Emilia Fox on her lesbian romance in Upstairs Downstairs

imageBenji Wilson talks to Emilia Fox about her role as a lesbian alongside Alex Kingston in the new series of BBC One’s period drama Upstairs Downstairs

Last year, someone tried to steal Emilia Fox’s identity.

“I got a text from my bank, saying your request to change your mobile phone number has been accepted. I rang the bank, gave my address as a security code and they said, ‘As of two days ago that’s not your address.’ Someone was about to suck my life away. They’d actually gone in to the bank, with my signature, as me.”

The amazing thing about this story is not that people steal other people’s identities but that someone thought they could walk in to a bank, say ‘I’m Emilia Fox,’ and get away with it. Because Emilia Fox is really quite famous. She has been the star of Silent Witness, the BBC’s long-standing ratings banker, for half of its fourteen series. She comes from what we are contractually obliged to call an acting dynasty. She has the family face. And yet her own bank didn’t know her.

“That’s how unrecognisable I am,” she says.

Today, granted, she is a little unrecognisable. She has deep coppery red hair. It was dyed for her latest role, a part in the new series of the BBC’s rebooted Upstairs Downstairs. Fox plays a bohemian novelist called Lady Portia Alresford, a society woman very much from the Upstairs sector, who has written a roman à clef about Blanche Mottershead, played by Alex Kingston. Unfortunately the roman is not nearly clef-ed enough for Blanche’s liking, revealing as it does details of Blanche and Portia’s covert lesbian romance.

“They’d had an affair. In a sort of Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis way.” And how much of this is made explicit? “Er, well, basically, Alex Kingston and I… get it on. It wasn’t explicit in the script what we were meant to do so we made it up as we went along. I’ve done a few scenes like that in my time; I just haven’t done it with a woman. But part of the joy of acting is being asked to do things you haven’t done before so why not?”

Kingston and Fox (Fox arrives in episode three) are the major casting additions to the new series of Upstairs Downstairs, penned again by Heidi Thomas, the woman behind the TV series Cranford and the runaway hit that is Call the Midwife. Events again focus on the lives of upper-crust Sir Hallam and Lady Agnes Holland and their staff, but this time there’s high tension in the air as the threat of the Second World War looms over their comfortable Eaton Place address.

“It’s good storytelling, it’s perfect escapism from what’s happening in everyday life,” says Fox. She has no truck with the rumoured rivalry between the Beeb’s latest period blockbuster and ITV’s Downton Abbey: “I’d say they complement each other. There’s certainly no beef between the actors.”

The aristocratic hauteur Fox is able to affect playing characters such as Lady Portia belies how she comes across in real life. She has a twinkle in her eye, for sure, but mostly she seems timorous. As it happens I interviewed Freddie Fox, her little brother, before Christmas. Although Milly is Fred’s senior by 15 years, they are close, and they look almost laughably similar. Yet in character they could scarcely be less alike. Fred is as confident as a golden retriever; Milly more mouse-like.

“I’m much more shy,” she says, adding that unlike her little brother, she never made it her mission to be an actor.

“I didn’t really choose acting. I sort of ended up doing it.” She was still at Oxford when she was cast in the BBC’s classic 1995 Pride and Prejudice. That got her an agent, and the minute she finished her degree she was put up for the lead in an adaptation of Rebecca. She got that too and just kept going.

The only notable hiccup in her career has come in the theatre. Her last outing on stage was opposite Jared Harris in 2003’s revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Harris and Fox got on swimmingly, the production less so: the reviews were so bad that Harris and Fox used them to wrap fish and chips at their wedding. (They divorced in 2009.) Fox claims the experience didn’t put her off theatre. She says she just prefers a camera to a live audience, and that that is a facet of her overall reserve.

“I find it nerve-racking going on stage. I think I’m not very good – I’m much better on camera. You’re very naked on stage and you’re so reliant on the audience giving you something back. I quite like the cushion of filming. You forget everyone’s there.”

She says she might return to the theatre if the role were “irresistible” but for now making TV and films – after Upstairs Downstairs she is off to shoot Mike Figgis’s new movie – is just a lot more convenient. This is partly because Fox is that comparative rarity on British television, a successful working mother. Indeed she is a successful single working mother: she split from Jeremy Gilley, the father of her 15-month-old daughter Rose, last year.

“Obviously when you have a child your priority is your child. Everything else disappears. But I’d like to have my career as well. It’s all too easy,” she says, laughing, “to lose your identity.”

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