Saul Dibb, “The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 1)” (2020)
As an example of British propaganda targeting Russia and perceived Russian militarism, this BBC miniseries is remarkably fourth-rate. With a script boasting two Guardian journalists as script consultants, the first episode is a dreary affair: the patchy plot zips all over the joint, unable to settle on a definite strand within the drama; characters are so sketchy they cannot even be considered one-dimensional, because they struggle to exist on any dimension; and as a drama based on real events, it fails to get any facts right if indeed it stumbles across any facts accidentally. The mini-series is based on the official account (itself dubious) of what occurred in March 2018 and afterwards when former KGB agent turned double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia were found in an extreme state of distress on a bench in The Maltings shopping mall in Salisbury, southern England. After receiving first aid from a nurse who happened to be walking by when her daughter found the pair – and the nurse herself happened to be the Chief Nurse of the British Army who had recently completed a simulated military exercise in which chemical weapons were featured (go figure, as Americans would say) – the Skripals were airlifted to Salisbury General Hospital where they were determined to have been poisoned by Novichok which the British government later claimed could only have been made in Russia and then smuggled in to Salisbury by a dastardly agent or agents in an assassination plot. (Never mind that the recipe for Novichok is actually available online and that researchers in a number of countries including Czechia and Iran have been able to make the stuff.)
In the first episode – I must say that in Australia the mini-series is being shown in four parts, whereas in other countries including the UK it was shown in three parts – the plot focuses most on the hapless Detective Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall) who goes into the Skripals’ house and contaminates himself with Novichok early on. Amazingly, in spite of the fact that Novichok kills a person within half an hour of contact, the detective soldiers on for a whole day, presumably passing poison to his wife and children by kissing and hugging them, and spreading Novichok all over the furniture in his house, even as he suffers from faltering eyesight and other poisoning symptoms. By the end of the first episode, Bailey is in hospital being intubated while his faithful spouse sits at his bedside. Meanwhile, Wiltshire public health department head Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff) runs hither and thither trying to make sense of the events in the city. Farther afield in Amesbury, Dawn Sturgess (Myanna Buring), a mother struggling to get her life together after years of alcoholism and addiction to hard drugs, is introduced in a brief scene talking to a social worker and then later attending a party during which she sprays her wrists with perfume that in later episodes will turn out to be … Novichok!
By portraying the events in Salisbury in early 2018 as a drama, the mini-series sidesteps having to say anything about the Skripals themselves that might contradict the official British government account, while at the same time claiming to focus on how these events affected the people of Salisbury and brought out their heroism in a context of extreme emergency. Here is where this BBC production becomes propaganda of an insidious kind: it equates the events in Salisbury in 2018 to an invasion by secret intelligence elements in the Russian government for no reason other than to satisfy Russian President Vladimir Putin’s supposed desire for revenge against Skripal. (Of course if the Russians had been really mad at Skripal for turning traitor, they’d have thrown him into jail for life and he would never have been included in a spy swap with the British.)
I was prepared to watch this episode as comedy, and indeed the funniest part of the film comes at the climax when a scientist from the Porton Down military laboratory complex explains what Novichok is to a bewildered audience. He claims that the Skripals survived because not only were they treated fortuitously with Naloxone (a drug given to people presumed to be suffering from fentanyl overdoses) but because – at this point the dialogue is vague, and probably deliberately so – either the Naloxone was given cold or the weather was cold. Ha! It seems the evil Russians overlooked the fact that Novichok only works in warm to hot weather. How the heck did they ever manage to make Novichok work during the cold Russian winters? When such a detail is treated cavalierly by the journalists who assisted in writing the script, I wonder that they managed to get jobs at The Guardian at all, as the work clearly shows contempt for viewers’ intelligence.
The actors do what they can with the script but overall their performances are wooden and some characters are little more than gender stereotypes. Dialogue is bad to the point where it becomes funny at the expense of the characters made to mouth rubbish. Done in the style of a crime procedure television show, this episode is dull and lacking in the energy and urgency its subject demands.