Two years ago, when she was expecting a baby and focusing hard on the future, Emilia Fox also found herself being pulled back into the extraordinary history of her ancestors for an episode of the BBC1 series Who Do You Think You Are?
For an actress who has immersed herself for the past eight years in the role of Dr Nikki Alexander, it was a mission just as dramatic and demanding as those undertaken by the forensic pathologist Silent Witness.
Fox’s research into her family tree both surprised and tantalised, leading her back through a theatrical dynasty with links to the great Shakespearian actress Dame Ellen Terry.
It was a personal journey that came to stand centrestage in her own life. Now, with Witness’s 15 series set to air this week, the 37-year-old daughter of actors Edward Fox and Joanna David, speaks movingly on everything from motherhood to mortuaries.
While death may be the theme of the series, its own vital signs could hardly be healthier, with viewing figures regularly topping eight million. Rumours of its demise after the departure of Amanda Burton as Dr Sam Ryan in 2004 were clearly way off the mark.
The new series is unlikely to disappoint the faithful, with plotlines that deal with the sex grooming of under-age girls, a female serial killer, a family annihilation and an exorcism. Episode one finds poor Dr Nikki going straight from her father’s memorial service into the investigation of a triple murder at a farmhouse.
She grows anxious about the way the case is being conducted after she meets the parents of a murdered policeman. As Fox says, the whodunnit element is as strong as ever, but interwoven with the human drama between the main characters; “the dynamics of three professionals in a room together – a pathologist, a ballistics expert and a scene-of-crime officer.”
But such longevity. How does she explain it?
“Well, for a start we were left with a great legacy by Amanda. At that time the appeal of having a strong female leader in a man’s world was still quite strong – the kind of woman who is very dominant but whom you can’t quite get to know.
“It’s the sort of attractiveness you saw in DCI Tennison [played by Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect]. Slightly Thatcher-like. I think it’s a clever authorship trick, to give the main people a slight air of unavailability. Personally, I’m deeply in love with both Morse and Sherlock Holmes, even though I know I haven’t got a chance with either of them.
“What is really interesting about Silent Witness is the way it makes you want to know how and why a thing has happened, and it keeps giving you clues through the body. Seeing what takes place after someone dies does provoke a sudden thoughfulness.
“All of the cast went to a mortuary in south London, and I think that really helped. It starts making you think, ‘Oh, I see, that’s what it comes down to, is it?’ – lying on the slab and having your insides rummaged about in. The incredible machine that the body is. The series has to find a way of being respectful towards it. It is the star of the show. I saw a violent death and it really made me appreciate life. It can be cut off at any minute and you simply have to make the most of it.”
She hasn’t made a bad start to making the most of her talent: playing Mrs de Winter opposite Charles Dance in a TV dramatisation of Rebecca before she had finished her English studies at Oxford University, a job that “helped me take my mind off finals”; title role in Katherine Howard at Chichester; Jane Seymour in a biographical TV film about Henry VIII; parts in such films as The Pianist, Suspension of Disbelief and Things to Do Before You’re 30; a range of TV work from Upstairs Downstairs to Merlin.
If the roles have tended towards the posh, it’s hardly surprising, given her education at Bryanston public school in Dorset, followed by Oxford, not to mention an Old Harrovian father capable of the most expensive-sounding vowels on the English stage.
Both parents, she readily agrees, have been nothing but supportive of her career; they may have had their misgivings, but they never enacted Noel Coward’s famous advice to Mrs Worthington not to put her daughter on the stage.
Her parents are merely the tip of a Titantically-proportioned theatrical iceberg of close relations. Actors, performers, agents wherever you look. There are her eminent uncles, James and Robert, an actor and producer respectively. Their father in turn was the agent Robin Fox, who was married to the actress Angela Worthington.
Of James’s five children, Laurence and Jack are actors and Robin a producer. Of Robert’s five, Chloe is a writer and Sam an agent. Then there is her own brother Fred, who also shares her trade. He and various of their cousins have become invaluable confidants. Perhaps surprisingly, Fox says it is only quite recently that she has fully accepted that acting is in her blood.
“With Fred, yes, it was. He always wanted to do it. I think he was singing and dancing on his way out, knew the whole of Guys and Dolls when he was nine.”
She only became aware of the full depth of this family tradition when she took part in Who Do You Think You Are?. She knew that her paternal grandfather had been an agent, but she also knew that he had died very young, and that this had remained a tender subject for her father and uncles.
“I learnt that my grandfather had been an integral part of the Royal Court theatre when there was an attempt to close it down. He was passionate and loyal, which are characteristics I see in my father and his brothers.”
Once, she says, she was probably a little sensitive about these connections, even though having famous relatives put even more pressure on her to succeed on her own merits. Today she treasures the extended family and feels strongly backed by its members. For this she has been grateful.
In 2008 she separated from her husband Jared Harris, actor son of yet another fellow professional, Richard Harris. Last year she broke up with Jeremy Gilley – an actor – who is the father of her 16-month-old daughter, Rose. Though she prefers not to discuss her personal life, Fox makes no secret of her joy in motherhood.
When the subject is gingerly raised, she exclaims that it has “changed everything about me, it has, I mean it, and for the better in every way. Rose has become the life enhancing, fulfilling priority of my life. My parents put their family first, ahead of their work, and the importance they have given to our upbringing is beyond admirable.”
One last ancestral dig and we come to her great-grandmother Hilda, and Hilda’s sister Lily.
“Hilda toured with Hubert Beerbohm Tree, who was the Mark Rylance of that time. She married a man of independent means and had children. One of them, Mary, my great aunt, is still alive at the age of 104. The other, Pam, was 90, and died soon after I met them.
“What really fascinated me was that that whole generation of cousins were actors, so that line of the family tree was very similar to how it is now. So of course, no, how could I go on thinking acting was not in my blood? It turned out that one of Hilda’s cousins was Julia Nielson, a really famous actress of her time; and she was married to Fred Terry, Ellen’s brother.”
And let’s not forget Billie Piper, actress wife of Emilia’s cousin Laurence. Nor the great-greatgrandfather, Samson Fox, born in Bradford in 1838. Apart from being the patriarch of the dynasty, he was the founder of the Leeds Forge Company that produced high-grade Yorkshire iron for ships and trains.
Feted for his invention of the “Fox Corrugated” flue pipes that improved boiler performance, you can still see him – in bust form – in the entrance hall of the Royal College of Music, for which donated most of the construction costs. No obvious thespian links at first sight, unless you include his engagement of Dan Leno, the music hall superstar, to perform at his daughter’s wedding in 1889 – to an engineer.
“An amazing man,” says Samson’s great-great-granddaughter.
“He loved music and theatre, just like my father does, and was a great philanthropist. After two of his staff died when experimenting with water gas, Jerome K Jerome wrote an article accusing him of negligence. Samson went to court over it and although he won nominally, he did not win financially. He lost his love for business and concentrated on giving his money away to hospitals and social housing.”
If he were to become the subject of a biopic, there would be no shortage of actors perfectly suited to portray him and his descendants.
Silent Witness is on BBC1 tonight at 9pm.