To the casual observer, there’s nothing remarkable about Sylvia. An intelligent, confident woman, Sylvia tends to keep quiet about her formidable linguistic abilities, impressive knowledge of weaponry, and skills as a markswoman.
Questions about her professional life are met with bland answers about an unspectacular career in the Civil Service, which is only very slightly true – because until recently, Sylvia was a high-ranking British spy.
That’s the official logline of Acorn TV’s Signora Volpe, starring Emilia Fox as Sylvia. We had a chance to chat with her about making the show.
As much as I love to watch international programming, I only get bits and pieces of everything out there. You don’t make it easy. You have one of the busiest schedules I’ve ever seen.
Do you know what, it’s love, that’s the sort of the joy of the job, isn’t it? You can be so, so busy. And then you can be doing absolutely nothing at all. But I feel very lucky. I have had a lovely career of being busy. So that’s been a very good fortune.
And what amazes me is that you have a solid lineup of new projects year after year after year, but you’ve also starred in Silent Witness since 2004. How have you managed that?
You know, it’s juggling. It’s trying to get better and better at juggling and doing Silent Witness, which I have loved for, I think, 17 years now, something like that. And that gives me familiarity with a character and familiarity with the people who make it. And it’s a series that I’ve always really enjoyed.
I love crime, the crime genre, whether it’s drama or literature, or I was brought up on Agatha Christies and Poirots and things like that. So, how lucky was it to get a job making drama in that genre?
But also, it’s allowed me to do other work for the rest of the year and also, sometimes, run things alongside, which they’ve been very kind to let me do.
I’ve watched Delicious, and I loved you in that.
Oh, I’m so glad. Thank you. Funnily enough, I’m so glad you’d have watched Delicious because I kept using it as an example of being sort of similar, but obviously with differences to Signora Volpe because it’s got the light in the dark. It’s got the sort of family element to it.
But you know, with Delicious, obviously, it’s the relationship being between the two women. But there were some great similarities. And tonally, it’s my best way of explaining what it might be like to people watching it.
Right. And I also think that they both make wonderful use of the location.
Exactly. Location, food. But they were three glorious years in Cornwall doing Delicious. But yes, I really feel that Signora Volpe has got elements of delicious to it, as well.
And Signora Volpe is in such a beautiful location. How does like location affect the roles that you take?
Well, it definitely does. I mean, listen, it’s icing on the cake if you get to go to Rome and spend three months in Italy and beautiful locations. I spend seven months of the year in really dingy, dark places on Silent Witness. So, it’s certainly not been how I’ve chosen jobs.
But I do think that locations are important, whether they’re dark and dingy or whether they’re beautiful and glorious because they become characters in the show. And certainly, I think, you know, the setting of Signora Volpe is, becomes a very large character in the show itself.
I talked to Jamie Bamber the other day, and he said that it was right after or almost during lockdown. And so, it was a really unique experience to be filming there. What was it like for you?
Well, when we got out to Rome, it was sort of empty; you could walk through the streets of Rome and really feel like you had it to yourself. And then gradually, you know, quickly, it filled up again. But it was an extraordinary time being out there. I think we all felt so lucky to be working and to be around other people.
You know, we’d all been at home, and I think people were so happy to be back at work. So, there was a very, very positive feel on set, and being able to explore Italy but without hundreds and thousands of other people exploring Italy. But also, it was lovely when you saw people coming back to that glorious city and getting to see it again and normal life returning.
I would imagine that you get mobbed out on the street.
Does nobody do that for you?
No, never, never, never, never. I really live a very, very normal life of not being recognized at all. And the only time when it does happen is normally in like train stations or airports. I don’t know why.
There are lots of students who come up and say, ‘I’ve seen Silent Witness, and now I want to be a pathologist or a forensic scientist.’ And that’s always a really lovely thing to come from doing a fictional crime series.
Oh, yeah. So, then, you didn’t take the opportunity while you were in Rome to see things that you couldn’t otherwise see, or did you because it was so…?
Well, I sort of did but by virtue of it being on set. I was there from beginning to end of every day for three months. And so, we went to beautiful places and saw them, and then I did the tourist things in a day on a Vespa on the weekend, which was really good fun.
So, you mentioned that Signora Volpe is kind of like Delicious in tone. How would you describe the series now outside of using Delicious as a reference for those who haven’t seen it?
Well, I think it’s a story about a woman who’s at a crossroads in her life in her 40s. And I think that she’s relatable, even if her job as an MI6 agent isn’t relatable because I think you get to a point in your life, and you think, should I change direction and do something different?
Her job has dominated her the early part of her life, being a spy and loving doing that as a profession, loving working with the agents in the field. Suddenly, she gets slightly done over by MI6 itself and her ex-husband, who she has a very complicated relationship with and who she’s still working and sleeping with, despite him being her ex-husband.
And her passion for her job has been to the detriment of her relationship with her family and having a healthy relationship. And so, there’s a moment when you meet her in the series where she’s determined to get to her niece’s wedding, to be there for her family because they sort of expect her to flake out on them.
And she’s determined to go, and when she gets there, she is drawn in by the warmth of family life and of Italy. And she has to make this decision about whether to return to her past life — her professional life and life in London — or whether to make the change and see what happens.
And so, I think there’s something that is very relatable. Do we stick to one course for our life, or do we take the opportunities that we’re given, or that we seek out and make the changes and take up challenges, even if they seem a bit scary?
So, I really love that theme of it. And you’ve got the mystery that she can’t give up — being intrigued by mysteries even when she’s in Italy, so the mystery element sort of reaches over that series. But it’s also surrounded by relationships — family relationships, how complicated they are. Relationships, love, how complicated that can be.
And there’s humor, and there are the beautiful locations, and then there’s the darkness, too, the dark side of life. And so, I think, I hope, there’s a good balance and something that is relatable, as well.
I think it’s a really good parable of how you can love what you’re doing and still have everything else. Whereas, like so often when you’re young, you point in that direction, and then your career becomes your life.
But in Sylvia’s case, you know, she ended up getting pulled back not only to her family but back into what she loves and discovered that she could do both.
Exactly. And then, as you mentioned, talking to Jamie, his character Adam comes back in the third episode. And he tries to draw her back into her MI6 life. And yes, well, whether he succeeds or not, you can see in episode three.
But it was so fun to work with Jamie because we worked together a long, long time ago on the Scarlet Pimpernel, and we hadn’t worked together since. And he is a joy of an actor to work with. He’s so good as Adam and brings all this humor and fun but some combativeness as well.
What was the most challenging thing for you to play with Sylvia?
The challenging thing? Well, I like challenges. So, whether it’d be the physical challenge, or I really enjoyed the research on it, which wasn’t a challenge, it was really fascinating to work with someone who had worked in espionage and spy work for real.
And then I worked with a lovely movement coach, and we talked about where Sylvia would place herself in rooms and how she would move. So, I really enjoyed the physical side of it a lot. And it’s lovely being asked to do that as a woman in your 40s and being fit for it.
And I don’t know; it wasn’t about the challenges, really. I just enjoyed being asked to do things. And I enjoyed the day-to-day being there as Sylvia in nearly every scene of every episode, and so being there all the time and immersing myself with the cast and crew. They are amazing casts and crews out there — the actors were incredible — and creating those relationships.
And what do you think sets Signora Volpe apart from other similar shows?
You could probably answer that question better than I. But I think it’s because it’s not just about the mystery. I think it is described as a Crime Drama or Mystery. But in fact, it’s all the family element in the relationships, I think, which makes it slightly different.
Getting to know them, Sally and Rachel write such good characters, whether it’s Capitano Riva, who’s such a mystery, to the postman, and you see how they can return through the stories and build a life around Sylvia.
And so, I think that it’s a mystery, but there’s the darkness and the light, and there’s the human side of it and the crime side of it.
And my last question for you is, what else do you have coming up? I know there’s got to be something.
So, I’m still filming. I’m doing another series of Silent Witness now. And I’m also doing a documentary called In the Footsteps of Killers with a criminologist called Professor David Wilson, where we look at historical crimes and all the different elements that go into crime-solving and put his eyes on it as a criminologist.
So, what are you going to be doing in that?
I chat to the experts and talk about what we know that’s in the public eye and basically learn from people who were involved in that world.
Oh, that sounds amazing.
Signora Volpe premieres on Acorn TV on Monday, May 2.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.