For a woman who has spent the morning examining a grisly murder scene in a dirty, dusty, deserted building, Amanda Burton is looking remarkably cool and collected – almost as cool and collected as Professor Sam Ryan, the role which established her as one of the nation’s favourite actresses and which sees her back on BBC One in the latest series of Silent Witness.
Sam Ryan has become a large part of Amanda Burton’s life: “Sometimes I wonder how much I have shaped her and how much she has shaped me over the years. It’s a very spiritual connection I have with Sam.”
This is the sixth series of the show which gave Amanda her first lead role and stemmed from a holiday chat with a friend who worked at the BBC. “I was heavily into Patricia Cornwell at the time and happened to say that I’d love to play a forensic pathologist or someone like that. She said the BBC were thinking of creating one, and it all went from there – the fates and a chance conversation.
“Sam’s still teaching pathology at London University but has plenty of time to get involved with more unusual criminal cases,” explains Amanda. “But it’s as much about the living as the dead.”
Still, Amanda is pleased that the programme doesn’t shy away from showing the more grisly aspects of a forensic pathologist’s work, which she feels are missing from other shows. “We see a lot more people in paper suits now, but you don’t have another female character involved in such grimness,” she says with a smile.
This time around, Sam has two new colleagues working alongside her at the University pathology lab – Dr Leo Dalton, played by William Gaminara, and Harry Cunningham, played by Tom Ward. Leo has left his partner and daughter behind in Sheffield to take a promotion in London. He can be quite brilliant but doesn’t have time for the politics which goes with career success and, once in London, finds it hard to juggle his work and family commitments. Bright and very ambitious, Harry is a trainee still studying hard for his exams and working closely under Sam’s supervision.
Together, the trio delve deep into a variety of mysterious and suspicious deaths, unravelling the clues that will find the killers. Their cases include a dead man found in a derelict lift shaft and a multiple murder at a family home which reunites Sam with one of her old flames. Back at the university, drugs are going missing from the toxicology lab and Harry finds himself distracted by the party-loving daughter of one of the university’s biggest benefactors.
It was Amanda, co-producer of this series, who suggested that Sam should have some permanent company in the morgue. “I thought we should move it forward and open it out more, in the same way we did three years ago in making her a professor. We can explore more stories and the relationships she has with Leo and Harry are great, it allows her to be a less isolated figure.” But fans can be reassured that Professor Ryan is still very much the linchpin of the whole show. “It’s very clever the way it’s been structured – Sam is still at the centre of every story,” explains Amanda, before going on to quickly squash suggestions that either Leo or Harry might be a new love interest. “Leo is an established pathologist in his own right, they have their disagreements but there is a mutual professional respect. He has his own life and Sam has hers. “Harry is very much the trainee that Sam was a few years ago, and she recognises in him certain qualities: his approach, his caring attitude and the way his mind works on a case. She’s basically his mentor and I really enjoyed that dynamic.”
As for Sam: “She isn’t as troubled as she used to be, she seems to have accepted that her life is like this – she’s single, she’s forty-something and she’s fine with that.”
Being a co-producer has meant Amanda has been more closely involved in the show than ever before. “It’s been very interesting being a co-producer, seeing how things work from behind the scenes. Obviously I was aware of a lot of it before; you can’t be in the business and not realise what it takes to make a show, but it was great to be involved in the whole process and see stories that have come through development all the way to the final edit and to have more input into the characters.”
Amanda’s next role will be back in front of the cameras as a police commander in Lynda La Plante’s new drama for ITV, a role which La Plante is said to have written specifically for her. In the meantime, she’ll be enjoying some quality time with her husband, photographer Sven Arnstein, and their two young daughters. Her home life, complete with dogs and horses, remains the most important thing in her life.
Though voted Most Popular Actress in numerous awards ceremonies and the woman who most other females in the country would like to be in other polls, the actress from Londonderry remains refreshingly down to earth. When French and Saunders did their famous sketch lampooning Silent Witness, she was just amazed that they’d noticed the show. “It was a very odd experience, watching yourself being taken off like that, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, do I really do that? It’s funny because I was talking to the driver on the way in this morning about it, so when I was filming this morning I did a little bit of an arched eyebrow – just for Jennifer!”