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Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Silent Witness: Hugely underrated BBC drama

Silent Witness is rare. It's been part of BBC One's drama output since 1996 when it starred Amanda Burton as pathologist Sam Ryan. When Amanda decided to leave the show in 2004 it could've signaled the end for one of the BBC's longest-running dramas, but producers cleverly brought in a fresh faced Emilia Fox as Nikki Alexander and a new era of the show was born.


Although Fox was a definite breath of fresh air the show was still very much a procedural, body is found and the pathologists use their skills to get clues from the body to help the police catch their killer. It wasn't until the 13th series in 2010 that I really started to realise Silent Witness was something special.

I had watched since Fox took over in 2004 and whilst the episodes were enjoyable there was nothing in particular that  made the show stand out. This was at the time when the BBC's primetime schedule was heavily populated with well made crime dramas like Waking the Dead and New Tricks. In 2010 there seemed to be a distinct shift.

I noticed it was shot different, the previous series weren't necessarily always dark in tone but they were dark to look out. These new episodes were bright and shiny and everything on screen from the autopsy room  to a scalpel seemed to glisten.  Mid-way through that series there was an episode entitled Shadows. I don't remember every detail (though I own the DVD) but I remember my parents and I being absolutely glued to our seats. The story seemed so different to anything the show had dared to do before. It saw Nikki and Harry trapped on a school campus during a brutal school shooting. When I think about that episodes I still get chills. It was tense and genuinely thrilling. From that episode on Silent Witness became something I watched because I loved it, not something I watched because it was a vaguely good BBC drama.

Nikki Alexander, Harry Cunningham and Leo Dalton were the gang from 2004 to 2012

Over the last few years Emilia Fox has been the only consistent cast member. William Gaminara (Leo Dalton) and Tom Ward (Harry Cunningham) have long since left or been killed off and been replaced by David Caves, Liz Carr and Richard Lintern. A lesser show may have suffered with so many cast changes but somehow Silent Witness, much like a fine wine seems to improve with age. Monday saw the start of its 19th series and it still brings in viewers of over six million  which is a figure most BBC dramas outside of Call the Midwife and Sherlock can only dream of reaching. In lots of ways it isn't underrated, people do watch it, but for some unfathomable reason it isn't held in as high regard as it should be.

I've given a lot of thought to what makes it such a lasting success and I think it's the fact it's a very diverse series. Due to its structure it can tell stories surrounding its lead cast or it can break away and put them in the background and focus on a crime story featuring all new characters. It's its versatility that certainly keeps me watching. Other series like New Tricks suffered from always having to focus on unsolved crimes and so after a few series I was too o fey with how the storytelling worked. Similarly, Waking the Dead was always about bodies discovered in disused warehouses or discovered by workmen on a building site, Silent Witness isn't limited to such constraints and is all the better for it.


The opener of series 19 was a strong one that put Emilia Fox as Nikki Alexander front and centre. From the first moments where we saw a woman appear to be thrown out of a window and land on violently on a parked car I knew the show was back.

It focused on one of Nikki's first cases and it appeared it was her this time in real danger. Much like the best episodes of the series there were moments that me reaching for a cushion to shield my face, the mystery was absorbing and interesting and all the performances were spot on. Like anything there are things you have to let slide, would a criminal pathologist really be this invested with a case and argue with police? Probably not, but I'm happy to let these little niggles slide as when it's good Silent Witness is one of the most consistently entertaining dramas on the BBC and long may it continue.

Silent Witness Continues Monday at 9.00pm on BBC One


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