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The Salisbury Poisonings: 'How often do you get to do work that has a point to it?'

Georgia Humphreys chats with the cast and writers of The Salisbury Poisonings, a BBC drama focusing on how it affected the community

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 Ann-Marie Duff as Tracy Daszkiewicz

Ann-Marie Duff as Tracy Daszkiewicz

Ann-Marie Duff as Tracy Daszkiewicz

It's been two years since Salisbury became the site of an unprecedented national emergency. In March 2018, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, who lived on the outskirts of the city, and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned with nerve agent Novichok.

They both survived, but, that July, a local woman named Dawn Sturgess lost her life. She had come into contact with a perfume bottle - found by her boyfriend, Charlie Rowley - which was believed to have been used in the attack on the Skripals.

Now, a new BBC series tells the story of the response to the attacks and the extraordinary heroism shown by local people.

Starring the likes of Anne-Marie Duff, Rafe Spall, MyAnna Buring and Johnny Harris, The Salisbury Poisonings is written by former BBC journalist Adam Patterson and former BBC Northern Ireland producer/director Declan Lawn, who met when making a Panorama film together.

"The dialogue was really different," Duff notes of the writers' approach. "Sometimes, when you read scripts, you can really feel boxes being ticked. And this really didn't feel like this at all."

Patterson and Lawn spent a week in Salisbury in Autumn 2018, knocking on doors, calling people and talking to various organisations.

"The first thing that really made us sit up and go, 'Okay, there probably is a drama in this', was when we met Tracy Daszkiewicz and her colleague, Alistair Cunningham," says Lawn.

Daszkiewicz is the director of public health at Wiltshire Council, who worked incredibly hard to try to combat this "lethal and invisible enemy", as the writers call it.

"We had to force a lot of stuff out of her, about sleeping in her office and doing things where it was just a whole side of the response that we didn't have a clue about," recalls Patterson. "It was the human cost for her that we learned about, over time, as we got to know her - the impact on her own family."

Daszkiewicz is played by Shameless star Anne-Marie Duff. The Londoner was drawn to the role because of the lack of recognition Daszkiewicz was given in the Press.

"There could be lots of reasons for that, the obvious one being gender, but also just perhaps she comes from this other world; she's not a bureaucrat, she's not part of that club," says Duff (49).

And this series is a way of showing the important work her character and her colleagues did.

"I felt, as a storyteller, how often do you get the chance to really have a point to what you do?" adds Duff.

The actress sat down with Daszkiewicz and they spoke in-depth about her experiences.

"I was blown away by her story and by her as a woman when we got to meet her."

Sturgess, who was 44 when she died, is portrayed by Sweden-born MyAnna Buring.

The actress notes the mother-of-three "was very much dismissed by most media outlets as being a sort of homeless drug addict".

"Therefore, I am incredibly grateful to everyone for writing this and bringing this back into everyone's awareness again, because this was a woman who could not be dismissed just with a simple phrase," reflects the 40-year-old. "She was not a homeless drug addict; she was a real human being.

"She came from an incredibly warm, beautiful, loving family, but, yeah, she was struggling with demons. She was a three-dimensional human being."

Ahead of the role, Buring met Dawn's parents, Stan and Caroline, her sister, Claire, and her daughter, Gracie, who was 11 when her mother died.

However, she decided that she would just follow the script rather than worry about being exactly like Dawn.

"I felt when I took on the job that to dig for lots of research about all the ins and outs of how she moved, how she spoke, who she was, actually would be insensitive."

Patterson and Lawn admit they did face some scepticism for wanting to make a drama about the poisonings.

They feature the story of Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey - played by Spall - who almost died after he fell ill while investigating the Skripal poisoning.

While they're happy with it now, his family were unsure about the series at first.

"What Nick's parents vocalised is absolutely a very valid opinion in Salisbury, which is, 'Let's just move on', 'It's too early'," explains Lawn. "That exists, so we had to balance that with the fact that Nick really, really wanted his story told."

The Salisbury Poisonings will air on BBC One for three consecutive nights from Sunday (9pm). All episodes will be available as a boxset on BBC iPlayer after the first episode has aired

Belfast Telegraph