Tag Archives: Saul Dibb

Dramatic truth

Two years after a deadly poisoning involving a nerve agent in the UK, the cast and creative team behind BBC miniseries The Salisbury Poisonings reveal how they dramatised this real-life national emergency.

When it came to bringing to television the true story of how a father and daughter were poisoned in the English cathedral city of Salisbury, executive producer Laurence Bowen knew exactly how it should be told.

“We decided to approach this as a factual drama rather than a documentary because we felt drama would give us more freedom to explore the emotional reality of what happened to people — showing the audience how it felt to suddenly find yourself with personal responsibility for protecting the lives of Salisbury’s 60,000 inhabitants, or the reality of how it felt to be poisoned, or to be a neighbour and best friend of the Skripals and find yourself catapulted into the middle of a counter-terrorism enquiry,” he tells DQ.

“We wanted the piece to be experiential and to show the truth of how the chemical nerve attack was experienced on the ground by ordinary people, and to show how many of them responded heroically to the challenge.”

Just two years have passed since former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were targeted with the deadly Novichok nerve agent. But if you think you know what happened, Bowen and the cast and creative team behind three-part BBC miniseries The Salisbury Poisonings are asking viewers to think again as they tell the story of what happened in March 2018 from the perspective of those tasked with protecting the community.

Turning the spotlight on the ordinary people and public services who displayed extraordinary heroism during a national emergency, writers and former BBC journalists Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson say they didn’t want to do “the obvious thing,” which would have been to make an espionage drama.

“We were more drawn to the stories of the people who had to clean up this mess rather than the people who made it,” says Lawn. “All of the action takes place in the shadow of a spy drama, with spooks and secret agents. But it’s not about that. It’s about ordinary people who have to pick up the pieces – the people who have to clean up Salisbury and also the people who are directly affected by the attack. That’s where the drama was, that’s where the emotion was, and we were instantly drawn to it.”

The Salisbury Poisonings dramatises real events of two years ago, when an assassination attempt on a former Russian intelligence officer in the UK went awry

Patterson admits that building trust with the real-life characters in the drama is not easy. “The first thing I would say is that factual drama is not a game. If you take on a factual drama, especially one that represents such recent events, you take on a massive responsibility to do those people justice and to tell their stories with authenticity and sensitivity,” he explains.

“We started much like we did when we made documentaries, walking around on rainy nights in Salisbury. It took a lot of time and many meetings over many months. Trust is the key word because, without trust, this project would not have happened.

“If people don’t don’t see your vision, if they don’t trust what you’re going to do with their testimony, they’re not going to talk to you. That consultation with the real people continued through the whole drama, from restarts, through scripting and through production. That’s why it is now an authentic and powerful piece of work.”

At the centre of the drama is Anne-Marie Duff as Tracy Daszkiewicz, the director of public health for Wiltshire County Council, who is called in by the police to ensure the community is protected from the deadly threat presented by the Novichok agent. It marks the first time Duff (Sex Education, His Dark Materials) has played a real-life figure on screen who is still alive.

“It’s kind of surreal, glorious, terrifying and a privilege all that same time to actually sit beside somebody [you’re playing],” the actor says. “It’s a challenge in terms of performance, because the requirements could be that you do an impersonation, and I wanted to avoid all of that nonsense. I just wanted to try and get the spirit of her. But what it also means is that you have to be so authentic and so true, because there’s someone who can testify against every moment. So you have to do the best job you can possibly do.”

Daszkiewicz was largely absent from the extensive media coverage that followed the incident, a fact that intrigued Duff about the person she would be playing. “When I was sent the script, I Googled her because I didn’t even remember her. There was very little to be found so, for the actor’s inner detective, it immediately whets your appetite. And as a woman, I can’t help but think lots of men in suits were recognised and she wasn’t. Adam and Declan’s scripts… the way they swell her with so much integrity was just amazing and a real gift.”

Anne Marie Duff stars as Tracy Daszkiewicz, who led efforts to protect citizens from the nerve agent used in the attack

Duff describes Daszkiewicz’s role in the events as “unimaginable.” Knowing she would be the fall guy if anything went wrong – with the potential for thousands of victims if other people came into contact with the nerve agent – “she just felt an insane amount of responsibility,” the actor continues.

“It’s joked about in the script – the whole imposter syndrome issue – because she felt that she didn’t have the smarts. People might think she didn’t come from a world in which she was a problem solver on a grand scale, and she had lots of demons, which we all understand.”

Alongside the Skripals, who both recovered from their exposure to the Novichok agent, three other people were affected by the poisoning. Police officer Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall, The War of the Worlds) and Charlie Rowley (Johnny Harris, This is England ‘86) both recovered after spells in hospital, but Rowley’s partner Dawn Sturgess sadly died. Myanna Buring (The Witcher, Ripper Street), who plays her, says she wanted to remind people that Sturgess was a “real human being.”

“A lot of us remember that, in the news. she was described as homeless and a drug addict, [which meant people] dismissed her death as inevitable because of her life choices,” the actor says.

“That simply was not true. Dawn was not homeless. She was not a drug addict. She was a woman who had experienced mental health issues and knocks in life, which I think all of us can relate to. She did struggle with alcohol, but she was working really hard to turn her life around. She had a loving family, a loving partner, children and friends, and her death left this gaping wound in all of their lives.

“She was an innocent person who died because of a failed assassination attempt that was carried out in such a way that thousands of innocent lives were put at risk. What happened to Dawn, it could have been any one of us.”

Rafe Spall plays police officer Nick Bailey, who was hospitalised after exposure to the Novichok agent

Behind the camera, Saul Dibb was able to blend his experience of a decade spent making documentaries with his recent fiction work, including The Duchess, NW and Journey’s End. Describing making The Salisbury Poisonings as “the perfect marriage” and a project that is part domestic drama, part thriller, Dibb says: “All of us felt it had the potential to be more than a straightforward docudrama. It’s just extraordinarily surreal.

“It was this amazing, weird thing happening in the middle of this small British cathedral city, where, whether you were directly poisoned or not, everybody became ‘contaminated’ by this poison.”

The production was based in Bristol and the South West of England, with some scenes also filmed in Salisbury. “We did shoot some things there but we drew a line. There was not going to be a recreation of things like hazmat suits or the army on the streets of Salisbury,” Dibb says. “We set a lot of the early, pre-poisoning stuff in Salisbury and then we meticulously looked for matches [elsewhere].” Archive material from contemporary news reports was used to add another layer of authenticity.

Bowen, CEO of producer Dancing Ledge Productions, also admits there were discussions about when to release the miniseries, which foreshadows many of the changes brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, with shops and restaurants having to close and people being told to wash their clothes and hands and wear protective equipment to minimise the risk of exposure.

The Salisbury Poisoning’s final scenes were filmed the week before the UK went into lockdown in March, before post-production work was completed remotely to deliver the show, which debuted on BBC1 last night and continues tonight and tomorrow.

“There are definite parallels between what happened in Salisbury – with the poisoning, the invisible threat, the contagion and the sense of lockdown – and today,” Bowen says. “We were extremely careful, but we felt that, with the story of Salisbury, there’s such catharsis in watching it. In the end, it’s a story about resilience and bravery and, apart from one awful tragedy with Dawn, it’s about people pulling through and coming out the other side. We felt, for all those reasons, it was timely to show it.”

That the real-life incident drew attention outside the UK means distributor Fremantle is confident the miniseries will also interest international audiences. “This series is based on true events that made headlines around the globe. While audiences will remember these headlines, they will learn a completely new side: the story of ordinary people who became heroes overnight,” says Jens Richter, Fremantle CEO of international.

“International broadcasters have been incredibly impressed by the series, which has been told with upmost care by our partners Laurence and Chris [Carey] at Dancing Ledge.”

Filled with tension as Daszkiewicz tries to contain the threat while other characters are unknowingly contaminated by the poison, the drama’s main objective is to “get under the skin of a group of people who were collateral damage to this extraordinary event,” says Dibb. “The key thing is this is a story that I don’t think can be easily pigeonholed into one thing or another. That’s one of its great strengths.”

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Dark tales

Known for her frequent Agatha Christie adaptations, writer Sarah Phelps reveals how she transformed Tana French’s Irish crime novels into BBC drama Dublin Murders.

Sarah Phelps is a master of the literary adaptation. Best known for her TV reworkings of Agatha Christie novels, Phelps has so far brought four of the beloved author’s stories to the BBC – The ABC Murders, Ordeal by Innocence, And Then There Were None and The Witness for the Prosecution – with a fifth, The Pale Horse, to come.

The screenwriter, playwright and producer has also proved a dab hand at Dickens, having penned miniseries versions of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist as well as multiple episodes of Dickensian, again all for the BBC.

For her latest book-to-screen project, however, Phelps has turned to altogether darker and more contemporary source material, taking on Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad book series.

Set, as you might have guessed, in and around the Irish capital, Dublin Murders takes its lead from the first two novels in French’s six-part collection, In the Woods and The Likeness. Made for the BBC, Irish pubcaster RTÉ and US cablenet Starz, the show takes place in 2006, centring on detective partners Rob Reilly and Cassie Maddox, played by Killian Scott and Sarah Greene.

The series is produced by Euston Films, Veritas Entertainment Group and Element Pictures, with Fremantle distributing.

Dublin Murders revolves around detective partners Cassie and Rob, played by Sarah Greene and Killian Scott

Rob and Cassie are tasked with investigating the murder of a teenager Katy Devlin, whose body is found on a makeshift altar in the middle of a woodland archaeological site – the same location where, 21 years earlier, three children went missing and only one came back alive.

It’s soon revealed, however, that Rob’s connection to the case isn’t merely professional and that the troubled detective’s deeply traumatic childhood makes this a very personal investigation.

As the eight-episode drama unfolds and the partners track a killer, Cassie, too, finds herself dealing with her past, and secrets relating to the dark, mysterious history of the woods and the unusual inhabitants of the neighbouring estate – including Katy’s family – come to the fore.

While adapting two books into a single story may sound like a daunting task, Phelps says it was a natural approach to take: “Tana herself said that she’d always thought of the books as being in pairs, and when I was reading them, I thought it would be a really great idea to sort of plait them together.”

With In the Woods focusing more on Rob and The Likeness more on Cassie, Phelps wanted the “consequences” of each story to “impact on [both characters] and really intensify their relationship within the investigation.”

The show comes from serial adapter Sarah Phelps, pictured here at C21’s Content London last year

And although the series is a mashup of both books, Phelps believes the story has stayed more faithful to the source material than some of her adaptations of single titles. “I think I’ve stuck to the plot, which may surprise people who know that I like to deviate from plots as much as possible,” she jokes. “Obviously there are deviations and obviously I change things, because one of the strengths of Tana’s writing is it’s such an immersive world.

“Her books are very ‘interior’ – you get to know every single, tiny little corner of each character, because you’re in their skin. You’re in their brain, in all the tiny little fissures of their mind with all the things they really don’t want you to know. In TV, you need to show, rather than tell, so that was one of the challenges. Taking the read experience to the watched experience is always a challenge – but if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t do it.”

As well as adaptations, Phelps clearly has an affinity for detective stories, with Dublin Murders coming on the back of her multiple Christie works – most recently, The ABC Murders saw John Malkovich play her iconic investigator character Poirot. But what was it about French’s books that particularly appealed? “One of the things I found really exciting about them is that, within the genre of detective thrillers, they’re also modern reimaginings of really ancient tales,” she says.

“For example, In the Woods is a modern reimagining of the ancient tale of the children who go under the hill. When you peel it down to its roots… it’s infanticide – all these dark tales are invented to cover up some terrible crime.

“It was really exciting to think that this is a detective thriller, this is a murder mystery and this is also a really deep dive into the stories that we tell ourselves, that we’ve told ourselves forever. Why do we tell those stories? To keep away the beast in the dark as we huddle round the fire and hope we’re not going to die before tomorrow.”

Although set in the Irish capital, the series was largely filmed in Belfast, Northern Ireland

The theme of darkness is something that crops up frequently as Phelps talks about the series. Discussing entering the woods as a metaphor for descending into madness, she says: “I really like the idea that there’s this place where you think it’s familiar – it’s where you pitch your tent, it’s where you go and smoke a joint, where you build a den – but actually there’s something else going on.

“I’m always really attracted to stories where we think we know everything. You’ve got electric light, a torch on your phone… but when the lights go out, what we think and what we believe is a very different story. We’re great when the lights are on; we’re rational, we’re brilliant. But you turn the lights off in a dark place – in the country – it’s really dark. And I guarantee, within a minute, you’ll be thinking all sorts of shit.”

The writer adds that she’s always keen to pursue the idea of “who we are when the lights are on and who we are when they’re turned off – when everything goes wrong, when everything stops working. Who are we then? What do we believe when we’re out in the woods and all you can hear is a creak? That’s really what this show is about.”

The show opens with a flash-forward several months into the future, featuring a desolate Rob in a difficult conversation with Cassie, their relationship apparently broken beyond repair. This time shift is indicative of things to come, with Dublin Murders frequently swapping between 2006 and 1985 to reveal more about Rob’s past.

The production team took several steps to ensure viewers would immediately know what era they were seeing without it being literally spelled out on screen or awkwardly inserted into the dialogue.

Dublin Murders will air on Starz in the US after premiering on BBC1 in the UK

Saul Dibb, who directs the first two episodes, explains: “We took the idea of two different types of film that were present in 2006 and 1985 and we tried to replicate them. One is a very common Fuji stock from 2006, which is a bit cleaner and greener, while the one from 1985 is a lot grainier.

“We tried to make it subtle as well – it wasn’t a massive change, but a lot of other incremental things in the costumes, the performances, the writing and the language. It needed to be clear without the thing of turning the dial to no colour or super colour,” adds Dibb, who also exec produces alongside Phelps, Euston Films MD Kate Harwood, Noemi Spanos, Ed Guiney, Alan Gasmer, Peter Jaysen, Elizabeth Kilgariff and Tommy Bulfin.

Phelps picks up: “The colours in the 1985 sequences always make you think of the photo of your holidays that you’ve forgotten and you find it down the back of a skirting board. There’s a shock to it – immediately, you can taste Angel Delight. It was really shocking when I first saw the rushes, like seeing something you’d forgotten you’d lost.”

Although filming largely took place in Northern Ireland capital Belfast, Dublin Murders is notable for having an almost entirely Irish cast and crew, which certainly helps achieve the authentically Irish feel its creators strived for.

“The writing feels very, very real, and what it’s showing is not a stereotypical view,” says Dibb. “Partly, the challenge was shooting in Belfast and then keeping the look consistent to Dublin, but certainly in 2006 Dublin was a very fast-moving city, and that’s what was captured in the writing.

Dublin Murders’ cast and crew are almost entirely Irish

“It was exciting to be able to say, ‘We’re going to root this story, which has these pretty extraordinary characters and situations, in a very real world, with characters that you can engage with.’”

Keen to avoid anything like “the disastrous episode when EastEnders went to Ireland, over which we should draw a thick veil,” Phelps notes: “I wanted Ireland as it’s seen through the eyes of people who absolutely know it.”

As such, she felt it important to avoid landmarks and to show a side to the country less familiar to those from elsewhere. “It’s like when you’re watching London and you see St Paul’s. For Christ’s sake, I know what I’m looking at – let’s see Peckham!

“There’s an unfamiliarity to it. You don’t really know where you are and you’ve got to trust the people who are telling you the story, your guides. You’re like Dante in the Inferno.”

Dublin Murders debuts on BBC1 tonight before hitting US screens on Starz on November 10. And while its impact on viewers is yet to be seen, Dublin Murders has already quite literally left its mark on Phelps, who reveals she has tattoos dedicated to the show. One is of a set of antlers, a recurring visual theme in the show, and the other is of a hawthorn leaf, whose back story is rather more complicated.

The writer describes watching an episode of BBC factual series Countryfile in which a man in rural Northern Ireland was protesting against plans to cut down a hawthorn tree as part of a motorway expansion. The man warned that, because of the tree’s magical properties, cutting it down would have dire consequences.

“This guy wouldn’t back off. He kept going and going – ‘You cannot do this. This hawthorn tree is a magic tree. There’s going to be chaos.’ You’d think that, at some point, he’d be carted off,” Phelps recalls.

But it turns out the man got his way, with the motorway ending up curving around the tree, because, as Phelps sees it: “At some really deep metaphysical level, every single person, from contracting to engineering and planning – high government level – at some point woke up at four o’clock in the morning and went, ‘What if he’s fucking right? What if he’s right about the hawthorn tree?’

“And I thought, ‘That’s the story [of Dublin Murders].’ We think we’re modern, we’ve got everything. But deep down, what if? What if?”

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