The Salisbury Poisonings, episode 3 review: a warm tribute to ordinary people who rose to an extraordinary challenge

Sophia Ally, Stella Gonet and Ron Cook in The Salisbury Poisonings - BBC
Sophia Ally, Stella Gonet and Ron Cook in The Salisbury Poisonings - BBC

If policeman Nick Bailey and, especially, public health director Tracy Daszkiewicz were the heroes of the first two episodes, the finale of The Salisbury Poisonings (BBC One) was dedicated to honouring the memory of Dawn Sturgess. It made for an affecting end to an unexpectedly excellent and eerily prescient series.

The media narrative in 2018 had been quick to dismiss Dawn as a homeless drug addict. Here we saw the human truth behind the lurid headlines. She was a 44-year-old mother-of-three who was struggling to get her life back on track, who came from a large family, who loved and was loved. It was a reminder that behind the bare facts lay tales of personal tragedy.

As we rejoined the drama for this third and final episode – stripped across the schedules on consecutive nights, rather like ITV’s fact-based drama Quiz over Easter, it's been equally riveting – it was three months later. Life in Salisbury was returning to normal. Royalty visited. The World Cup kicked off. The sleepy cathedral city was about to get another rude awakening.

Dawn (MyAnna Buring) was staying with boyfriend Charlie Rowley (Johnny Harris) and getting ready to see her daughter Gracie when he surprised her with a bottle of perfume he’d found on one of their skip-scavenging expeditions. As viewers willed her not to do it, even though we knew full well she would, Dawn sprayed herself with it.

There was a pause when she pointed out with puzzlement that it seemed to be odourless. Within minutes, she collapsed and was rushed to intensive care. Charlie soon followed suit and joined her in hospital. Everyone initially assumed it was a drug overdose. Then Dawn’s family were told she had been contaminated with nerve agent Novichok. The guilty relief of her estranged father Stan (Ron Cook) – “So Dawn didn’t take anything herself? It wasn’t her fault?” – was heartbreaking.

Anne-Marie Duff as Tracy Daszkiewicz - BBC
Anne-Marie Duff as Tracy Daszkiewicz - BBC

Det Sgt Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall), desperate to get back to duties but still struggling to deal with the trauma of what he'd been through, was knocked for six when he heard the news. He went straight down to the police cordon, then seemed confused about why he was there.

Wiltshire Council wonder woman Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff) – can someone put her in charge of the current pandemic please? – was equally devastated. She and the police team raced back to work, reopening their incident room, desperate to work out what had been missed and how to make Salisbury safe again. “This isn’t back to square one,” she said grimly. “This is much, much worse.”

She remembered once meeting Dawn at an alcoholic outreach event: “She was funny and had a bit of life about her. I liked her.” Nick remembered arresting Charlie a couple of times too. They don’t call it “Smallsbury” for nothing.

Meanwhile, Dawn’s parents Stan and Caroline (the superb Stella Gonet) looked back at their daughter’s troubles, wondering when things had gone wrong. Economical writing – notably an endearing anecdote about teenage Dawn running away to a Cornish traveller’s camp until they found her annoying – conjured up a rounded life in a few sentences. Their grief was gut-punching. The funeral eulogy from young Gracie (Sophia Ally) made my lip wobble.

This series wasn’t presented as a spy thriller or disaster movie, as must have been the temptation, but as a resolutely unglamorous, carefully told domestic drama about the public response and collateral damage. Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia barely figured, apart from that impactful opening scene of him foaming at the mouth on a park bench. Neither did MI6 or government officials, except when Daszkiewicz sent them back to Whitehall with a flea in their ear. The protagonists weren’t spooks or detectives but unassuming Britons who suddenly found themselves catapulted into an international incident. It told the story from ground level and was all the more powerful for it.

Rafe Spall as Nick Bailey - BBC
Rafe Spall as Nick Bailey - BBC

For a script written last summer, about an event which happened two years ago, details resonated at every turn. Scenes of sealed-off streets, health workers wearing PPE, talk of contact tracing, local business suffering and the government trying not to scare the public… It was all too familiar, almost allegorical.

All three central performances – Duff, Spall and the underrated Buring – were warmly believable. Director Saul Dibb kept flashy touches to a minimum yet gave it propulsive momentum and an immersive feel.

Screenwriters Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson come from a current affairs background, having cut their teeth on Panorama, and created an authentic documentary texture. Never more so than during the dignified closing sequence, which saw the real people take a bow – including, poignantly, a cute home video of Dawn dancing with Gracie. She did indeed have a bit of life about her.

The victims’ families had cooperated closely with the production. Showing the faces behind the fiction felt fittingly respectful and also oddly hopeful. Seemingly ordinary people had risen to an extraordinary challenge. They had defeated an invisible killer. This too shall pass.

Telegraph readers' review

@Lottie Carr

"Really good straightforward drama, with some really strong acting and believable focusing on the people behind the headlines.

"I watched the episodes one after another, I too had a lump in my throat during Gracie’s eulogy."

@Gerry Pike

"Agree wholeheartedly with this review.

"The three episodes each had a different pace too. The first was as gripping as anything I have seen on TV for a long time, even though one knew broadly what was going to happen. That underscores how compelling was the drama and how convincing the acting.

"No showboating or glamorising, just real humanity."

@Benjamin HooperSpires

"I thought the pacing was well off. It was slow to the point of being boring. There just wasn't enough story to justify three episodes.

"And why do all BBC dramas look so low budget and amateurish? Chernobyl showed how to make this sort of drama: that was absolutely brilliant."