Litvinenko: David Tennant captures the sense of a man haunted by his stolen future

UTV’s retelling of the murder, though well-intentioned, fails to locate the drama in the story

By rights, the life and death of the exiled former Russian intelligent agent Alexander Litvinenko should make for gripping television. His assassination, in 2006, by Moscow operatives apparently working with impunity in central London was a chilling foreshadowing of Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine: another war crime prosecuted by a country gripped by post-imperial delirium.

It was no everyday outrage. The Russians killed Litvinenko with polonium-210, the most toxic poison created. (A British public inquiry concluded in 2016 that the murder was carried out by two Russians “probably” acting under the direction of Moscow’s Federal Security Service and with the approval of Vladimir Putin.) This, then, was a ghastly parody of a Bond movie. A bizarre hit job that had an element of the fantastical yet was all too ghoulishly real.

Alas, Litvinenko (UTV, Monday, 9pm), Lupin creator George Kay’s retelling of the murder, though well-intentioned, fails to locate the drama in the story. In hindsight, it was probably a flaw to tell it chronologically, beginning with Litvinenko falling ill shortly after announcing to his family that they had received UK citizenship.

He spends the rest of the opening episode in the hospital. Meanwhile, doctors and, later, the police struggle to understand how he could have fallen so ill so quickly. No doubt it’s an accurate reflection of what happened. But watching professionals being clueless is not especially riveting.


“Counterterrorism don’t want it because it’s a homicide,” one Sweeney-style copper explains to another as they visit Litvinenko in his ward. “And homicide don’t want it because nobody’s actually dead.”

Some of the absurdism of the old Soviet Union bubbles through. “I need to report a murder – mine,” Litvinenko (“Sasha” to friends) tells the authorities. That Kafkaesque quality is doubled down on later when a detective tells his men: “What you’re working on is the first ever murder investigation where nobody has actually died.” It’s a neat line. But I’m not sure it’s great telly.

David Tennant does his best as Litvinenko. The once-and-future Doctor Who captures the sense of man haunted not by his past but by his stolen future.

The accent seems fine, though Russians may disagree. (For all we know, he could be going full Tom Cruise in Far and Away.) With the titular character strapped to a life-support machine throughout, the emotional heavy lifting is left to his wife, Marina (played by the Russian-American actor Margarita Levieva). So it’s surprising that she is given so little screen time and that Kay is more interested in the geezerish coppers flapping around trying to make sense of a rapidly-changing situation.

The killing of Litvinenko was one of Putin’s first outrages on the global stage. (The butcher’s cleaver had already fallen closer to home in Chechnya.) But despite the newsworthiness, there’s no urgent requirement for it to be reimagined as drama. What happened to Litvinenko was terrible. Beyond that, this adaptation, for all its good intentions, has little to add.