The BBC’s Salisbury Poisoning drama helps tackle stigma around homelessness

Actors MyAnna Buring and Johnny Harris tell The Big Issue how the new BBC drama rights the wrongs published about real life Salisbury Poisoning victim Dawn Sturgess and her partner Charlie Rowley

“Dawn Sturgess was the only victim to actually have died from Novichok – an innocent woman caught up in geo-political games. Yet so often in the press she was reduced to a tagline of ‘homeless addict’. That was absolutely not the case.”

Two stars of the new BBC1 dramatisation of The Salisbury Poisoning, based on the biggest UK news story of 2018, have spoken to The Big Issue about how the story shines a light on deep-rooted stigma around homelessness and addiction.

For although the collective memory of the Salisbury Poisoning incident centres on an attempted political assassination, bungling assassins claiming to be cathedral lovers and the then unprecedented situation of an entire city going into lockdown over fears of an invisible killer, the nerve agent Novichok – this was only part of the story.

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There were also two entirely innocent victims of Novichok poisoning – Dawn Sturgess, who died from exposure to the nerve agent in July 2018, and her partner Charlie Rowley, who still suffers from the physical and emotional effects. And both were disparaged and dismissed in the aftermath.

“Dawn Sturgess was the only victim to actually have died from Novichok – an innocent woman caught up in geo-political games,” says Buring, best known for roles in Ripper Street and the Twilight films, who plays Sturgess.

“Yet so often in the press she was reduced to a tagline of ‘homeless addict’. That was absolutely not the case. But the phrase seemed to be used to suggest that she died as a result of her lifestyle choices. She did not. She died because she was poisoned by a nerve agent that she should never have come into contact with. It was important, to bring her story back.

“Dawn’s family were incredibly generous, particularly her parents, in allowing us to speak to them,” Buring continues.

“And they’re such a beautiful family. You can feel the love and the care, and therefore you can more profoundly feel the loss. They are still grieving the loss of a daughter, of a sister, of a mother, of a friend.”

Johnny Harris, best known for his role in This Is England, and whose film Jawbone was hugely well received in 2017, plays Rowley – who he met before filming began.

“We are here to make a TV show. But this is this man’s reality. He lost someone he loved deeply in the most surreal and tragic circumstances,” says Harris.

“So to go anywhere near that you have to be very sensitive. Because, to be quite frank, his treatment at the hands of some sections of the press was atrocious.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Harris also talks about the way the current Covid-19 crisis has changed our ideas about heroes. He sees the way Rowley has handled the trauma as deeply heroic.

“We see statues and blue plaques and all sorts of things up to people that the political elite called heroes. But I’ve got people that I think are heroes. They are the people who make themselves available to you, mothers, nurses, people who turn up anonymously to help others.

“I get a plethora of scripts and I turn down far more than I take on because nine times out of 10 I’m given the role of the misogynistic or homophobic or racist or prejudiced white working class sidekick. I’m just not interested in playing that.

“I want to play people who contribute to the world. I want to tell stories about those kinds of people. And I want to tell stories about their achievements, their role in serving society, why I think those kind of people are heroes. I have always been drawn to marginalised people. It is where I come from. Those are my people.

“I’ve found this public applause for the NHS workers to be deeply moving. I go out every Thursday and find the whole thing very poignant and powerful. And I can only hope that we don’t forget that.”

For the actors, this new drama is built out of a desire to do right by Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley. To alter the collective consciousness about them and to portray them, correctly, as two people in love, who may have been to some dark places but were bringing light back into each other’s lives and planning a happy future.

“The main aim for me was just to try and remind people that this was a real human being that died,” says Buring. “A real human being with highs and lows and joys and sadness… and who ultimately shouldn’t have died.”

I met an amazing human being that has experienced something in life that is extraordinary

For Harris, making this drama has had another uplifting outcome.

“I went to meet Charlie with an open heart. And like with anything in life, if you go into it with an open heart and an open mind, something always happens,” he says.

“The project is over. He’s seen it and I’ve seen it. So that part of the relationship is done now, I guess. But what’s come out of it that was unexpected was a really lovely connection and friendship that continues to this day.

“I met an amazing human being that has experienced something in life that is extraordinary. And the grace and dignity that he’s come through that with still moves me greatly.”

The Salisbury Poisoning airs on June 14,15 and 16 on BBC1 and is available on iPlayer