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.

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