In the news, this was strictly a spy story.
A man and his daughter were sitting on a park bench in England, when they collapsed. He was Russian, a double agent who had worked for the British; both were hit by a lethal poison developed in Russia.
There was an international furor … but behind that was the personal story that emerges in “The Salisbury Poisonings” (shown here), which starts at 10 p.m. Monday (Jan. 25) on AMC.
The writers decided “early on that this was not a spy story,” said producer Saul Dibb. “This was fall-out from a spy story; this was about the consequences and the collateral damage.”
It was about what happens when an out-of-the way place faces international aftershocks.
Salisbury is a town nearing its 800th year. It has 46,000 people, a massive cathedral (which began construction 801 years ago, before there was a town) and the convergence of the Avon with two other rivers. It’s 80 miles from London, eight miles from Stonehenge and, perhaps, generally pleasant.
But with the poisonings, this ancient town was suddenly ahead of the rest of us.
“Officials instituted a lockdown,” said Dan McDermott, AMC’s president of original programming. They “closed a local economy, set up an elaborate system of contact-tracing and testing, and sourced and distributed PPE (personal protection equipment) for use on the front line.”
The result, he said, is a film that’s “eerily prescient and utterly relevant to the world today.”
And the film has a quick impact, said actress Anne-Marie Duff (shown here): “It gloriously reminds us how extraordinary our frontline services are.”
She plays Tracy Daszkiewicz, who was suddenly thrust into a crisis. At the time of the poisoning, Daszkiewicz was 44 and had become the county health director three months earlier. While national figures were working on the spy details, she had to deal with a potential medical disaster.
“She basically wrote the playbook that every government now has taken on,” said Adam Patterson, who co-wrote the script.
Later, when COVID arrived, she repeated much of that. By then, the main filming had finished, but actors had to return … carefully.
“We went back to do a day of re-shoots in March,” Annabel Scholey said. That’s when “I became hyper aware of the parallels. I was dressed in the gloves and thinking about what I could and couldn’t touch.”
Scholey plays the wife of a cop (played be Rafe Spall) who was the first collateral victim.
In American films, such roles might be done with noisy angst and anger. By comparison, “Salisbury Poisonings” has the quiet restraint that real people often show under pressure.
It’s told fairly quickly, in a time when mini-series often have 8-10 episodes. “With a true story, there’s a finite amount of narrative,” Dibb said. “It’s not an open-ended thing that we can run around with.”
So “Salisbury Poisonings” had just three parts on commercial-free BBC and will have four on AMC. It skips the broader story – Russian diplomats expelled from England, the European Union, the U.S. and beyond – and sticks to the aftershocks: A pleasant, riverside town dealt with looming horror.