Watch: Annabel Scholey on The Salisbury Poisonings, BBC's true story of a city in lockdown

Real life has parallels with Covid Britain for the Britannia, The Split and Medici star

Watch Annabel Scholey talking to Janet Christie about the poisonings, splits and the Medici city in lockdown, citizens living in fear. Those who do venture out onto deserted streets can only watch as emergency services in PPE fight an invisible killer.

Not Covid-19 Britain, but Salisbury in 2018, following the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei and Yulia Skripal, the father and daughter found fighting for their lives on a park bench.

The Salisbury Poisonings

Poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok, allegedly by Russian agents, the pair eventually recovered but local woman Dawn Sturgess died from contact with a perfume bottle left in a park bin and lead policeman, detective sergeant Nick Bailey became seriously ill.

Eerily prescient of the Coronavirus crisis, the events are captured in BBC1’s The Salisbury Poisonings, which airs this week. A combination of horror, thriller and domestic drama, it follows what happens when the unexpected and unprecedented happens, with authorities forced to make policy on the hoof in a bid to stop the invisible killer. Lockdown is imposed, PPE issued, tracking and tracing instigated and the economy devastated, while ordinary lives and livelihoods are ruined.

“Yes, you can make huge comparisons,” says Annabel Scholey who plays Sarah, wife of DS Bailey, opposite Rafe Spall, in a big name cast including Anne-Marie Duff and Mark Addy.

“It has definitely got parallels, even just the imagery with the gloves and the hospital… but mainly I think the spirit of ordinary people. I think that’s why it’s quite good for it to come out now. Certainly the story of the Baileys is a positive one and even Dawn Sturgess’ family – obviously Dawn died which was a tragedy, it was horrendous – but the way they dealt with it, and are still fighting to get answers, that’s a story of resilience.

“I think that’s good for people to see at the moment because we all need buckets of resilience and hope.

“There’s a real sense that it’s a whole lot bigger than individual people and that’s exactly the same now isn’t it? None of us has any clue what’s going to happen.”

A familiar face on TV recently with ratings hits Britannia, the Amazon US/Sky historical fantasy series and BBC1’s divorce lawyer drama The Split, Scholey talks to us from lockdown in Ireland with her husband, the actor and writer Ciarán McMenamin, and their 18-month-old daughter Marnie.

Life in lockdown

“We came over because my father-in-law has been doing up a little house up for us here, by the sea, for the past three years and it was ready in March so we came over and kind of got stranded by lockdown. It still feels a little early to go back, but maybe soon.”

Like the rest of us, for Scholey uncertainty is becoming all too familiar.

Events in Salisbury unfolded rapidly, with the situation changing hourly, a momentum emphasised by screening the drama over three consecutive nights.

“It gets the chaos of it as it unravels,” says Scholey. “It feels like the situation’s running away with them and I feel like that’s a really gripping thing to watch. It’s such an important story to tell, cos they went through hell, the whole place, the people of Salisbury.”

Playing real lives

This is the first time Scholey has played a contemporary living person and it was important to her to meet Sarah Bailey and that she was happy with the portrayal, along with everyone else featured.

“It really felt incredibly important to do it justice. Everyone portrayed has seen it and approved it,” says Scholey, relieved.

Playing a real living person is a departure for her. In the past she has played a vampire in comedy horror Being Human, a medieval noblewoman in Medici, a scatty divorce lawyer in The Split and was just about to reprise her role of earthy wannabe Celtic queen in Britannia, set in AD43 with warring tribes and Druids joining to repel a Roman invasion, when lockdown halted filming three weeks in.

Rewrites due to Covid

“They’re having to rewrite lots of it because there are huge crowd scenes which now have to be cgi’d and they’re going to write more duologues. The industry is still trying to work out a set of rules that we can vaguely try and stick to.”

Lockdown routine

Wearing a pink vest top and a small gold medallion that shines as she moves, which is a lot, hands flying as she talks, it’s no surprise to hear she thinks she broke her toe yesterday rushing around with the hoover. She looks like she’s carefully curated her appearance for our Zoom chat, but “No, I’ve got my swimsuit on under this,” she says.

“Normally I’d do this on the bed, but I wanted to look a bit businesslike,” she laughs, sitting at a wooden kitchen table.

“I think I’ll brave the sea later. I’ve done it once and it was absolutely freezing but it really does wake you up, clear your cobwebs away. Being outside helps my brain, and exercise helps my brain and trying to limit the alcohol helps my brain.” She laughs.

Lockdown for Scholey has meant valuable time spent with her toddler daughter and McMenamin, a graduate of Scotland’s Conservatoire, who has been finishing off the screenplay for his second book, The Sunken Road, the follow up to Skintown.

“Ciarán’s been busy and I’ve been spending time with Marnie, a lot of it outside. She has kept me sane, she gives me a reason to get up in the morning and doesn’t know what’s going on, so she keeps me in the moment. And she’s a happy little soul and wants to know what everything’s called and is starting to say words. She’s kept me going, definitely. I’ve got friends who are making lamps and painting and I’m doing Play-Doh, colouring in and picking things up off the floor, that’s my lockdown.”

Yorkshire roots

From Wakefield in Yorkshire, the 36-year-old daughter of a firefighter and nurse, Scholey says, “I danced and sang and showed off pretty much my entire childhood.”

Dance competitions made her very nervous but the active child revelled in the drama lessons someone suggested to her parents.

“I always felt really happy doing that. Then my dad said maybe you should try and get into drama school and sat and filled out all the application forms and drove me to Scotland, Wales, London. We were all completely wide-eyed – my mum’s a nurse, my dad’s a fireman and my sister’s a teacher – so it was a totally different world. Thank god I got in first time, because I don’t think I would have handled a gap year very well –I’m very impatient,” she says.

After studying at Oxford School of Drama, Scholey hit the stage running with productions at the Almeida, National and Old Vic Theatres and Peter Stein’s Troilus and Cressida at the Edinburgh International Festival.

“I spent my twenties on stage and that it definitely made me a better actor and a more grown-up person,” she says. “Theatre makes you brave, because it’s pretty terrifying going up there. And you have to have stamina; there’s no way you can do eight shows a week unless you are fit mentally and physically. And watching other people work. I’ve been in the same dressing room as Zoë Wannamaker for six months and just drank in every single thing, asked her for notes. She’s brilliant, and really hard on herself as well, so you even learn that it’s OK if you’re a perfectionist. And just doing a performance every night and trying to tweak it, listen to the audience, you’re developing your tools.”

By the time she was 29 she felt saturated with the routine of theatre and moved onto TV, landing roles in BBC’s Jane Eyre, supernatural comedy drama Being Human, office comedy Personal Affairs, filmed in Scotland, and starred in banking dynasty period drama Medici: Masters of Florence opposite Richard Madden. She was in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II in 2011 and lead in the 2014 musical film Walking On Sunshine. Lately she’s been a TV fixture with a second hit series of Britannia, the Amazon US/Sky historical fantasy series, and this year, playing Nina Defoe, opposite Nicola Walker, in BBC1 divorce lawyer drama The Split by award-winning writer Abi Morgan.

“This is the first time I’ve played somebody who is just a human,” she says, “a docudrama, no frills, no make-up or costume to rely on.”

“In Britannia my role is outrageous, an alcoholic and a little bit morally dubious, I’ve done medieval banking dynasty in Medici and there was the vampire in Being Human. It’s really lovely to have had so many different goes at different things but Being Human was difficult: horror is not my comfort zone,” she says. “I loved it, but so many scenes covered in blood and night shoots with fangs in…”


In Britannia, also starring David Morrissey, Kelly Reilly, Zoë Wannamaker and Mackenzie Crook, she has Celtic make-up and a wig, but has been spared the prosthetics suffered by Crook. “He’s in the chair for five hours every morning – I just couldn’t do it,” she says, fidgeting with the black and blue toe possibly broken yesterday in a rush to hoover quickly to avoid upsetting her daughter.

Avoiding the prosthetics was a boon, especially since Scholey was pregnant filming the last series and her increasing size eventually required a golf buggy to ferry her around the exterior ‘wilderness’ locations.

“So I’m outside a lot, either freezing or boiling, in Britannia. But in beautiful places, Pembrokeshire on the beach, and in Prague on the first series in a quarry that’s protected, crossing it in little boats. You do get to see some amazing things and see some beautiful places.”

Medici: Masters of Florence

Her favourite location was Italy, filming Medici, in which she and Richard Madden played Cosimo and Contessina De Medici, a role which is her favourite so far.

“She was written so beautifully and three-dimensionally and in Italy the public lapped it up because she was a really important part of the history. They loved her strength and seeing her age from 19 to fortysomething. She was a powerhouse and a very smart woman.”

Contessina was also good with horses, so Scholey learned to ride a beautiful white Spanish horse, but for the big standout scene where she rides up the steps into the courtroom and the horse rears up on hind legs, there was a stunt double.

“They said it was too risky, so I was just doing the other bits. But the horse remembered what it had done before and just did it again anyway, so I kept going, and they got it, which was amazing.”

Another highlight of Medici was acting alongside Dustin Hoffman, who played her father-in-law, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici. What was he like?

“Really cheeky. Trying to make me laugh in takes. He kept calling me Concertina instead of Contessina. I didn’t have a lot of scenes with him, but it took me at least a week to get over the fact I was in a scene with Dustin Hoffman at all. But he’s great and the whole cast got on really well.”

The Split

Playing Nina Dafoe, middle daughter of a female family of divorce lawyers alongside Nicola Walker and Stephen Mangan is a lot less physically demanding, with its world of slick offices, stylish houses and city chic wardrobe of raincoats. Especially since Scholey put her foot down early on about high heels.

“I decided very early on in series one that Nina wore trainers most of the time, because I thought no way am I wearing those shoes. Women don’t have to wear heels any more, you can wear a power suit and a pair of trainers. And this series I got to keep my raincoat which I’m extremely happy about.”

With season two ending on a cliffhanger – “Nina is pregnant and having an affair with a gay, married man, brilliant,” says Scholey affectionately, “Nina is just chaos on legs, she is very emotional and makes bad decisions”. Like the rest of the cast and viewers she’s hoping for a third season, which was always the intention but like everyone, has mixed feelings after spending so much time with her child lockdown.

“I’m desperate to go back to work, but I know as soon as I do I’ll miss Marnie. I went back to do The Split when she was three months old which was rough. They all looked after me, but I did weep a few times on set. We were running over quite badly one day and got told we were staying over and I hadn’t seen Marnie for four days at that point and just became a crazy person. I was crying in a toilet in Hampstead Heath with Nicola [Walker] trying to comfort me. She’s just right, you need to get a grip, she’s not missing you, it’s only you who’s in pain and you can deal with that, and I was like, yes, I can, I can deal with that.”

Future plans

For now Scholey is content staying put in Ireland, until the ferry trip and drive back to their home in London becomes feasible with a toddler, like the rest of us wondering what the future will bring.

“Lockdown has made me realise what’s important to me and it’s not going shopping and going out for fancy dinners. It’s seeing my family and my closest friends.

“We don’t know what’s coming because we can’t control it and that’s a big thing for me because I am a control freak and workaholic. But since becoming a mum I try to relax and live in the moment cos that’s where Marnie lives.

“I am worried about our industry, of course I am, but everybody’s worried about their industry. You have to think everyone’s on the same team and that’s definitely helped me keep plodding along. But I just really want to go and give my mum a hug.

“I’m very lucky, we’ve been very safe. I feel like the Bailey family went through so much and survived it, mentally and physically, and it does put things in perspective. You think oh god, if people can get through that, you can handle being in a lovely comfortable house in the fresh air with your daughter and your husband.”

Watch The Salisbury Poisonings on iPlayer now


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