When the BBC announced last year that it had commissioned a factual drama about the 2018 nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in Salisbury, it was met with accusations of insensitivity from a shell-shocked city perforated by a traumatic event, including the needless death of 44-year-old resident Dawn Sturgess.
In March 2018, MI6 double agent Sergei Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia were found unconscious on bench in the centre of Salisbury after being poisoned with nerve agent Novichok in a failed assassination attempt.
Three months later, Dawn Sturgess and her partner Charles Rowley came into contact with the nerve agent which had been discarded in a perfume bottle. Sturgess died, while Rowley was discharged from hospital weeks later in July.
While BBC One's The Salisbury Poisonings opens with Skripal and Yulia slumped on a bench semi-conscious, frothing at the mouth while surrounded by concerned onlookers, the series isn't about "provoking outrage" or serving as a brutal "reminder of a national insult", writer Adam Patterson insists.
Nor does it focus on the geopolitics that led to the attack.
The three-part drama recounts the sobering personal stories of the residents and public service workers impacted by the attack, heralding the unsung heroes and "the hidden network of people who kept society together" in the aftermath of an unprecedented national emergency.
Anne-Marie Duff stars as indomitable director of public health at Wiltshire council Tracy Daszkiewicz, Rafe Spall is first responder Det Sgt Nick Bailey, and MyAnna Buring plays mother-of-three Dawn Sturgess.
In a letter to the Salisbury Journal last year, Sue and Steve Bailey - the parents of police officer Bailey who was a victim of Novichok poisoning - supported members of the Salisbury community who decried the show's timing as "inappropriately premature, particularly for the the victims and their families".
But Patterson and co-writer Declan Lawn have stressed that the pivotal real-life people at the centre of the drama were consulted throughout the production process, with executive producer Laurence Bowen arguing that "if the key real-life people hadn't wanted to be involved, we probably would have stopped doing it".
"We talked about the insensitivities of the timing," Bowen told Harper's Bazaar UK and others during a Q&A for the series. "The writers [Patterson and Lawn] spent a year in Salisbury and every couple of weeks we would get together and speak to the BBC and the people involved. At each point, if any if the key real-life people hadn't wanted to be involved, we probably would have stopped doing it."
"Getting to know Tracy [Daszkiewicz] - when we discovered what she had done, her humility and quiet strength and bravery, we thought, well this is just an incredible story," Bowen continued.
Daszkiewicz worked tirelessly in the wake of the crisis, implementing lockdown and meticulously tracing members of the public who might have come into contact with the deadly nerve agent.
"I googled her and there was very little to be found about her and, as a woman, I can't help but think well, now, lots of men in suits are recognised, and she wasn't," actress Anne-Marie Duff said. "I just thought the script swells her with so much integrity - it was a real gift that she gets to exist inside the scenario."
The drama also aims to humanise Dawn Sturgess, who was denigrated by the tabloids and falsely reported as a homeless heroin addict and victim of poor lifestyle choices.
"[Like the Sturgess family] we too wanted to tell the truth of their daughter Dawn and her relationship with Charlie Rowley - and their love story, and her warmth as a mum," Bowan explained. "I think they thought this was a chance to put the record straight."
Actress MyAnna Buring added it was "important to remind people that Dawn was a real human being when a lot of news outlets dismissed her death as inevitable due to her life choices".
"Dawn was trying to turn her life around," Buring affirmed. "She had a loving family, partner and children, friends and her death left this gaping wound in all of their lives. What happened to Dawn could have happened to any one of us."
Meanwhile, to avoid upsetting or further traumatising the people of Salisbury, the crew revealed they only filmed pre-poisoning scenes in the city.
"We knew there were huge sensitivities about filming in Salisbury - it's a very recent trauma for them," Patterson acknowledged. "We drew a line that essentially there wasn't going to be a recreation of things with hazmat suits or the army on the streets. So we set the pre-poisoning things in Salisbury, and archive footage runs throughout."
The real-life people involved have watched the series and despite it being an understandably painful process, director Saul Dibb concluded that their reaction was largely positive.
"We showed it to them before we had finished editing and occasionally there were comments about things that could be slightly tweaked which we did," Dibb recalled.
"It was surreal for them and they had to watch it more than once to get their heads around it. They all universally felt it there was something truthful there. It was a very intense and moving process screening it them them all."
Ultimately, the striking parallels between the Salisbury crisis and the current coronavirus pandemic makes the series so eerily prescient, and justifies the pertinent timing of its broadcast, producer Bowen contended. [The series was written and filmed before the outbreak.]
In one scene, Daszkiewicz faces opposition from Whitehall officials who stop her from locking down the local police station which she fears is contaminated - they reason she is being overly cautious, military deployment was already costing the government money, plus they didn't want the residents of Salisbury unduly alarmed.
The government is facing ongoing criticism for not responding to the Covid-19 outbreak earlier, which some argue has cost lives.
"With the timing of the screening, it is very sensitive, there are definite parallels between what happened in Salisbury - the invisible threat and the contagion and the sense of lockdown - and today," Bowen observed.
"We were mindful of that but the story of Salisbury - there's such catharsis
in watching it. In the end, it's about resilience and bravery and about people pulling through and coming out the other side...
"And so for all those reasons we felt it was timely to tell this story now."
The Salisbury Poisonings begins on Sunday, 14 Juneat 9pm on BBC One.
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