The Skripals are only seen at the beginning of the first episode. Instead, the BBC drama focuses on the aftermath of the poisonings and the response by health officials and the local community.
“We were drawn to the stories of the people who had to clean up this mess, rather than the people who made it,” says Declan Lawn, who co-wrote the script with Adam Patterson. “It’s about ordinary people who have to pick up the pieces. We thought that’s where the drama was, where the emotion was. We didn’t want to do the obvious thing, which would have probably been an espionage drama.”
The Salisbury Poisonings is a new three-part drama airing on BBC One this week, but do you remember the real-life events on which the story is based?
Eerily echoing the world we live in now, March 2018 saw scenes of streets in lockdown, contact tracing, business closures, health officials wearing PPE and fears over public health. But it was nothing to do with Coronavirus. It was because former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had been poisoned by a nerve agent called Novichok.
But what is the real-life story behind the poisonings?
Who is Sergei Skripal?
Skripal joined Russia’s military intelligence unit, the GRU, in the early 1990s, but was recruited by MI6 in the UK in 1995, becoming a double agent. He allegedly blew the cover of 300 Russian agents.
In December 2004, he was arrested in Moscow shortly after returning from the UK, and in August 2006, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison for high treason in the form of espionage. However, he was released in July 2010 as part of a spy swap agreement with the United States, at the insistence of UK officials.
He moved to Salisbury, Wiltshire, in 2011. In 2012, Skripal’s wife died from cancer, his eldest son died in March 2017 in unknown circumstances, and his brother also died less than two months before the Salisbury poisonings.
What happened in Salisbury?
On 4th March 2018, 66-year-old Skripal was having lunch with his daughter Yulia, 33, who had just arrived from Moscow, at a Zizzi restaurant. At around 4.15pm that afternoon, the pair were found ‘slipping in and out of consciousness on a public bench’ in a park by a doctor and nurse who worked at a nearby hospital. According to witnesses, Yulia’s eyes were open and she was ‘foaming at the mouth’.
It emerged they had been poisoned with a deadly nerve agent called Novichok, with the Counter Terrorism Command taking over the investigation from Wiltshire Police. Novichok had been sprayed on the door handle of Sergei Skripal’s home.
Yulia Skripal was in a critical condition for three weeks, but made a full recovery and was released on 10th April. Sergei Skripal was in critical condition until 6th April, but was eventually discharged on 18th May.
Where are they now?
Both father and daughter spent more than a year in an MI6 safe house after being discharged from hospital. According to reports, they now live in New Zealand under new identities.
Who was responsible for the attack?
Then-Prime Minister Theresa May demanded a response from the Russian government and expelled 23 Russian diplomats from the UK. Most senior politicians appeared to believe that the Russian government was behind the poisoning.
But Russia, whose president Vladimir Putin was facing his fourth presidential election just weeks after the attack, asserted that they weren’t responsible.
On 5th September 2018, British authorities identified two Russian nationals as suspects, alleging that they were GRU intelligence officers who were ordered to poison Skripal as revenge for his working as a double agent and in a bid to destabilise the UK.
Who are Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley?
The BBC drama also tells the story of how Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley became unexpected victims of the attack.
Despite a huge clean-up operation, two people were poisoned by the nerve agent in Amesbury, seven miles north of Salisbury, on 30th June 2018. Dawn Sturgess, a 44-year-old mother-of-three, fell ill within 15 minutes of coming into contact with Novichok, which was found on a bottle of perfume that she’d just sprayed on her wrists.
Her partner, 45-year-old Charlie Rowley, had given it to her after finding it in a charity bin on 27th June.
They were both admitted to hospital but sadly, Dawn passed away on 8th July. On 10th July Charlie Rowley regained consciousness, only to find his partner had passed away. He was released from hospital 10 days later.
British police believe this incident was not a targeted attack, but a result of the way the nerve agent was disposed of after the poisoning against the Skripals. Dawn’s parents have since spoken to the Guardian of their anger and hurt that their daughter was unfairly portrayed as a homeless drug user.
Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley are played by MyAnna Buring and Johnny Harris in the BBC drama.