She claims to dread the prospect of being recognised in the supermarket, and longs to be taken seriously both as an actress and as a woman in a tough profession. But then again, she wouldn't mind looking more like Goldie Hawn... Andrew G Marshall meets Amanda Root

Actress Amanda Root stands on the threshold of becoming a household name. After carving out a reputation in the theatre with a string of starring roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company, she now plays the lead in Mortimer's Law a new TV drama which attempts to do for rural Wales what Morse did for Oxford. Ms Root is Rachel Mortimer, the new local coroner, responsible for determining the truth behind every violent or sudden death.

It goes without saying that Amanda Root wants the programme to be a success and pull in the magic 10 million viewers, but it is only now dawning on her just how much her life may change: "I am very scared, I don't know how well equipped I am to handle being hounded by the press. At the moment I am single and there is no relationship for them to get their teeth into, but I would hate the idea that my private life could be public property. I hate how the media pick up on a sentence, manipulate it and put it in a different context where intelligent actors can look silly.

"I was in the supermarket today and I love being unrecognisable but it did cross my mind: how would I feel if in a couple of weeks people started looking at me oddly and coming up to me? It is horrible, you stop being a human being and become their property. People think fame will be very glamorous and wonderful but I don't think it is."

Ms Root has reached a position within her profession, where she can do good and interesting work without crossing over into tabloid fame. So why is she throwing her hand in with devil? "If we were too scared we wouldn't do anything. Years ago, when I was offered Lady M at a very young age by the RSC, a friend told me that they most probably wouldn't have if they'd been offered it. I couldn't understand that viewpoint, you have to take risks. Maybe I was being naive. It is a dangerous game but the rewards are that I will get greater recognition in the business and more choice."

Root's acting in Mortimer's Law is quite breathtaking. It makes a refreshing change to watch prime time drama that is skilfully underplayed. Her character is a very believable combination of professional toughness with a touch of self-doubt peaking through. On meeting Ms Root, I discovered that she is the complete opposite.

It is only occasionally that you glimpse the strength needed to climb to the top of her profession; she is perhaps too willing to expose her vulnerability: "I told my mum that perhaps I'm not good-looking enough to carry this show. Sometimes I think a TV programme is a success because somebody is rather beautiful. There are times when I think it's a shame that I don't look like Goldie Hawn. Somebody at the press launch praised Mortimer's Law for showing ordinary-looking people. But as a member of the public I enjoy looking at Meg Ryan or Kevin Costner's classic good looks.

"When I'm not on the telly, I'm quite a normal person about my looks and accept who I am - but in the public eye I have an awareness of what people prefer to see and my own failings."

Making her characters believable is very important to Amanda Root. "When researching the role, I listened to some tapes from a Coroner's Officer where they were trying to establish if someone who had died under the wheels of a train had committed suicide. There was an interview with the train driver, who had to give all the facts about what he saw in the last moments before the train hit this man - how he had run on to the line, how he had braced himself. I will never forget those images."

"I also went to see a woman coroner in Southwark who was fantastic. She was very centred and self-controlled. She organised her court quite brilliantly, and she was formidable in the best sense of the word." Although authenticity is very important to the makers of Mortimer's Law, the show, along with other, similar dramas that feature women as prison governors, detectives and barristers, does present a distorted picture of the balance between men and women in the professions.

In reality there are only six female coroners in the whole of England and Wales. Amanda Root is quick to defend the show against accusations of "feminism lite".

"Why not do a drama about one of them? Most of our drama has been very male dominated. In the show, I come up against a lot of people who turn their noses up at my character and find it hard to accept a women of that age doing that kind of job. So there is more conflict with her being a woman. We might have much further to go, but at least women are now getting better opportunities on TV and that can only be positive.

Good drama is more than just telling a story, it taps into and articulates the issues that we are all striving to cope with. Amanda Root hopes that Mortimer's Law fits into this category: "The conservative era has finished and people want something worthy and to support one another. This is where I get passionate about the programme, my character stands up for social injustices and people who don't have the money to buy a voice.

"If the coroner does her job well, she serves the people. She wants truth, not the game-playing of a criminal court. Being a coroner is very different from being a detective or a pathologist - there's no indictment, no trial and no defence. It is a fact finding mission - and that is all it is. Her work strives for the truth and she is striving for the truth in her life. In this country at the moment there are a lot of people who are searching for better values and what is real in their own life".

Perhaps Mortimer's Law will be the first New Labour-influenced TV success. At first sight it appears a cynical attempt to throw proven ingredients together: law, medicine and picturesque countryside - and the first episode is too pre-occupied with scene setting and not enough with plot. However, Amanda Root's performance and her passion lifts the show above the norm. She had better start practising signing autographs, she will be very popular in her local supermarket.

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