Litvinenko on ITVX: David Tennant’s dying spy is just the beginning of this low-key drama’s story

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The thing about hardcore police work that is sometimes understated by TV shows is that it’s unglamorous in the extreme. The offices are shitty, everything has to be done properly, nobody really spends enough time with their family, someone is dead. It’s a bit like driving on the highway: long periods of low stress punctuated by moments of sweat and panic.

This almost perversely understated four-parter, written by George Kay (Lupin) and launching today on new streaming platform ITVX, embraces that lack of glamour. Which is at least appropriate, the subject not being exactly the death, in November 2006, of Alexander Litvinenko – although it is represented – but the police investigation which followed it, and the fight of Marina, the wife of Litvinenko, to have her husband’s murder recognized as a malicious act. the Russian state.

Much has been made of David Tennant playing the role of the former Russian Federal Security Service officer turned outspoken critic of the Russian administration (and his thick Russian accent, which to my totally inexperienced ears sounded perfectly fine, but who knows I of how they talk in Voronezh?).

Numerous shots of him that mimic the ugly photographs we saw in the diaries of the dying Litvinenko punctuate the first episode, which begins with him riding home on the bus, Russian music playing in his headphones, having dinner with Marina and their young son, Anatoly, before ceremoniously presenting them with newly arrived papers confirming the family as British citizens.

Within minutes he was vomiting blood, but it took him more than a fortnight languishing in the hospital, arguing with the doctors, before the police reluctantly arrived. He’s sure he was poisoned, he knows the president of Russia is behind it, obviously the hospital staff thinks he’s delusional. The two mildly incredulous police officers dispatched to get his statement, Detective Inspector Brent Hyatt (a sad-eyed Neil Maskell) and Detective Sergeant Jim Dawson (Barry Sloane), ended up there after internal shenanigans caused by the fact that counterterrorism thinks it’s nonsense, and homicides are reluctant to get involved because no one is dead yet.

Barry Sloane as DS Jim Dawson and Neil Maskell as DI Brent Hyatt

/ ITVX

Marina is worried that no one will take Sacha’s claims (the name she called Litvinenko). Three days of slowly extracting this highly intelligent man’s detailed account of his own murder from a small room at University College Hospital is painful for everyone, including the public (Tennant’s description of his rapid and agonizing decline is quietly horrifying) and by the end of it, it’s not just Hyatt who has become completely invested in the fate of the family.

After the first episode, you won’t see Tennant again. Instead, as the case progresses, each part loosely focuses on a different protagonist, bouncing between Hyatt (desperate, with his wife, to have a child, something that could be endangered by radiation exposure – such as that emitted by a man recently poisoned with it), Detective Commissioner Clive Timmons (Mark Bonnar, toning down his usual silver fox vibe to excellent effect), who is in charge of the case, and Marina, played with emotion and dignity by the Russian-American actress Marguerite Levieva.

The breakthroughs are small, but significant. Polonium-210, the spectacularly deadly substance that was found in Ash’s system, leaves a trail everywhere it goes – what about the plane they flew in? And if you tested the teapots? This is surprisingly on a national scale for an international incident. The closest thing to a Cold War thriller is a trip to Moscow undertaken by Detective Inspector Brian Tarpey (played with sloppy irascibility by Sam Troughton), during which he and his team are constantly watched, possibly lightly poisoned and certainly led a merry dance by the authorities. “If they had included mind games in the Olympics, [the Russians] would have swept the board,” notes their perky contact at the British Embassy.

The increasingly ridiculous situations they are introduced into while trying to interrogate prime suspects, FSB officers Andrey Lugovoy, played by Rad Kaim, and Dmitri Kovtun (Aleksandr Mikic) are believable in their DIY ridiculousness. When they meet Kovtun, who is believed to have died of polonium-210 poisoning at the hands of Litvinenko (the real Kovtun died earlier this year, apparently from Covid-19), he is comically wrapped head to toe in bandages, and could literally be anyone. While Dawson jokes when told after this prank they have to meet Lugovoy next, “Oh? Who’s playing him, Al Pacino? (dialogue is pleasingly ordinary; acting restrained. Tarpey pronounces nuclear, ‘nuclear’ ).

David Tennant as Litvinenko

/ itvx

The 10 years it took for the deal to come to fruition is largely conveyed by Marina’s change of hairstyle and Anatoly’s transition from little boy to young man, towering above his mother. The police investigation proves to be stubborn and determined, but hampered by senior officials, concerned about international relations. Russia’s refusal to extradite Lugovoy and Kovtun creates its own stalemate, until the only option is for Marina and her lawyer Ben Emerson (Stephen Campbell Moore), to go it alone.

We all know what happened in what could be called the end. On January 21, 2016, a 328-page report was published, and Theresa May, then Home Secretary, made a statement in parliament confirming the inquest’s findings that Litvinenko had been “deliberately poisoned by Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun” and that they were most likely acting. under the direction of the FSB, with the knowledge of President Putin. As if, by then, any of us thought otherwise.

It’s the details that make you stare – Sacha’s touching trust in the British police and state (to be fair, the comparison is quite stark). The description of polonium-210 as “commonly accepted to be the most dangerous substance known to man”. Two police protection officers pour their tea straight into the sink as soon as Marina, who was taken with Anatoly to a safe house belonging to family friend Boris Berezovsky, leaves the room.

What holds you back is the authors’ flippant disregard for human life. It was, as Kay said, basically a chemical attack on a British high street. They left traces of polonium 210 in an Itsu, in a hotel toilet, in a fucking restaurant teapot, to be used again and again and again. A substance that can kill a man if he ingests an amount equivalent to less than a grain of sand.

A doctor, who is part of the team in hazmat suits (they look like Teletubby dinosaurs) that is carrying out “the most dangerous autopsy ever undertaken in the western world”, says Timmons “You will need a lead coffin , that’s the other thing. ”

“All organs suffered severe atrophy,” he continues, explaining his findings, “resulting in an almost total state of internal…you know.”

“…No,” Timmons said.

“Well…sludge,” comes the response.

Jesus. I can’t stop thinking about it.

Litvinenko is on ITVX

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