Emilia Fox on on unexpected success, technophobia and being buried alive

The Silent Witness actress spoke to Country Life's Jeremy Taylor.

Emilia Fox spent much of her early life in a time-warp cottage near the Jurassic Coast in Dorset. There was no television or mobile-phone reception and, even if the worldwide web had been available, her father, the actor Edward Fox, preferred mail that had a stamp on it. It may explain why the Silent Witness star currently has more than 19,000 unopened emails in her inbox. There’s a large pile of post stacked on a chair in her west London home, too.

‘I haven’t touched it for months—it’s like having another person in the house,’ she says. ‘Some of the emails are beyond hope, but even the recent ones frustrate me. I’m completely hopeless and can’t bear to think what I’ve missed. I understand now why my father still doesn’t have a mobile or use the internet. I’m sure his life is much simpler for it.’

We’re talking in a suite at the Milestone Hotel in Kensington, a luxurious venue a world away from the pathology lab in which Miss Fox spends much of her time on set, clad in the white protective suit of her screen persona. This weekend, she will attend the Investec Derby Festival as an ambassador, along with the irrepressible jockey Frankie Dettori. ‘It’s my first time at Epsom and any excuse to get dressed up is a treat. The theme is flowers and butterflies—I’m wearing a hat designed by Rachel Trevor-Morgan,’ she discloses.

Miss Fox, 42, has just started filming the 21st series of Silent Witness, due to be screened early next year on BBC1. Thankfully, her character, feisty pathologist Dr Nikki Alexander, survived being buried alive in the final episode of season 20—the nail-biting climax, set in Mexico, attracted more than six million viewers. ‘I did feel terribly claustrophobic during filming of those underground scenes,’ she recalls. ‘It took a week to shoot and, although the crew was with me, I missed having other actors around. It’s lonely when you’re in such a tiny space with only a scorpion for company.’

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Miss Fox was born into an acting dynasty. Her father played the assassin in the 1973 thriller The Day of the Jackal, as well as major roles in the Battle of Britain, The Go-Between and A Bridge Too Far. He later portrayed Edward VIII in the television drama Edward and Mrs. Simpson. Her mother, Joanna David, has been a stage and screen stalwart since first appearing in a BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility in 1971, brother Freddie Fox starred in Kenneth Branagh’s acclaimed Romeo and Juliet at the Garrick Theatre last year and her cousin, Laurence Fox, played DS Hathaway in the popular crime series Lewis.

‘I was born in London, but we spent a lot of time in Dorset. My childhood was about playing on the beach, making scrapbooks and learning about butterflies and nature. It was idyllic, wild and unique. If Mum and Dad want a telephone conference call with me now, one uses the phone in the kitchen and the other an extension in the bathroom upstairs.’

Miss Fox was initially educated in London, at Francis Holland School. ‘I struggled at secondary because I was too naïve and innocent—like a fish out of water—so I asked my parents if I could board in the country instead. I moved to Bryanston [in Dorset] and absolutely blossomed.’

‘I hid behind the sofa because Dad was on camera kissing another woman’

Although Freddie was ‘born singing tracks from Guys and Dolls’, she had no interest in following the family’s theatrical tradition. ‘I never watched my parents because we didn’t own a television. When I did see The Day of the Jackal, I hid behind the sofa because Dad was on camera kissing another woman.’

Her big break came while studying English at St Catherine’s College, Oxford. A director friend of her mother wanted a young-looking actress who could also play the piano. The 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice was also to star a fresh-faced actor called Colin Firth playing her brother, Mr Darcy. ‘I took the part because I thought it would be much better than becoming a waitress. I don’t think anybody involved had a clue how big the series would become. I returned to college afterwards and carried on with my studies in the hope of becoming a journalist.’

However, a theatrical agent then contacted Miss Fox and a number of major roles followed. She played Jane Seymour in a biopic about Henry VIII and the title role in Katherine Howard at Chichester Festival Theatre as well as starring in Randall and Hopkirk. ‘I had no formal training, but my career never looked back. When I was offered Silent Witness in 2004, taking over from Amanda Burton, I thought it would be good fun for a year or two—I had no idea it would still be so popular now.’

She married Mad Men actor Jared Harris in 2005, the son of hell-raising superstar Richard Harris, but they divorced in 2010, after which Miss Fox entered into a relationship with peace activist Jeremy Gilley. The couple had a daughter, Rose, but split up soon after.

‘Having a child has taught me to live in the present and treasure every moment. I’ve learnt more from Rose than anybody else. I’m happiest when I’m at home with her, curled up on the sofa with our two miniature dachshunds, Dolly and Clive.’

Miss Fox’s cottage-style house is covered in wisteria and clematis, tended by her father. ‘Dad has just turned 80, but he’s still a master at pruning. Mum looks after the pot plants and I do the general maintenance. It was a concrete jungle when I first moved in, but we’ve created an oasis of calm, with lavender, roses and tulips. My ultimate dream is to have a kitchen garden, but each series of Silent Witness takes seven months to film and time is short.’

Will she survive the 21st series? ‘We had a lot of discussions after I was buried alive, but I’m still here. I have no idea what’s in the final script. It’s a precarious life being an actor.’
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Emilia Fox is an ambassador for the Investec Derby Festival at Epsom, Surrey, on June 2–3 (https://derby.investec.com)