IN Silent Witness, the victim is always central to the drama. As the hit show reaches its 20th series, Crime Scene joins Emilia Fox in the mortuary, to discuss autopsies and investigations…
As the show hits Series 20, we join Emilia Fox on the set.
When Crime Scene arrives at a BBC studio in West Acton on a bright October morning, we’re greeted by a horrific sight: a corpse on a gurney with the tell-tale stitching of a Y-shaped incision from a post-mortem examination. Though cold to the touch, thankfully, it isn’t a real cadaver, but one of the eerily lifelike prosthetic corpses which feature alongside the guest actors who are playing dead.
“They’ve opened the series with some of the best prosthetic bodies we’ve had,” says Emilia Fox, who plays Dr. Nikki Alexander. “I had a meeting in here after work one day, people were coming in who were nothing to do with the show – they had no idea this is what I did – and they thought that they were walking through a mortuary with three real dead bodies. They were on the slab and they were so realistic. It’s the stuff of nightmares, really.”
The Lyell Centre certainly has the chill of death about it, yet there’s also an air of celebration. The cast gathers around an autopsy table which carries a selection of pastries and tropical fruit, rather than a dead body – the BBC drama is filming its 20th series, a remarkable achievement.
A youthful, rising star when she replaced Amanda Burton in 2004, Fox is now a glamorous leading lady who strides into the mortuary in four-inch Louboutin heels.
I’ve had to dig lungs out of bodies, which doesn’t trouble me at all
With this 20th series, Fox has clocked up 126 episodes of Silent Witness, though admittedly the studio complex is, handily, located just five minutes from her home. But what keeps her coming back?
“I love the family feel that Silent Witness has always had and the great relationships on set and off set, so it’s been a sort of dream job,” she tells Crime Scene. “And I like playing a character that I know very well. So I love it in the same way now as I loved it when I first started 12 years ago.”
Crucially, Fox stars in a show that, were she not its star, she would enjoy watching.
“I love the crime genre,” she says. “I was brought up on reading crime fiction – Miss Marple and Poirot – and watching Inspector Morse. I love Sherlock Holmes, I’d say he’s my literary hero. So being asked to do it as my job, it couldn’t be better.”
By all accounts, Fox is popular with cast and crew, and there’s a relaxed atmosphere on the set. During the interviews, Fox opts to share the mortuary with her co-stars: Richard Lintern (as the Lyell Centre’s head, Dr. Thomas Chamberlain), David Caves (forensic scientist Jack Hodgson) and Liz Carr (forensic assistant Clarissa Mullery). “We have a shorthand with each other,” Fox says of the on-screen chemistry exhibited by the show’s ensemble cast.
During the filming, Crime Scene stands in the laboratory, amid microscopes and vials of liquid with hazardous warnings, to watch a scene being shot that concerns retrieving vital information from a destroyed mobile phone. Fox’s Dr. Nikki Alexander comments, “it doesn’t make sense”, but with their combined forensic expertise, the case soon will…
Between scenes, Lintern ( The Shadow Line, The Bank Job) discusses the series with palpable enthusiasm – he’s prone to spoilers, which Fox does her best to steer him away from. Lintern possesses the reassuring authority of a medical professional – apparently, some members of the public assume that he’s a real doctor.
For this episode, Lintern says there’s a contrast between a traditional family of fishmongers, for which filming took place at London’s Billingsgate Market, and a shadowy online community. He goes on to describe a case in which “murders with no apparent relationship between them” may well have a connection.
“I think the original concept of the show – the body that cannot speak – is really clever,” Lintern tells Crime Scene. “I think that’s the principal reason this programme has lasted so long. When the forensics come right out of the story – like they do in this one – it’s great.”
He’s also forthcoming about characters getting involved in police investigations.
“In the grand history of Silent Witness,” he muses, “the kind of forensic work that we do on the bodies extends outwards, into us playing perhaps a more active role in the police investigation than a forensic pathologist in real life actually would. But the programme depends on that extension into police procedure.”
When Crime Scene catches up with story producer Darren Guthrie, the official line is that authenticity is hugely important.
“We’ve got a team of experts,” he says. “It’s also about finding the reason why the character might step beyond their professional capacity.”
Gung-ho Jack Hodgson (David Caves) often throws himself into the thick of an investigation. In Series 19, he was chasing down suspects, getting shot at alongside Nikki and head-butting a dangerous villain. The Northern Irish actor enjoys his on-screen partnership with Liz Carr’s forensic assistant, Clarissa Mullery, saying: “I always love our stuff, we started together so they’re the best bits for me.”
For her part, Carr notes, “It’s very rare that you see a platonic but strong
relationship between a man and a woman in drama.” She’s looking forward to exploring her character’s backstory in this series, and reveals, “Although we only just learn this, the fact is Clarissa is married.” Intriguingly, her screen husband is from a rival organisation in the forensic world.
Even after 12 years, Nikki Alexander also remains something of a mystery, though part of the show’s success is that it focuses less on character arcs and more on compelling, standalone, two-part stories. Each year, Silent Witness offers everything from fast-paced scenarios to whodunits and psychological thrillers.
“It’s not the traditional detective show because we’ve got the science and the medical side of it,” Fox contends. “With the advance of forensic science and technology, we have to keep up with that.”
There are also issue-led episodes and Series 20 touches on the crisis in Syria.
“We kick off with an episode called ‘Identity’,” Fox reveals, “it’s a very relevant, topical issue about refugees and I think the theme runs through the series. It will provoke a debate but that’s good. I think it shows Silent Witness at its best – we’re not just whodunits. Thomas [ Chamberlain] and I have scenes where we really don’t agree.”
Lintern suggests that it’s “uncanny” how the series’ storylines often unwittingly reflect real-life events and news headlines.
“I was reading in the paper that 12 people have been fished out of a lake in Mexico in a drug cartel killing,” he says. “That’s exactly the world that Nikki ventures into, in a brave attempt to rescue a friend of hers.”
There will be filming in Mexico for that episode, which is set to see Nikki in even more peril than usual. “Yeah, it’s an extreme situation,” says Fox. “I like it when you’re scared.” But although the international location may raise the stakes, it all comes back to the body in the autopsy room and the bizarre forensic techniques. Lintern lets slip that this series, “Thomas conducts an experiment involving a car airbag, a screwdriver and a watermelon.”
You sometimes need a strong stomach to watch Silent Witness – for instance, one scene in this series involves decomposing bodies in a confined space.
“With the amount of flies that we had to film with in episode one, that was one of the most gruesome scenes I’ve had to do ever,” says Fox. A specialist brought along buckets of blowflies. “When he arrived on set all you could hear was this buzzing,” she recalls with a shudder.
Yet Fox and Lintern are sanguine about cutting up (fake) corpses during autopsies.
“I’ve had to dig lungs out of bodies, which doesn’t trouble me at all,” Lintern says, though he does admit that “the emotional side troubles me more.”
“We had to go into someone’s turbinates, which is someone’s nasal cavity,” says Fox. “I had to drill into that. But when we’re doing those scenes they are so technical, we’ve got pathologists telling us what to do, we’ve got the medical speak to remember. So there’s a lot to think about – that, I think, stops one being squeamish.”
Back when she first got the role, Fox also experienced the real thing.
“When I first went to see two autopsies for research, I was worried that I would feel faint,” she reveals. “In fact, it was so riveting, watching the pathologist work and finding out what happened in the last 10 minutes of someone’s life.”
Despite the busy shooting schedule, cast and crew will hold a proper celebration.
“We’re making a big birthday cake,” says Fox. “I think the fact that we have got to 20 years with a series, it’s testament to the audience and their loyalty.”
Of course, they now have to think about Series 21, and Lintern already has an idea for a chilling twist on the show’s concept.
“I’ve always thought the ideal Silent Witness story would be a body coming back to life in the cutting room,” he says, with a mischievous grin.
The public often mistake Lintern for a real doctor.
The new series explores Clarissamullery’s backstory.
A dozen years after joining the show for Series 8 ( right), Emilia Fox still finds Silent Witness a “dream job”.
Silent Witness Series 20 will air on BBC One in January.