Interview : Emilia Fox, Silent Witness
Photo : Emilia Fox as Nikki Alexander in Silent Witness | Credit : BBC/Jonathan Ford
BBC One’s popular drama Silent Witness returns to celebrate its 20th anniversary this January, featuring five thrilling new contemporary stories that start among the familiar landscapes of London and end up in the dusty scrubland of Mexico. Silent Witness continues to tackle some of the issues the world faces today, from the Refugee Crisis to Cartel Violence in Mexico, the dangers of the internet to the powerful influence of the media in how crime is portrayed. Emilia Fox, Richard Lintern, David Caves and Liz Carr return as the dynamic Lyell quartet. Emilia Fox tells us more.
Twenty years of Silent Witness is a huge milestone. How have things changed in the filming process since you started playing Nikki back in 2004?
I’m so proud that Silent Witness has reached its 20-year milestone and I feel hugely privileged to still be a part of it. The regular cast has gone through various transformations, but the heart of Silent Witness remains the same: it’s primarily about solving crimes where the clues are found within the dead bodies, and the importance of forensic science and pathology to understanding the last ten minutes of someone’s life. The programme has to keep up with advances in technology and forensic science, and as the technology of film-making advances I have seen many changes in that too!
Over the years everyone involved has aimed to keep production values high and social media has helped to gauge how the fantastically loyal audience feel about the show and what they want from it – and it has brought a new audience to it too.
What stories can we expect from this anniversary series of Silent Witness?
There are a great range of stories within each series, which hopefully cater for many tastes. The opening episode is very topical and focuses on issues of immigration, people-smuggling and identity – identity is a theme that runs throughout the series. You get to know more about Clarissa’s personal life and in the final episode Jack and Nikki find themselves in Mexico, where they are helping to identify the remains of victims of cartel violence. It’s an extreme situation and it was without doubt the most challenging episode I have ever worked on, but I think it will be hugely surprising for the audience which is thrilling.
What do you think is the secret to the show’s continuing success?
I think good, ambitious writing is key to the series’ success. I love how writers find different themes and ways of exploring what happens in the crime-solving process. I hope people enjoy the regular characters too, and the different worlds they get taken into depending on the circumstances and where the bodies are found. The two-hour format is very useful as it allows the audience to get to know the guest characters, and the fact the story is told over consecutive nights means you don’t have to wait too long for the conclusion, which has been a good thing for Silent Witness.
“Dealing with current, contemporary issues allows Silent Witness to exist in a real world, despite any dramatic licence that has to be taken for storytelling purposes.”
Nikki finds herself in a terrible life-or-death situation in this series final episode. What was that like to film?
It was challenging both for me and for Nikki. I have never filmed an episode like it, nor have I ever done the things I had to do in it on anything else. It was hugely emotional, physically demanding and quite an experience! I am so proud of Silent Witness for being a show that can continue producing new and surprising episodes like this one.
The first two episodes feature a very important and topical storyline. Do you think it’s important for Silent Witness to highlight these issues?
The topical episodes are important because they provoke debate both on set and when the episodes go out. These particular episodes focus on the issues of people smuggling and immigration, and the vulnerability of people who are looking for safety. I think dealing with current, contemporary issues allows Silent Witness to exist in a real world, despite any dramatic licence that has to be taken for storytelling purposes. I always find the topical ones very emotional to film.
What do you think Nikki brings to the Lyell team unit?
Nikki wears her heart on her sleeve and is passionate about her work in the quest for finding justice for those who have died and those who are left behind.
Photo : Jack Hodgson [David Caves], Nikki Alexander [Emilia Fox], Thomas Chamberlain (Richard Lintern) & Clarissa Mullery [Liz Carr] | Credit : BBC/Jonathan Ford
How have the props changed since you started on the show? Are the corpses more realistic?
The prosthetic and make-up departments on Silent Witness have always been absolutely amazing, and we work with real pathologists who guide what the bodies should look like. The decomposed bodies that we have in the opening episodes of this series were so incredible that I had a meeting after work in the offices at the studio and the people I met there thought they were real! The movement of the limbs, the feel of the skin and the physical details are so incredible you can’t help but be moved by what has happened to them, even though you know they’re not real. It helps enormously when doing the post-mortems that what you examine looks and feels like a human being.
After this series has ended, you would have appeared in an amazing 126 episodes of Silent Witness. Can you remember your first day of filming?
I think that on my first day of filming I was found brushing my teeth in the mortuary by Leo, played by William Gaminara.
Finally, you once mentioned you’d like to try your hand at directing one day – would you like to direct an episode of Silent Witness?
I would love to direct an episode one day, but I also know how challenging and difficult they are to do. I would love working with the actors and crew and hopefully would be good at the storytelling, but I definitely need more technical knowledge before putting myself forward!
The 20th series of Silent Witness airs on BBC One on Monday 2nd January and continues on Tuesday 3rd January. There are ten episodes in the new series.