“It’s not an easy watch,” says Annabel Scholey of her latest role in BBC One’s The Salisbury Poisonings. “It’s harrowing but it’s an important story to tell.” The three-part drama airing on consecutive nights from Sunday the 14th of June depicts the aftermath of the 2018 assassination attempt on Russians Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the English city of Salisbury.
“You’d expect spies and the political side of things,” says Scholey, “but this is a different angle.” The drama focuses entirely on the local response to the Novichok poisonings led by public health director Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff), and on inadvertent victims Dawn Sturgess (MyAnna Buring) and DS Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall).
Scholey plays Sarah Bailey, wife to the police officer who became contaminated with the nerve agent during a search of the Skripals’ home. Despite the event’s dramatic international context, the efforts made to protect public health and the community’s recovery is “the more important story to tell,” Scholey tells Den of Geek.
Switching to a lighter note, as part of a new interview series, Scholey talks us through her TV memories, obsessions and recommendations…
Which TV show inspired you to start your acting career?
I was a huge period drama fan in my early teens. BBC period dramas in particular. It’s a film not a TV show, but I remember absolutely loving Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park with Frances O’Connor. I just completely fell in love with her and her character. I thought I have to do that.
What or who was your first TV love?
[Laughs] It’s very cliched but it was Colin Firth as Mr Darcy [in BBC One’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice]. I’ve seen that so many times and I still watch it now. It just… it has to be Colin Firth. Colin Firth all the way. And actually, I quite liked Mr Bingley [Crispin Bonham-Carter] as well.
.…and which TV character do you most want to be now?
I love Succession. I realise they’ve all got very low moral codes but it’s Shiv in Succession. I know she’s dubious morally but she’s so fierce. I don’t always agree with what she’s doing but she’s a force to be reckoned with.
If you had to describe yourself as a TV character then, would it be Shiv?
No, unfortunately [laughs] I think I’m more a Monica from Friends than a Shiv in Succession.
The rules help control the fun, that kind of vibe?
Which TV show has given you nightmares?
Two things. Something I watched recently that I’m a big fan of but I had to ration, was The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s so dark and so brilliant but every image is so vivid. I got almost to the end of series two and I had to stop. She was giving birth and I was about to give birth and I just couldn’t watch. I was dreaming about it.
As a child, again it was a film but I watched it on television so it counts – Roald Dahl’s The Witches. When Anjelica Huston changes from beautiful Anjelica Huston into that rat-mouthed person! I remember having my first nightmare after that. It was horrifying. I don’t think they got the age range right on that at the time!
It’s Nic Roeg, who did Don’t Look Now, isn’t it? A proper horror director making a kids’ movie.
There we go, that makes sense.
When did you last cry watching television?
Last episode of Normal People about a month ago. I wept like a baby. I actually said out loud ‘No! No!’ [laughs]. I hadn’t read the book so I didn’t know what was going to happen. I’m a hopeless romantic.
When did you last laugh out loud watching television?
Again in lockdown we watched After Life, the Ricky Gervais Netflix series. There’s an episode in series two with a local talent show and it’s just horrifyingly bad but in the best way. There’s a mother and son doing a romantic duet together. I just love Ricky Gervais, I think he’s brilliant.
Name an iconic TV moment for your generation
I was a huge, huge Friends fan growing up. Obsessively. I had the mug, the t-shirt, the pencil case, the poster, everything. The episode where Ross and Rachel first kissed was massive. I remember going into school afterwards and everyone talking about it, that was epic.
What was the last TV show you recommended to a friend?
Unorthodox on Netflix. It was a real surprise. The lead actress [Shira Haas] was incredible. I didn’t know anything about Hasidic Judaism and I was fascinated. Really brilliantly acted, really moving and not something that I would have usually found but I did because of lockdown.
Which TV show have you never seen that everybody keeps nagging you to watch?
I haven’t watched Ozark. I watched episode one and found it so disturbing that I couldn’t continue. I’ve watched Breaking Bad and I do like the Scandi dramas. I can go there with the darkness, I don’t sit in Pride & Prejudice land all the time but I’m bad with suspense. I like to know what’s going to happen. Everybody always recommends it to me. So many people in the last few months, I’ve asked ‘what can I watch now?’ and they say Ozark. No, can’t do it!
Have you ever had an argument over a TV show?
I must have been six or seven. I’ve got a younger sister – Rosie – and I had to go to bed at the same time as her, but then was allowed to sneak out of our shared bedroom to go downstairs and watch The House of Elliot with my mum – period drama again! I remember spending ages sneaking out on my stomach, trying to get out of the room, and Rosie woke up. I was just desperate. It was the only time I got with my mum on my own and I could see the clock ticking and the episode draining away and I just lost it. I was bawling my eyes out. Then Rosie had to come down and watch it too – that’s such an old memory!
Which TV show would you bring back from the dead?
Mad Men. I’ve watched all of them more than once. The writing’s incredible, the characters are so complex, it’s beautiful, and the way they weave historical fact into it… so clever. Elisabeth Moss [Peggy Olson] is incredible. I think it had a really clever ending. A bit like The Sopranos, really clever yet not remotely satisfying.
Which TV show do you wish more people would watch?
How about one of yours that you think deserved more attention at the time?
Definitely Being Human. [Scholey played vampire Lauren Drake in series one of the Toby Whithouse supernatural drama opposite Aidan Turner]. It was such an original fantasy horror idea and it was great, really iconic and British. It’s one of those shows that a lot of people really liked but it didn’t quite get the lift-off it needed. It started on BBC Three. Maybe if it had started on BBC One, it would have got more, though it has had a resurgence since.
Have you ever done fancy dress as a TV character?
I’ve done a lot of film characters. My 21st birthday was Bond themed – very original. I have been to a The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe party where I was the Snow Queen – what’s her name? The White Witch, the… Turkish Delight Witch.
Which TV theme song do you know all the words to?
I know Home & Away! I could probably sing it now – I’m not going to, but I could do the entire song. It’s ingrained in my psyche from being at school. The last time I sang it wasn’t that long ago. One of my best friends’ husbands has an obsession with that theme tune so we ended up getting drunk at their house one night and singing it as a karaoke duet! [Laughs]
Which TV character would you like to beat in a fight?
Villanelle [from Killing Eve]. I very much doubt that I would win, but if you could beat her, you could beat anyone. I’d probably use a nice piece of rope to tie her up or strangle her.
Which current TV show do you never miss an episode of?
The Crown, I devour it. As soon as it comes on, it’s gone within 24 hours and then I have to watch it again. I love Margaret. I’ve watched so many documentaries about her, she’s a fascinating woman and Vanessa Kirby just nails the part beautifully, but actually, the character I’m obsessed with is the Queen. What a difficult thing to take on. Claire Foy is just out of this world, it’s so detailed and subtle.
Given the power, which TV show would you commission?
I had this idea with my friend to do a series about the female pilots in the Second World War. When there weren’t enough men, they trained as pilots and transported aircraft up and down the country so they were in the right place to go off and fight. Those women seem like they’re from a film already. I think it’s being developed by someone else, so we probably will get that on our screens.
You’ll have to get your agent involved.
I’ll just have to be in it won’t I? [Laughs]
What was the most fun you’ve had making television?
I love filming The Split, it’s my favourite cast and favourite job and I love the ladies in it. Hopefully we’ll get another [series], obviously it’s a strange time at the moment, but we’re waiting with fingers crossed, we’d like to do another.
We had a really fun scene where we went to a silent disco for a hen do. We filmed on the South Bank and got dressed up in 80s gear and got told to run around through fountains. Me and Nicola Walker and Fiona Button just dancing around with Lightsabers for four hours like absolute idiots!
The Salisbury Poisonings starts on Sunday June 14th at 9pm on BBC One and continues at the same time on Monday 15th and Tuesday 16th.