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A Life Less Ordinary – Emilia Fox

The actress on finding work-life balance, balloons by post and remodelling Fred Flintstone’s garden.

Emilia Fox made her professional acting debut playing Georgina, the sister of Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy in the BBC’s classic 1995 version of Pride & Prejudice. Acting is her family business: father Edward Fox, mother Joanna David, uncle James Fox, brother Freddie Fox and cousins Laurence, Lydia and Jack Fox all appear regularly on stage and screen. Most often, Emilia Fox has been Dr Nikki Alexander in over 120 episodes of the crime drama Silent Witness, and she also currently stars in the hit Sky 1 drama Delicious.

Where do you go to think?
My garden, because I find gardening cathartic. When I got my own house, the thing I loved most of all was being able to create a garden. It looked like Fred Flintstone had lived in the garden before, and I made an English country cottage garden in London. I’ve found it calms my mind, and it’s a positive influence. And I’m not just a fair-weather gardener: I like doing the substantial work in it as well.

What are the everyday pleasures that you can’t live without?
Obviously, my family. I’m addicted to coffee, much as I’ve tried to give it up. And flowers because wherever I am, I can make a home with them. And the school run. Sometimes my working hours are not very friendly, and so I absolutely love being able to take Rose [Fox’s six-year-old daughter] to school and see that she gets in there, and she’s happy. I love nothing better than celebrating the extraordinary in the very ordinary.

At my parents’ house in Dorset, there’s no TV, no phone reception. You have to communicate with each other. The older I get, the more I appreciate that

To whom do you look for advice most often?
Lara Cazalet, who is my best friend since we were 13, at school together, because she gives brilliant advice. It’s always straight up, and there’s no sugar. Does she get it in return? I hope so. She’s a lot more forthright than I am, though.

What’s the best thing you’ve done for someone else?
After doing [TV genealogy show] Who Do You Think You Are, I got a book done for a friend’s birthday present, with their family history and roots, with photographs, documents and anything relevant to their ancestry. I thought it was a birthday present that they would always have, always remember, and that could be passed on to their children.

What’s the best thing anyone’s done for you?
A friend named a rose after me, for my 40th birthday, and also Mr Fothergill’s Seeds gave a sweet pea my name. It was the greatest birthday present ever, to have a flower that would carry on after me.

Where’s the best place you’ve ever been?
My parents’ house in Dorset, because life is at its simplest there, and its purest, and definitely its best, because everything is about family and friends. There’s no TV, no phone reception. All that is put aside, so you have to communicate with each other. You have to talk to each other, play games with each other. Life is mainly outside in the garden, or going to the sea, and children just adore it. I grew up having weekends and holidays there, and then I went to school near there. The older I get, the more I appreciate my time there, so I’ve started taking Rose, and I appreciate it so, so, much.

What’s the best thing you can cook?
Shepherd’s pie. My mum gave me her recipe, and the secret ingredient is Marmite, which you just stir into the cooked mince.

How do you make yourself happy?
Being with Rose and making her happy, because if she’s happy then I’m happy.

Name the art and/or culture that most inspires you.
I love going to the theatre, watching other people on stage. I find it terrifying, myself, so it’s always rather a luxury watching other people do it, knowing how exposed and vulnerable it makes you. At home I quite like reading poetry, and Raymond Carver is my favourite poet.

Can you name something you’ve bought that you would never give away?
Our dogs, Dolly and Clive, two long-haired miniature Dachshunds. I got them for Rose’s fourth birthday and they’re very much part of the family. Clive was ill recently and had to go to hospital and it was awful. Rose and I had our first discussions about death. I didn’t have dogs as a child and so the thought of not having him around hit me very much harder than I had expected.

When was the last time you were pleasantly surprised?
A friend sent two boxes of balloons to Rose and I the other day, just to make us smile. I went and picked up these massive boxes from the Post Office and then out came these balloons, which really did make us smile, and also Rose’s nanny made us lemon drizzle cakes at the end of the week, the other day, with our initials on them, and it was such a thoughtful thing to do, it was terrific.

When was the last time you made or created something?
Banana bread, last weekend. Best eaten warm, so it gets demolished straight away.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Aside from Rose, who’s a daily wonder to watch, then I think being part of Silent Witness reaching its 20th series. It’s a show that I’m immensely proud of, and I think it still aims to evolve and change and keep its standards up, and I love being part of it.

What do you consider humankind’s greatest achievement?
This question is so hard, isn’t it? Is it language, our ability to communicate with each other? Is it travel? Because I do think that that’s amazing, that we can travel the world, and how much that has opened up knowledge about the world we live in. Is it technology? Science? I think the very wonder that we still even exist and haven’t destroyed ourselves is extraordinary. Then there’s imagination and creativity. Maybe then, on a simpler level, it’s our capacity to love.

Who best demonstrates, or has demonstrated, the courage of their convictions?
The dancer Sylvie Guillem. She’s incredible. I was at the South Bank Awards and she was getting a sort of lifetime achievement award. Hearing her speak was eye-opening and wondrous, and I’ve been addicted to her ever since. She was known as Mademoiselle Non, for her determination to be unique. The things that she says are so inspiring. One of them I love is, ‘I could’ve ended up like a cork bobbing along in the water at the whim of the currents, instead I prefer to take the helm and steer my life into the open sea and its storms.’

What song could you sing most completely right now?
The Horse with the Golden Mane, because it’s Rose’s song that she has to learn to perform for a class that she does, and so we had it playing over and over and over again. Something I learned by osmosis, not necessarily through choice.

What’s the best journey you’ve ever been on?
Travelling around Africa on my honeymoon, which was one of the happiest times of my life [Fox was married to the actor Jared Harris]. We went round Botswana, Tanzania and Zanzibar. We were camping, and we were in lodges, and I just loved it, and still love it. I’ve worked quite a lot in Africa since, and I’ve also been back there on trips with organisations like ActionAid and Hope and Homes For Children. I’d love to keep on going back, as many times as I can, for the rest of my life, hopefully.

If you could do one thing to change the status quo, what would it be?
I’d love to get the balance of work and life right. At the moment, I don’t really sleep enough. When I’m awake and not working, I want to be with Rose, and when I’m with Rose, I know there’s lots to be done.

You’ve one trip in a time machine: where and when would you go?
I’d go travelling with Marianne North, the Victorian botanist and artist. I did a documentary about her. She travelled extensively, to the parts of the world where women were actively encouraged not to go to. She did bring specimens back, but she also painted plants and animals in their natural habitat, and now those painting are documents of vanishing and vanished landscapes. There is a gallery at Kew Gardens, that she built and which houses 833 of her paintings. She was rather an incredible woman, and would be a great travelling companion.

If money were no object, what would you buy?
Selfishly, I would buy a house in the country with a kitchen garden, because it’s always been my dream. Unselfishly, I would buy a school, because I think it’s the most wonderful thing, seeing children happy at school, and learning and I would love to feel that I could play a part in something like that.

Emilia Fox is an ambassador for the Investec Derby on June 3.