never really understood how widespread the poison was in Salisbury. Traces of nerve agents were found in a pub the Skripals visited after they were revealed, as well as an Italian restaurant where they had lunch. At some point the Skripals stopped to feed the ducks that were paddling in the Avon River and gave a boy some bread to eat too.
Sergeant Bailey exposed himself to the poison in Mr. Skripal’s house and then brought the substance home, smearing it on light switches and countertops. Sergeant Bailey survived, but much of the series revolves around his fault for potentially causing harm to others, including his wife and two daughters.
For months Salisbury had been practically closed and the cobblestone streets were jammed with emergency vehicles as helicopters buzzed overhead. When Mr. Lawn and Mr. Patterson came to town a few months later to begin their research, they said they had found a town that still has psychological wounds. Tourists stayed away, children were afraid to go to school, and people were slow to return to normal life.
“The biggest surprise was how momentous this has been for so many people and how many lives it has changed,” said Lawn. “There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of people directly affected and traumatized by it.”
For Dawn Sturgess’ family and friends, the trauma never went away. She was the most unlikely victim to be poisoned by Russian spies. Ms. Sturgess, a 44-year-old mother of three, has struggled with alcohol abuse for years. When she fell seriously ill four months after the Skripals, doctors initially thought it was a drug overdose, despite her family insisting that she had never been a drug addict.
The cause of her illness was ultimately traced back to a bottle of Nina Ricci Premier Jour perfume that her boyfriend, Mr. Riley, pulled from a trash can in Salisbury. Investigators later found that the bottle was filled with enough novichok to kill thousands of people. Ms. Surgess, who sprayed the substance on her body, was the only person to die in an espionage operation that was most likely planned and approved at the highest levels of the Russian government.
She was security in a spy game that few of us, including the Sturgess family, have fully understood to this day. Though fictionalized, the heartbreak in The Salisbury Poisonings is real and continues.
The series ends with a cell phone video of the real Dawn Sturgess in sunglasses dancing with her daughter Gracie. She was 11 years old when her mother died.