TV Review: Silent Witness Series 1

Is Silent Witness the new The Bill in terms of most actors having a credit on their CV? I start a rewatch of the last 24 years with Series 1…

“They say a victim dies only once, but a scene can be murdered a thousand times”

As it approaches its 25th anniversary, and since the BBC have kindly put all 219 episodes on the iPlayer, my infinite wisdom has decided that I’m going to do a watch/rewatch of Silent Witness. I can’t be fully precise because I don’t really remember exactly when I started watching the show – it arrived on BBC1 in 1996 but my first clearest memory is actually of the brilliant, and sadly not online, French and Saunders spoof Witless Silence. (Seriously, if anyone can point to where I can watch it again, get in touch!)

Creaated by former police officer Nigel McCrery, Series 1 introduces us to the world of forensic pathology through the eyes of the Northern Irish Dr Sam Ryan, Amanda Burton getting her name above the title in the iconic leading role. And as she moves to Cambridge to take up a position aiding the police with their enquiries and also to be closer to her mother who is ailing with dementia, there’s something really quite bold in just how chilly and spiky Ryan is as the central figure. Uber-professional to be sure but defiantly uncompromising with it.

So as she delves into cases of child abduction, occult murders, police corruption and arranged marriages gone wrong, she is clinical to the extreme whether ruffling the feathers of new colleagues in the lab, pissing the police off no end, or dispassionately going through the motions with her fractious family. An ongoing thread about the unhealed wound of her father’s death in the Troubles is offered up as part-explanation for both her distrust of the police and issues with her family but the starkness here is still arresting.

It is fascinating to see how the show worked as first conceived. Burton’s Ryan is absolutely the lead, her colleagues in the lab are supporting characters far from the ensemble team we see now. And conversely, the police team with whom she works is an ensemble who recur across the whole series, meaning we get the consistency of developing relationships with Clare Higgins’ DS Farmer, John McGlynn’s DI Adams and Ruth Gemmell’s DC Cox. In some ways, I wish they had managed to maintain some  of this in later years, having recurring police characters but I guess that’s the payoff with introducing a team around the lead.

What is also obvious to see is the recognition Silent Witness can’t just be a show about forensic pathology, as thie first season sets up the ongoing tension that dogs so much of the series as a whole. Ryan can’t just contain herself to being a pathologist, she has to be an investigator, interviewer, interferer out in the field, quite frankly jeopardising cases with her presence outwith her bounds and yet frequently calling out others on their own aberrant behaviour. It’s only TV of course but it is fascinating that the writers already knew that the science wouldn’t be enough. 

And to the point of admiring the acting talent who the show was able to attract from the start, there’s a whole host of famous faces alongside personal stage faves to delight in most every episode. Here’s five of my favourites:

  1. I’ve already mentioned her a perma-smoking Clare Higgins in a severe bob is ?
  2. Kelly Hunter’s grieving mother is a strong prsence in the very first story
  3. Colin Salmon as a raunchy, dangerous libertine is disconcertingly good
  4. As is Ken Stott as a retiring sergeant who may or may not have something to hide
  5. And then there’s a delicious Brendan Coyle as a sexy ghost from Sam’s past.

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