Emilia Fox on Silent Witness: 'Nikki will be a character that stays with me'
Emilia Fox speaks exclusively to RadioTimes.com about long-running BBC drama Silent Witness.
Silent Witness first arrived on our screens in February 1996 and has been a mainstay of British television ever since.
Prior to season 26, the BBC crime drama, which follows a team of forensic scientists and pathologists tasked with solving an array of crimes, had a colossal 228 episodes to its name. Aside from the soaps and a number of factual and entertainment programmes, you won't find many that have been on air longer, and Emilia Fox, who has starred as Dr Nikki Alexander since 2004, is its longest-serving cast member.
Did the actor think she'd still be here nearly 20 years later?
"I didn't. No one knew that Silent Witness would still be going now," she says over Zoom. "To familiarise oneself with a character so well, but always being asked to do new and different things by different writers, I had no idea that would happen.
"But I feel very lucky that it has and so very proud to still be part of it."
She casts her mind back to the very start.
"I really remember doing the audition. I'd just moved to the area that I live in now and got offered the part, and the studio was five minutes from my house. I thought, 'My goodness, that was like fate. That was meant to be.'
"And it was a nerve-wracking thing to do because Amanda [Burton] had left this great legacy with Sam Ryan. Having a leading female character in a series drama, that was standout at that time. It was Amanda and it was Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect. They were playing females in male-dominated worlds, and I think they set the path for the rest of us. They are two iconic figures and we must be forever grateful to them, and Nigel [McCrery], who created Silent Witness."
Following on from Burton was no small feat and Fox's main concern was ensuring that Nikki wasn't just a carbon copy of Sam.
"I knew I couldn't step into her shoes or take over from that character, but when I spoke to the producers about it, they reassured me that she'd be a completely different kind of character."
We chat about the show's evolution through the ages. How does it continue to entice its audience back, season after season, and draw in new viewers, too?
"I've seen it through so many different eras now, and I can see when things work, and also when things don't work so well," Fox says.
"When I arrived, it was Harry (Tom Ward), Leo (William Gaminara) and Nikki, so they were writing for three pathologists, which is difficult. The characters had such good relationships with one another, and the fun that was created in the moonlighting between Nikki and Harry changed the dynamic."
Fox credits Liz Carr (Clarissa Mullery) and Richard Linton (Thomas Chamberlain) for "opening up" the world even further as they tackled a varied spectrum of cases, spanning everything from "full-on action" to "domestic-set stories".
"Sometimes you get a case which is very topical," she says, praising Silent Witness for keeping its finger on the pulse. From people smuggling to the effects of drugs on younger generations, [and] knife crime to concerns about who owns our healthcare data, Silent Witness regularly takes inspiration from news headlines.
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And there are also the numerous obscure medical conditions that have been highlighted throughout the series. Variety is the spice of life, after all.
But there is one constant. "The heart of the show is the victim, the silent witness. Finding out how they died by going through the body and the forensics that go with that, that doesn't change."
How extensively the post-mortems feature and the other practical components of what it means to work in that field "can depend on what audiences want", Fox explains, adding: "Sometimes they don't want to see so much of the pathology, or sometimes they want more. And the producers listen to that."
That's also the case with Nikki and Jack Hodgson's relationship. Following Harry's exit, the cage-fighting pathologist arrived on the scene and gradually worked his way into Nikki's heart, which has been warmly received by the audience.
"People loved the fun that they had and the love they had for each other, and they wanted them to get together. But then, do you really want them to get together?"
If you strip the narrative of the unique tension that comes with a will-they-won't-they dynamic, will the show lose some of its shine? As Fox notes, it can only be sustained for so long. Eventually, there has to be a resolution of sorts.
"If you've worked alongside each other for a decade and they're both single, and they clearly enjoy being together, apart from should they get together because they're colleagues, what else is in the way? The producers wanted to put them together and see what would happen, and then we wanted to caretake them into not just being broken up, but to retain the flavour which the audience has seemed to have enjoyed, which is that they can still have that fun and they can still have that relationship."
But as we saw in the opening two episodes of season 26 , which revolved around Italian organised crime group the Ndrangheta, it's not all smooth sailing. "There's a different pressure on them in that they realise they're each other's strengths, but they're also each other's Achilles heel if anything happens to the other one. The love they have for each other is put under pressure."
Conversation shifts to how long Fox sees herself sticking with Silent Witness. She remains palpably enthused about the BBC drama, and when she's not playing Nikki, she's able to explore other opportunities
"I get a change of scene every time a season ends and I can go and do different things."
Her CV between 2004 and the present is extensive. Fantasy series Merlin, surrealist comedy Inside No. 9, period drama The Trial of Christine Keeler, comedy-drama Delicious and even several appearances on Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway are just some of the titles on there.
It's the best of both worlds, providing stability and an ever-present sense of adventure and diversity, so it's hardly surprising that she has no desire to hang up her latex gloves.
"I have always said that I would like to do this job while I love it, and I still love it. And they might say, 'No, we don't want you to do this anymore,' and that's someone else's decision.
"But I will forever look back on this period of time in my life, which is the best part of two decades, and think what a fantastic chance I have had to play someone that I love, who makes the most out of her life and her work, which I have found endlessly fascinating."
Fox also presents true crime documentaries, which got me thinking about the inordinate amount of time she spends thinking about death. What does that do to a person?
"It has had a profound impact on how I feel about life and how I feel about death. Of course, it's the most natural thing, as much as birth is, yet I can never get away from that feeling that life will never be long enough."
She recalls two real-life post-mortems she attended, which had "very different effects" on her.
"The first one I came away from thinking, 'is that what life's all about?' It felt a bit bleak and I wondered where has the spirit of that person gone. The essence of what makes you you, or me me, that's disappeared, and our body is just a vehicle.
"And then I saw another post-mortem of a younger man and it had a completely different effect on me, which was that life is so precious. That poor young man could not have known that his life was going to be taken when it was taken, and it really made me think about life in terms of what we make of it in the today, how we live our lives and conduct ourselves in our relationships; what the value of life is.
"And you see the work that the experts do, and they do it because they want to see justice done. And I really can understand that."
Her mind drifts back to Nikki. "I hope what infuses the character is wanting to do right for people who have had wrong done to them, and I can understand that totally. She will be a character that stays with me for all of my life."
Silent Witness season 26 airs on Mondays and Tuesdays on BBC One and is available to stream on BBC iPlayer. Check out what else is on with our TV Guide and Streaming Guide, or visit our Drama hub for all the latest news and features.