Amanda Burton on Silent Witness return and Sam Ryan's legacy
As the forensic crime drama celebrates a landmark 25th season, Radio Times magazine caught up with returning original cast member Amanda Burton about what we can expect.
This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.
It’s pretty unusual to return to a landmark series you once headed after many years away. Not many actors have the nerve to do it, but Amanda Burton has plenty of that. Furthermore, if Silent Witness wants you back for a season, playing the character you made your own, and for which you were garlanded with awards, then why not?
Hence Burton once more steps up as forensic pathologist Professor Sam Ryan, alongside her successor Dr Nikki Alexander, who is played by Emilia Fox in the Silent Witness cast. A special six-part story was commissioned to mark the 25th anniversary series of the BBC drama. As it happens, the idea for both actors to star in the season possibly arose after a prompt from none other than Radio Times.
“I was invited to come back, which was pretty gorgeous and took me by surprise,” says Burton. “The team confirmed that it was going to be a very interesting story arc over six episodes, and if I didn’t jump and do it, it would be something I would regret.”
But was the idea inspired by a Radio Times feature, which brought Burton and Fox together for the first time to mark the 20th anniversary series, in which it was suggested that a joint episode would be a wonderful thing? “I think the article… well, Emilia and I both had a twinkle about it. I never thought it would be possible, but it was a punchy idea. So, when it landed, I thought what a very exciting opportunity. And it might have been hatched that day by Radio Times…”
Episode one shows Prof Ryan returning to her old stamping ground, eyeballing Fox over a corpse in a laboratory. The episode was shot in Liverpool, which only turned up the sensibility as this was the place where Burton first hit the mainstream as Heather Haversham in Phil Redmond’s long-running Channel 4 soap Brookside, which was filmed in the city.
“When I was up in Liverpool, I thought very much of my life generally, because it was 40 years since I started in Brookside, now coming back to film Silent Witness. Thinking back over that time was quite an emotional thing for me. Silent Witness was a huge jump for me. It was my first big lead, and was a show built around my character.”
Did she go back to Brookside Close on which the series was famously shot in real houses?
“I had a fun evening running around the Close. The TV crews have long left. It’s now a peaceful, bucolic place with normal people living in it. It’s really lovely to see.”
When Burton took on the role of Dr Sam Ryan, as she was in 1996, there were very few other mainstream TV shows focusing on a man’s world led by a woman, bar Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect. “Well, I don’t want to have a medal for it,” says Burton drily, “but other than me and Helen there simply were not any women leading a series, apart from Stephanie Turner [later Anna Carteret] in Juliet Bravo.”
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Also, Ryan was a very unusual character. “She didn’t conform to the stereotypical image. That’s why I loved playing her. I’ve always felt emotional about Sam, because she’s such a strong character, a lone wolf. She made a strong impact in those days. She wasn’t married and didn’t always have to have someone in her life to make her a complete, fulfilled, complex woman.”
Was it always so? Er, not quite. “There was a point when I was pressurised to make her more fluffy and likeable, but I shot that down quite quickly,” snorts Burton. “She was not an archetypal female character, and I believe she was a forerunner for strong women in drama.”
It seems impertinent to ask, but does Burton wish her career had the same onward trajectory into cinema as that of Dame Helen, her compatriot back in the day? “Some things have been better than others,” says Burton. “To have enjoyed my career as I have done to date is a remarkable achievement. To continue working and to still feel an absolute passion for the industry, these are remarkable things to have. I don’t compare myself to others because therein madness lies.”
What she does think about, however, is the encouragement she has given others. “Silent Witness and my role in it inspired a lot of young women to think of science as a career,” says Burton proudly. “Over the years, I’ve had a lot of young women writing to me saying I inspired them to go into forensics or pathology. That has been wonderful. That was a great thing. I have always said if you don’t see yourself in the frame how do you know it can happen?”
How did she know it would happen? She was brought up in Londonderry and, as “Mandy” Burton, enrolled at Manchester School of Theatre, aged 18. “As a child all I wanted to be involved with was storytelling. When I had the chance to go to drama school, I hate to say it was my dream, but I was progressively more and more interested in trying to make a life of being an actor.
“The fact I have been able to spend my life doing a job I absolutely love doing… it doesn’t get any better than that. I’m so proud that I could look after myself. Being independent in my life solely through my work gives me a massive buzz.”
She gives a dazzling smile. “It’s not rocket science or saving lives but, my God, sometimes you have to say that it is a satisfying job, if you are entertaining people, transporting them.”
Have the big female-led stories been hard to make happen? “I remember being asked this when I was 40,” says Burton. Apologies, but it is still an issue on mainstream TV. “Well, I think there are fantastic roles for women out there. I don’t think about it any more, and we shouldn’t have to talk about it.”
Really? “Well, there is a certain amount of luck in it,” Burton concedes. “There are people in parallel lives who never got the chance.” We discuss the recent best actress Film Bafta won by Joanna Scanlan for her role in After Love. She was introduced on Radio 4 news bulletins as “the 60-year-old Scanlan” as if to win a best actress award at that age was peculiar. Notably, the age of the best actor (Will Smith, 53) wasn’t mentioned.
“You have to ask yourself why it’s so remarkable that a woman who’s 60 can win a Bafta,” says Burton. “I mean, for God’s sake. It’s not. Joanna played that role with every ounce of passion and skill.” Burton pauses. “I don’t even engage with those sort of comments.”
Are we now going to see the permanent return of Professor Ryan? “No. No more Silent Witness. This has been so special and gorgeous, and to be a part of this landmark celebration of the 25th anniversary is enough.” What next, then, for Mandy Burton? “Well, summer rumbles on. One keeps one’s fingers crossed.” I suspect it won’t be long before they are uncrossed with relish and this smart actor has a brand new project with which to transport us.
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