With COVID-19 still on everyone’s mind, it can be easy to forget that there have been other health crises that have caused such high alarm. However, for one small English town in 2018, a health crisis did happen, and just like with the current pandemic, the crisis required plenty of work and effort from some unsung heroes to help keep everyone safe.
With “The Salisbury Poisonings,” director Saul Dibbs examines the surreal events surrounding the poisoning of one man and his daughter which caused a chain of events that would change the lives of one whole community forever. The route of a thrilling spy story could have emerged as a narrative— Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and double agent for the UK’s intelligence services, and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, were the first victims—the creators of the show wanted to focus on those who really made an impact throughout the course of the crisis, including Wiltshire’s director of public health Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff). In choosing to focus on this angle, the creators of the show never could have guessed how relevant their perspective would be to what we’re dealing with today, and how the people of Salisbury, just a short time ago, had to deal with a health crisis that would change everyone’s lives.
Dibbs sat down with Metro to discuss why he wanted to make this project and how people today can take away some hope for today’s current pandemic, from watching one small town persevere.
What was it about this particular project that made you want to sign on to direct?
When I read the script I just was really struck by this very, very different and fresh take on a story that I thought I knew and realized I didn’t. I just thought it was just a bold thing that the writer’s had done to focus on somebody who is usually not only invisible but also somebody who’s in charge of health and safety who is at the center of this extraordinary story. I just was struck by how brilliant she was, how unusual she was and the extraordinary and surreal story that she was part of. As it developed to the other people who were impacted, these ordinary first responders and policemen and also, somebody who was just so inadvertently caught up with it all—I really like the idea that while there was a spy story, they were not telling a spy story. This was a fallout from the spy story, this was about collateral damage that happened in a very small town with a big kind of global event. I loved that approach, I thought the characters were written and drawn very well, I thought it was really very honest and truthful, and I loved the kind of meticulous nature when you got down into all of the details. I suppose I saw an opportunity to make something that was very kind of intimate and powerful, but also had this kind of global backdrop.
You said you thought that you knew the story but then realized you didn’t, what were some of the facts or things that you learned that made you realize that?
Well, even just the characters. You look at Tracy Daszkiewicz, and if you put her name into Google, you don’t get anything. She was not somebody who was known or talked about, she wasn’t—and I hate to say it— unlike the men who were around her at the time, awarded in any way with honors or recognition. Just what she and all of the brilliant team who were around her went through minute by minute, day by day, the minutia of these things you were just not aware of, or aware of what’s at stake, and aware of the debates that they were having that we’re all having now— which is what is an acceptable risk? Where do we balance the priorities of looking after people with the economy? All of those kinds of things are just not things that I’ve considered. Then, also what it was like to be poisoned by this thing, which is where [we go with] Nick Bailey’s story.
When you were looking for casting, especially with Tracy, what were you looking for?
Well, first and foremost you have to look for somebody you think is brilliant and a naturalistic, convincing actor. Somebody who is very bright and warm—we’ve all met Tracy and all of the main people and have talked to them, so I have a kind of sense of who these people were. [Tracy] is just incredibly down to earth and funny and warm and committed and cares and is somebody who can bring together all of those qualities. I’d obviously seen a lot of Anne-Marie’s work over the years, and thought she was brilliant, so it was a very easy and straightforward thing to think of Anne-Marie as her.
Did talking to the key players in real life spark any changes in the show?
Oh yes. The first question when I met the writers and producers was the only way I’m going to do this is if you got the OK from all of these people— It’s a very recent trauma for them. I always felt the way Paul Greengrass approached United 93 was the best template for this that I’ve ever seen, he made sure that he talked to all of the families of all of the people who were involved and had their blessing. I spoke to them, and they had already done that. The writers had already met all of the people, and then the producers and actors all met them as well, because we wanted to not only just kind of mine them in a way for the details in the story, but also to say to them this is what we’re doing and we want to do it in a no holds barred kind of way and a very honest way. So, and for your question did things come out from talking to them—yes they do. It’s a very recent event and obviously the writers have talked to them, but as you talk more, you find out more and more details. An instance would be when Sarah Bailey had to go back into her house to get her cat, that wasn’t something that originally was in the script because her drilling down into her story had just not happened yet. So, those kinds of things lots and lots of details were things we kind of took from what happened.
Overall what do you hope audiences take away from the series?
I suppose it’s about the kind of things I felt reading it, those are the things you hope to convey. There are lots of things in there for me, but one of them is about recognizing the sacrifices of these invisible people who do all this work on our behalf, and I think it’s about thinking about leadership and what good leadership looks like. I think there’s a bigger thing obviously that when Salisbury was in the middle of this thing, they couldn’t see the end of it—but the end of it came. Certainly all of us at the moment are hoping to see the end of it, and I think what this shows is that societies and communities that pull together can get through it and that it will pass.
‘The Salisbury Poisonings’ premieres on AMC+ Oct. 1
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