Warning: This article may contain traces of satire
The BBC’s plans for a one-off episode of Crimewatch, reconstructing events in Salisbury on 4th March, have had to be abandoned after running into a series of problems, according to the programme’s director, Hugh Dunnit. Despite his desire to make the reconstruction as realistic as possible, after weeks of filming Hugh says he has given up, citing a loss of confidence in his professional abilities, after failing to get the details to make any sense.
I talked to him in the care home where he is now residing temporarily, and he told me that the problems began early on with the reconstruction of events on the morning of 4th March. According to police, after making their phones untraceable, Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, left home just after 9:00am, and drove to the London Road cemetery, before returning around 1:00pm. But as Hugh told me, this was a cause of major difficulties for the local actors playing the Skripals:
“We only ever intended to show half a minute or so of them at the cemetery in the final reconstruction, but because I’m a great one for making things as realistic as possible, I decided to film them there for the entire four hours, with the intention of editing afterwards. But once the two local actors playing Sergei and Yulia — Doug and Sarah — had put flowers on the grave, we then found that they still had over three hours to kill, and to be honest both of them said they felt a bit stupid just sort of hanging around graves for that length of time. I must admit, it did make us wonder what on earth the Skripals were doing for so long in a cemetery on a Sunday morning.”
Doug Deeply, who plays Sergei, agreed:
“There’s only so much one can do in a graveyard, and to be honest it does feel kind of creepy just hanging around graves. Yet the police seem to think they were there throughout that time, and so being professionals we just had to get on with the job. Still, it does make you wonder why the police don’t just ask them what they were doing there, since they’re both alive and well,” he added with a chuckle.
At the time that the Skripals were on their four hour visit to the graveyard, back at the house in Christie Miller Road, the door handle was of course being targeted. However, shooting this scene proved particularly challenging, since it is not known what the assassins were wearing when they crept up to the house in the unsuspecting suburb. Hugh explains the problems he had in directing this part of the case:
“The biggest problem we had was whether to dress the actors playing the assassins in full chemical protective gear or not. On the one hand, since they are about to smear the most lethal military grade nerve agent known to man on the door handle, you’d naturally think they would need to wear some kind of HazMat gear to do that. But then again, since so far as we are aware, nobody in Christie Miller Road reported seeing anybody dressed in chemical warfare gear that morning, in the end we decided just to give them a pair of Marigolds each and hoped for the best.”
Smearing the gel on the door handle also caused a number of problems, with the crew having to film the scene five or six times, on account of the gel continually dripping off the door handle and leaving a sticky residue. Yet this was by no means the biggest challenge they encountered there. Filming Doug and Sarah arriving back home after the four hours at the cemetery, Hugh immediately saw a problem:
“When they got out of the car and walked over to the house, Doug unlocked the front door and opened it using the handle, with Sarah following and closing the door from the inside. Of course, this meant that she didn’t actually touch the handle, and therefore didn’t get the Novichok on her hand. So when they came back out, we had to get Sarah to remember to shut the door with the outside handle, just to make sure she got her dose of Novichok. But of course the problem with this is that it was one of those outward opening uPVC doors, which means that you don’t actually need to use the door handle on the way out. You can simply slam it shut. Sarah, bless her, kept forgetting this, and so we had to film the scene a number of times before she remembered to shut it using the door handle.”
A clearly embarrassed Sarah declined to comment on the incident itself, but did express surprise at the naivete of the FSB in using such a hit and miss method to target Mr Skripal.
As if these challenges weren’t enough, the number of problems faced by the crew in the City Centre were enormous, even down to some of the most basic things like clothing:
“We asked around, but nobody seems to know what Sergei and Yulia were wearing that day,” says Hugh. “Some reports say he was wearing a leather jacket and jeans, whilst others say he was dressed smartly and had a green coat on. As for Yulia, did she have auburn hair, as seen in footage of her leaving Moscow, or was she blonde, as attested by some witnesses at the bench? I must admit, it did leave us a bit confused.”
Why didn’t he ask to see CCTV footage of the couple in the City Centre that day, I ask.
“Oh I did ask a couple of senior investigators,” he says with a shrug, “but unfortunately one of them seemed to mishear me and started laughing, as if I had just told a joke, and the other looked at me shaking his head in what seemed to me to be a bit of a disapproving way, muttering something about there being an ongoing counter-terror investigation.”
Another challenge was the scene at the Avon Playground in The Maltings, when the Skripals were feeding ducks with some local boys.
“This was really tricky,” said Hugh. “To start with, we had Doug giving some bread to the boys, one of whom ate a piece, since this was what a number of reports stated. But of course we quickly realised that this would have meant the boys becoming contaminated with Novichok from his hands, which of course none of them were. So we tried a few other methods that Colonel Skripal might have used to give bread to the boys. For example, tipping the bread into the floor for them to pick up; putting the bag on the ground and inviting them to come and get the bread themselves; and even taking the bread out with a spoon — anything to avoid it coming directly from his hand. But to be honest, it all looked a bit ridiculous.”
In the end the police came to the rescue.
“Whilst they wouldn’t let us see the footage they have of Mr Skripal passing bread to the boys, so that we could see exactly how he managed to do it without contaminating them, in the end they told us just to leave the scene out of the reconstruction altogether. That’s what they did in the official timeline, they told me. I guess it can’t have been that important, can it?” he said, with a somewhat nervous chuckle.
What was important was the meal and the pub. To begin with Hugh and his team originally had the Skripals going to Zizzis first, then to The Mill pub, but this turned out to be the wrong order.
“It’s a bit odd,” says Hugh. “We were going off all the early reports, which all say that the Skripals went for a meal first, and then to the pub. That seems like the obvious order, if you think about it, especially as they probably hadn’t eaten in the morning. Yet when we showed the scene to the police, they got a bit upset and ordered us to reverse it to the pub then the restaurant. When we asked how all the initial reports could have got it wrong, they told us that due to the sensitive nature of the ongoing terror investigation, they were not at liberty to comment.”
But perhaps the biggest headache that Hugh had in reconstructing the events, was the part played by the couple seen on CCTV in Market Walk, who were thought to be the Skripals, but turned out not to be them.
“They were pretty blurry, which made it difficult to find an actor and an actress to play them, but when we asked the police if they had any clearer images of them from the council camera in the Market Walk, or the one at the end overlooking The Maltings, they looked at us a bit funny like, and said that it would be better if we just forgot about the existence of that couple altogether.”
It was shortly after this that Hugh decided to abandon the project altogether.
When I asked if he might be thinking of having a go at doing a reconstruction of the Amesbury case, based on Charlie Rowley’s testimony, unfortunately the nervous cough that he has developed over the last few weeks started flaring up again. However, before he took his medication and went for a lie down, he did say that he was probably going to take the next year off to think about starting a new career as a landscape gardener or a beekeeper.
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