Is Silent Witness realistic? 5 tips to spot the fact from fiction

Silent Witness's forensic pathology advisor Dr Stuart Hamilton explains how he keeps TV crime scenes accurate – and what the show gets wrong

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“On Silent Witness, it’s important to me that we get the pathology as accurate as possible,” explains Dr Hamilton. “The descriptions of the injury have to be just right.

“But at the same time it has to be good television drama. Toxicology tests usually take about six weeks to come back but we can’t have Nikki Alexander (Emilia Fox) waiting around for six weeks because that timescale makes rubbish TV. You have to keep the authenticity without compromising the drama.”

See Emilia Fox at the Radio Times Festival – find out more

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Emilia Fox is meticulous about getting things right. She’s determined that the actions which are second nature to me – as a real life forensic pathologist – look second nature to her onscreen. A less experienced actress might say, ‘We obviously do it like this,’ but Emilia is very quick to say, ‘Can we just double check things?’

“Scriptwriters always want you to narrow down the time of death to within five minutes,” according to Hamilton. “I can understand why – it’s an important part of the story, placing certain people in certain places – but almost impossible to do.

“In real life, what I’ve said in Crown Court inquests is that the most accurate you can be is to give the time of death as the window between when the victim was last seen by a witness, and when they were pronounced dead.”

“The writers will come to me and say, ‘We want to end up with this cause of death’. I then have to work backwards and come up with pathology tests that lead us to that conclusion. It’s great that the writers listen to people like me as much as they do. I’ve seen drama on other channels where they just make up the pathology as they go along, but on Silent Witness, they’re so enthusiastic about getting every storyline as close to reality as possible without it becoming tedious.”

“One of the things I initially struggled with was that the pathologists on the show got so involved in the police investigation. In real life, I go to a crime scene, do the autopsy and then maybe three months later I’ll get a call saying, ‘Right, are you ready to come to court?’

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“In the show, the pathologists are much more intimately involved but again, you have to accept that it’s drama not documentary.”