Former investigative journalist and screenwriter of the UK’s biggest TV premiere of 2020, The Salisbury Poisonings, Declan Lawn, speaks to David Whelan about his transition from journalism, the unexpected success of his screen writing debut and his upcoming feature film.
Not expecting Lawn to draw to much of a link between his upbringing in Northern Ireland and his co-writing of the sensational fact-based drama about the poising of a Russian spy in a sleepy English town, which sparked an unprecedented national emergency, I’m surprised when he tells me that his experiences in Northern Ireland heavily shaped his approach.
“Espionage, spooks and secret agents have cast a long shadow over the place that we’re [we being Lawn and his writing partner Adam Patterson, also from Northern Ireland] from over last 30 to 40 years and we endeavoured to tell the story of the everyday heroism of those who just got on with it,” explains Lawn. “We were focused on those who kept within the rails rather than those trying to do the de-railing.
“Every scene of the drama is set on the theme of community versus chaos, which was informed by our upbringing in Northern Ireland. We didn’t tell anyone that when we were writing it because we didn’t want to freak them out, but we knew it.”
Episode one of The Salisbury Poisonings, a three-part series, which aired on BBC1 in June 2020, was watched by some 10 million viewers, making it the biggest new drama across all channels since 2018.
The fact-based programme re-tells the story of the 2018 Novichok poisonings of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, Wiltshire, which grabbed international headlines and sparked a major international diplomatic crisis between the UK and Russia.
Rather than looking at the high-level political impact, The Salisbury Poisonings drama focuses on the local community and offers a unique insight into how ordinary people and public services reacted to the crisis on their doorstep, including heroism as the city became the focus of an unprecedented national emergency.
Lawn admits that there was some surprise when, given the facts of the story, the writers opted not to script a drama focused on spies, secret agents and efforts to catch the “bad guys”.
“Every scene of the drama is set on the theme of community versus chaos, which was informed by our upbringing in Northern Ireland.”
“Our sensibility as writers is completely informed by growing up and working in Northern Ireland. Here you have a community dealing with so much trauma and we felt Salisbury was a similar situation in that there was a community traumatised by this huge event but who looked to see how they could support each other and work with each other to get through this. Northern Ireland totally informed our approach.
“What was really rewarding when the show aired was not just the viewing figures but actually the reaction that the show got as people related to it in different ways.”
Lawn’s journey to successful screenwriter is far from conventional. In fact, most people still recognise him for his journalism work for the BBC, rather than the sculpting of TV drama.
Born in Derry to a mother from Galway and father from Donegal, who opted to move across the border, Lawn’s parents’ careers in banking saw him move to Ballymena as he began secondary school. To this day, he hesitates slightly when someone asks him where he’s from, as he remembers his Derry roots but relates most with his time and friendships in Ballymena.
Describing himself as a “writing and reading buff” at school, Lawn chose to study English Literature at Trinity College in Dublin. He’d go on to do a post-grad in the same subject, believing his career lay in academia. However, a dabble in journalism with Magill magazine opened new horizons.
Lawn admits that it was in fact his mother who kickstarted his career when she flagged with him a job advertised for a journalist at Spotlight, the BBC’s investigation programme.
“Having never done any sort of broadcasting I applied for the role, never expecting to be called. At that stage I was around 23 and was starting to get a bit claustrophobic about pursuing a career in academia. I viewed journalism as a good way to get my hands dirty and see the world.”
Upon getting the job, Lawn attests to a bit of “imposter syndrome” believing he lacked the skillset and experience required for investigative journalism. Explaining how he got over this, Lawn says: “It became evident quite quickly to me that it wasn’t a requirement to possess a particular skill that was needed to be successful, rather it was about talking to people. Lifting the phone, knocking doors, which wasn’t always a pleasant experience, and making connections.
“That first day, having never done live broadcasting, the seconds were ticking by as we prepared to go live, and I just had this ‘I can’t do this’ fear.
Lawn went on to make over 100 Spotlight programmes and up to 30 Panoramas. Asked if he had a standout memory for his time in investigative journalism, he says: “It’s difficult to pick one as I ended up in some bizarre situations with fascinating experiences. It’s easy to point to the big personal experiences such as going to Iraq shortly after the invasion, or working in Eastern Europe or the Far East but weirdly, I think it is the bread and butter issues that gives me most satisfaction looking back.
“Highlighting those government policies that were hurting people and potentially affecting long-term change was most rewarding. For example, a standout for me was in and around 2011 when we travelled around the country talking to people for a Panorama on disability work impact assessments and very ill people having to interview for their benefits. That programme sparked a lot of reaction and people were outraged. I remember thinking, this is what journalism is about, raising an issue that is hurting people and potentially influencing change.”
It was in filming for these investigation programmes for the BBC when Lawn met then director/producer and photographer Adam Patterson. The two hit it off on a personal level and became friends. Having learnt of one another’s desire to do something creative, they decided to team up.
They got the ball rolling with a fact-based script for short-film set in north Belfast in 2013, with Lawn admitting that the pair were forced to consult books and online tutorials to guide them in something they had never done before. A good reception from BBC Drama in Northern Ireland saw them expand the short film into a 60-minute pilot programme and further positive feedback saw the pair hook up with London-based agent Camille McCurry, herself originally from Dungannon.
At the same time as undertaking his writing, which Lawn admits was more like a hobby than a secure line of work, Lawn had adjusted his career. Following a decade in investigative journalism he had switched to the “originally daunting” position of presenting live radio in the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster and Evening Extra programmes.
“That first day, having never done live broadcasting, the seconds were ticking by as we prepared to go live, and I just had this ‘I can’t do this’ fear. Broadcasting for TV is a lot more structured, but radio is free-flowing and more intellectually challenging. However, after stumbling through the first few I grew to love it. The shift work also meant I could write as well. I was working my socks off.”
Some more screen-writing opportunities emerged but Lawn highlights the call for himself and Adam to go into a writer’s room for the series McMafia as the turning point and the basis of “the biggest risk he has ever taken in life”.
“It had come to a point where we had so much work that we had to make a decision about whether we leave our jobs and pursue this. It was a scary decision leaving a BBC job where you were paid every month to a much-less financially secure career. Thankfully, it’s a gamble that’s paid off.”
Lawn and Patterson were gaining a reputation in London as two former journalists with a keen eye for detail and good research skills. Dancing Ledge productions thought highly enough of their skills that they paid them to travel to Salisbury for a number of weeks to “find anything interesting”.
Much like the making of a Panorama programme, Lawn says that the two former journalists instinctively set about making a list of people they wanted to speak to, organising meetings and knocking doors.
“A lot of people wanted to talk to us because what had happened was a huge seminal experience in their lives. The production company brought our research to the BBC and the BBC gave the greenlight for us to spend another few months researching the story.”
Lawn acknowledges that the BBC’s decision to make the drama was a “brave one” considering that neither Lawn nor Patterson had any previous credentials of writing for TV. “They could see that we’d done great research, but I suppose the risk for them was that we didn’t write it very well.”
In the end, no such concerns were necessary, in fact, such was the BBC’s confidence in Lawn and Patterson’s early work that the pair were made Executive Producers, meaning that they were embedded on set and had input throughout the entire filming.
Outlining the volume of work a project like this entails, Lawn points out that he has some 50 to 60 drafts of each episode. “A lot of people have a say in the final script, but I think it was important that we retained influence throughout. We didn’t have to fight for that, the BBC understood. We had commitments to accurately depict what happened and to those real people who had shared their story with us.”
Asked about the experience of being on set, Lawn says: “It was odd seeing this huge operation and cast working on something we’d concepted and then having actors like Anne-Marie Duff, Annabel Scholey, Rafe Spall reading the dialogue we’d written.
“It was also obvious early on that what we were doing was quite powerful. Some of the scenes were very moving, mostly because what we were reproducing were true events, and we felt that on set.”
The Salisbury Poisonings was originally scheduled to air on BBC2. However, the decision was taken to upgrade the drama to BBC1 on the basis of early edits. Even then, Lawn says that they did not expect the show to be the blockbuster it became.
Flagging an initial setback, Lawn explains: “The decision to run the show on BBC1 was taken prior to the pandemic but it was originally scheduled to air in March. Covid-19 emerged, and the decision was taken, and rightly so, to delay that because it was felt that a series involving a public health emergency and a resulting death may have been traumatic.”
“We had commitments to accurately depict what happened and to those real people who had shared their story with us.”
Lawn, now based in Belfast and Patterson, based in London, have not rested on their laurels. In October 2020 their short film Rough, won the Best Irish Narrative Short award at the Kerry International Film Festival and early next year they will begin shooting their first feature film.
Chasing Agent Freegard will star James Norton and is another true story, this time about a conman named Robert Hendy-Freegard who masqueraded as an MI5 agent and fooled several people into going underground for fear of assassination by the IRA.
Speaking of the film, Lawn says: “The film is slightly historical, given its setting in the late 90s/early 2000s, but it deals with a lot of topics that are being discussed today such as coercive control, manipulation and narcissism. We’re really happy with the story and we’re almost finished the script in hope that we’ll be on set by March. It’s a very exciting challenge to get behind the camera and direct a film.”
To date, Lawn’s work on the film has been largely uninterrupted by Covid-19, as script development coincided with travel restrictions. Setting out that he usually spends a number of days in London every fortnight, the father of four admits that there have been benefits to a greater general willingness to conduct meetings virtually.
Lawn says that he has never entertained the thought of uprooting his family to London given his own experiences of moving during his school years, preferring to raise them in one location. He has other commitments too. Now in his 40s he has rekindled his love of hurling. As well as coaching an underage team at Bríd Óg, an amalgamation of his nearby St Brigid’s, Éire Óg, Ardoyne and St Agnes’ GAA clubs, Lawn has also got back involved in playing the sport through the half paced hurling initiative, encouraging people back into the sport.
Another anchor for Lawn in Northern Ireland is the draw of the great outdoors. The successful screenwriter can be found a handful of times a year in remote Fermanagh wild camping and brushing up on his bush craft.
“We’re very happy here. Adam and I are focu`sed on the upcoming film, but we have a few other projects that we’ve pitched. We’ve discussed a mutual ambition to set a series in Belfast, a special and unique place. I’d like to do a prime-time TV series set here in Belfast and that’s something we’re working towards.”