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Emilia today
Emilia today

Fox hunt! Why Emilia’s on the trail of three cold case killers

After 17 years on Silent Witness, Emilia Fox turns her hand to true crime in her new series. And as a mother, she tells Frances Hardy, the cases she’s trying to crack are heartbreaking

With her impeccable enunciation and effortless elegance, it’s hard to imagine actress Emilia Fox enjoying a boisterous night out playing bingo - but she assures me she does. Or did, before lockdown prevented it. ‘Oh, yes!’ she confirms brightly. ‘I’d go to bingo with Liz Carr. She’s a demon at it and I’ve discovered how very amateur I am in comparison. We’ve been to a Mecca Bingo hall and played at a pub as well. We worked together for seven months each year on Silent Witness and inevitably we’ve become great friends. Liz will be hugely missed and is irreplaceable.’

Emilia, 46, has spent the past 17 years playing forensic pathologist Dr Nikki Alexander in the long-running BBC crime drama; Liz played forensic examiner Clarissa Mullery for eight series but left at the end of the last one last year and has now made Hollywood movie Infinite. But Emilia is staying in the path lab. And so irrevocably is she associated with her role as the passionately committed Dr Alexander that fans tend to blur her real-life and fictional personae.

I ask her if there was much elbow-nudging at those bingo sessions. Did fellow players ask about the show as she and Liz were marking their cards? ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘And people were kind enough to say they enjoy Silent Witness. There are lovely moments when students tell me they hope to go into pathology or forensic science because the programme has inspired them.’

Emilia admits that over the years she’s become immersed in her fictional character and, keen to give her performance authenticity, seeks out expert advice. ‘I’ve actually been to a couple of post-mortems,’ she says. ‘It was helpful to see how the pathologist and police collaborate. I understand why the show is so fascinating to viewers because the clues are all within the body, and going through the process of an autopsy is the path to finding the cause and manner of death. Inevitably the storylines in Silent Witness draw on topical subjects and I’m as interested in true-life crime as much as the dramatic licence.’

Which is why she was the obvious choice for her latest TV project. Emilia turns real-life sleuth for a new Channel 4 series, In The Footsteps Of Killers. She and criminologist Professor David Wilson reopen three unsolved cold-case murders, using the latest forensic science techniques and research to shed new light on them. Their goal? To get justice for the victims.

The series is shot like a drama - but is all the more compelling for being about real murders. Emilia and David travel to the locations of the crimes and interview witnesses, suspects and friends and family of the victims in the hope of building up a picture of exactly what happened to them and uncovering fresh leads.

There’s the mystery of RAF servicewoman Rita Ellis. Brutally murdered on a November night in 1967 when she was just 19, her body was found in a copse near RAF Halton, Buckinghamshire, where she lived and worked - Emilia and David go to the woodland to retrace her steps. Rita’s murder remains unsolved after more than 50 years despite periodic inquiries and the recent availability of a full DNA profile of the killer - it was tested against nearly 200 men in 2017, but there were no matches.

On the night of Rita’s death the airbase was buzzing with activity because a bingo session and disco were taking place. She’d been due to babysit for wing commander Roy Watson and his wife. He drove to pick her up, waiting irritably for a quarter of an hour outside the female block where she lived, before going home to fetch his wife who, under RAF rules at the time, was allowed in. She searched in vain for Rita but at the time it was thought that, having never met the wing commander before, Rita had got into the wrong car. Her body was found the next day by a dog walker.

The eminent pathologist Professor Keith Simpson, known for his post-mortems on high-profile murder cases, carried out the autopsy, which disclosed that Rita had been beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled. She was a virgin and significantly did not, it appeared, put up a fight.

Emilia discovers a witness from the RAF base who saw Rita shortly before her death and describes her as ‘a shy, lonely, gentle soul with no aggression in her’. Emilia and David also discover a woman, identifying herself only as Linda, who tells them she was sexually assaulted by a ‘well-spoken stranger’ claiming to be delivering medical supplies to the local hospital shortly after Rita was murdered.

With Professor David Wilson in the new series

Linda, who was 15 when she was assaulted, confesses she was too wary of censure even to mention the assault to the police at the time. ‘Years ago you didn’t talk about these things. You’d be looked down upon,’ she says.

David agrees the crime would have been ‘trivialised’, and that Linda would likely have been considered ‘foolhardy’ for walking alone. Our sleuths also discover that another woman was attacked in nearby Little Tring by a ‘man in a trilby’, who attempted to throttle her. ‘I’m not convinced this man killed Rita because his modus operandi is just too different from her murderer’s,’ David concludes.

So what does he deduce about whoever strangled Rita? ‘I think it’s obvious she knew the person who killed her,’ he says. ‘I don’t get the impression we’re looking for a psychopath.’

In an era when shame still surrounded extra-marital sex, David believes Rita was killed as the result of a sexual encounter that went ‘horribly wrong’. But although the sleuths do shed new light on the case, there may never be a resolution. ‘The perpetrator may be dead,’ says Emilia.

They also explore the continuing conundrum of estate agent Suzy Lamplugh, who was just 25 when she disappeared in 1986 after showing a client round a house in Fulham, south-west London. Her body has never been found, her killer never brought to justice, and both her grieving parents died without any closure.

Emilia and David follow up a fresh lead, and Emilia seeks a meeting with prime suspect John Cannan, who is in jail for another murder. He writes her a letter from prison denying he had any part in Suzy’s murder but boasting he drove a ‘smart black BMW’ (a dark BMW was linked to Suzy’s kidnap) and bragging ‘in those days I had girls galore’.

They also re-examine the disappearance of friends Patrick Warren and David Spencer, who were 11 and 13 when they went missing from their estate on the outskirts of Birmingham on Boxing Day night 1996, never to be seen again. ‘It’s heartbreaking,’ says Emilia. ‘I care so much about the feelings of those who’ve lost loved ones and don’t know what happened to them. You can’t help feeling emotionally involved and empathising with the families. I’m a mother; I put myself in the place of the bereaved relatives and think about how difficult it must be not to have closure or a resolution.’

Emilia is mum to Rose, ten, by her former partner Jeremy Gilley, the actor and film director turned peace campaigner with whom she had a three-year relationship that ended in 2012. Currently single, she’s raising Rose (her only child) on her own - with the help of nanny Clare - and she’s ever-conscious of the need to keep work and home life separate. ‘Given that I work on some quite dark subjects I try to protect Rose from them and keep being a mum in a separate compartment. Immediately I’m home I become as focused on Rose as I possibly can be.’

Was she home-schooling during lockdown? ‘I sure was! And I really take my hat off to Rose’s teachers. We had a glimpse of what it’s like for both them and their pupils. Until now I’d just seen my role as helping Rose with her homework. But I’ve been pretty involved with all subjects, which has highlighted my lack of knowledge. I was frantically drawing on things I learnt at school and university. I could help with English and creative writing [Emilia has an English degree from Oxford] but I definitely fell short in maths.

‘Luckily Rose had her dad and Clare to help too. I was thinking, “Thank God for the internet!” I felt like I was learning with Rose. I think I might have to go back to school again.’ She smiles.

I ask if she’s happily single and she says, ‘Yes, I am! I’m very glad to be. I’m lucky to have Rose and work, and I’m happily putting all my energy into both at the moment. If a romance works with someone, that’s fantastic. If it doesn’t, that’s OK too.’

Emilia is one of that rare breed of people who hasn’t gone to seed during lockdown. Her blonde hair is still neatly bobbed thanks to her regular appearances on screen. ‘I’ve been very lucky, going to work every day where there’s an entire department dedicated to doing my hair and make-up!’ And unlike many of us, she doesn’t appear to have put on an ounce.

Five years back, she explains, she decided she needed to focus on her physical fitness. ‘I wasn’t doing anything other than running round after a small child, so I started going to the gym, doing Pilates and swimming.’ Recently, of course, the keep-fit has been home-based. ‘Joe Wicks has been an amazing PE teacher for Rose and me, and I was doing cardio and Pilates at home too.’

There were plenty of Zoom chats with friends during lockdown as well. ‘Oh yes! Everything was done over Zoom - quizzes, suppers, drinks parties. Where would we have been without our screens?’ She reveals that - quite by coincidence - she became reacquainted with three old chums from her boarding school, Bryanston in Dorset, when their daughters in turn all became besties at their west London school. ‘Can you believe it? It was quite by chance that our kids became friends and now, after all these years, we all reunited on Zoom,’ she says.

But she’s looking forward to sitting in a restaurant again. ‘Right now I’d love to have dinner with Dawn French,’ she says. The pair appeared together in Sky’s food and infidelity drama Delicious. ‘She’s so funny. Nothing pleases me more than sitting down for a meal and a chat with friends.’

A while back she declared she’d become teetotal. Now she says, ‘I never drink when I’m working. I have too many lines to remember! But I’ll definitely have the odd glass with supper when I’m not. That said, if I had to take something away it would be alcohol. I could manage much less well without coffee!’

I ask about her family, most of them eminent actors. Her parents are Edward Fox - who came to fame when he played the title role in The Day Of The Jackal in 1973 - and Joanna David, best known for her roles in TV dramas such as 1995’s Pride And Prejudice and Downton Abbey, in which she appeared as the Duchess of Yeovil. Emilia’s brother Freddie, 15 years her junior, is also making his mark on stage and TV and can currently be seen in the BBC’s The Pursuit Of Love.

Her uncle is A Passage To India’s James Fox, and cousins Jack, Lydia and Laurence are also actors - although Laurence is now a political activist and leads his own Reclaim party. What does Emilia think about his mid-life foray into politics? ‘We all have different opinions about different things,’ she says carefully. ‘I definitely don’t think people would want to hear my opinion about Laurence. I don’t feel I have the right to discuss it.’

She’s more voluble on Freddie. ‘I’m so proud of him. He’s doing so well. He’s an enormously dedicated actor.’ I mention that she and her little brother went head to head when he played murderer Jeremy Bamber in the real-life ITV crime drama White House Farm, which aired at the same time as Silent Witness. Why does she think we, as a nation, have such an appetite for crime, both real and fictional, on TV? ‘My theory is we’re interested in things that aren’t really part of our average lives. We want to know about the psychological motivation of criminals. We watch from the safety of our sofas. And of course there’s the added interest of solving the mystery.’

The 24th and 25th series of Silent Witness are in the pipeline, and I wonder what Emilia’s years of working with the dead in the drama have taught her about the great metaphysical questions of life. Does she have a sense of where our spirits go after death, for example? ‘I wouldn’t say I have a religious belief as much as a spiritual feeling that the essence of us goes somewhere else. But it’s intangible and elusive. It’s one of the great mysteries of life we’ll never be able to solve.

‘And we never know how long we’re going to be here for, so you can look at it bleakly or you can say to yourself, “We must make the most of life in every way.” I think that’s the best way to be.’

In The Footsteps Of Killers will be shown next month on Channel 4.


I’M LUCKY TO HAVE MARCO IN MY LIFE

Age and experience have taught Emilia to be philosophical about love. She married actor Jared Harris, son of the legendary Richard Harris, in 2005 but they separated three years later and divorced in 2010. Meanwhile she had met Jeremy Gilley, father of her daughter Rose, who was born that same year. Most recently her engagement to talent agent Luc Chaudhary, whom she met on a celebrity dating app, ended amicably after a year in 2020.

But she’s a loyal friend, most notably to another ex, chef Marco Pierre White, whom she still loves dearly. When they got together in 2012 (pictured in 2014) it seemed an unlikely pairing: her restrained English sophistication versus his passionate Latinate volatility. Marco, now 59, had a difficult estranged wife and four children in tow (three of whom lived with him). It seemed like a potentially combustible mix.

The relationship ended in 2016, but today she speaks of Marco with genuine fondness. ‘We’re still very much friends. When a relationship allows you to still love all the things you enjoy about the person without actually being in love, then it will continue. Marco is really kind and thoughtful. A true gentleman. I feel very lucky for that.’

She also feels great affection for his children. ‘I think when you’re allowed to be part of the lives of your partner’s children you’re in a fortunate position and you ought to take responsibility for that. You can’t just jump out of that when a relationship breaks up. You have to be respectful to the children who have allowed you into their lives. I adore Marco’s children, and he absolutely loves Rose.’

COVER AND INSIDE PHOTOGRAPHY: NEALE HAYNES, HAIR & MAKE-UP: LIZ BECKETT, STYLING: ARABELLA BOYCE. METALLIC SILK TRENCH COAT BY DEBONNAIRE, HEELS BY MEENU GRAZIANI. OTHER PHOTOS: NOBLE DRAPER, SHUTTERSTOCK