Freddie Fox on cousin Laurence, Conan Doyle and believing in ghosts: ‘I wasn’t scared. But I knew she was there’

The ‘White House Farm’ star talks to Helen Brown about being shocked and sometimes appalled by members of his famous family, overcoming dyslexia, and Mark Gatiss’s latest Christmas ghost story

Friday 22 December 2023 06:30 GMT
The actor comes from a family of thespians: his father Edward played the lead role in ‘The Day of the Jackal’
The actor comes from a family of thespians: his father Edward played the lead role in ‘The Day of the Jackal’ (Tavistock Wood)

Poor, sweet Freddie Fox. He knows it’s coming. In every interview. In every personal encounter of every depth. “The inevitable Laurence Fox question? Eugh. Oh God. Yeah.”

The 34-year-old actor, who impresses in almost every role, from the sinister Spider in Slow Horses to a rebel in Puritan England in Fanny Lye Deliver’d (2019), visibly shudders. His eyelids come down like shutters, and the boyish animation drains – briefly – from his face as he summons a statement on his cousin, the self-styled “anti-woke” campaigner, suspended from X/Twitter last year for posting the image of a Swastika made from the Progress Pride flag.

“Look,” Freddie sighs. “I fundamentally and completely oppose Laurence’s political views and the way he chooses to express them. His views both shock and appal me. And that’s all I’ve got to say about it. It’s not something I relish talking about.”

I decide it isn’t fair to push further. He bounded up to meet me at the BBC like a posh blonde puppy, nattily knotted neckerchief tucked into his snuggly oatmeal knitwear, eager for an intelligent discussion of his role in Mark Gatiss’s latest project, A Ghost Story for Christmas – a gleefully camp adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1892 short, spooky Lot No. 249. Fox has clearly had a hoot playing a sinister Victorian Egyptologist trying to reanimate a murderous ancient mummy. But, instead of revelling in the ghosts of Christmas past with him, here I go rattling the skeletons in the Fox family closet.

But he understands the public fascination with his famous family. “What’s it like? Is it fun? Is it difficult? Do we all play Shakespearean charades at Christmas?” He snorts, giggles at the questions that come up, raises an eyebrow and drops into comic deadpan: “Err? No. I mean, my family have interesting jobs and interesting friends. Have there been bumps along the way? Sure. But things are pretty normal and I had a lovely upbringing.”

For those in need of a primer on the thespian dynasty, Freddie’s dad is Edward Fox (best known for playing the gimlet-eyed assassin in The Day of the Jackal, 1973) and his mother is Joanna David (star of numerous TV dramas including the 1979 BBC adaptation of Rebecca). Freddie’s sister Emilia (15 years his senior) has starred in the BBC’s long-running crime drama Silent Witness for 20 years.

Laurence Fox – star of ITV’s Lewis (2006-2015) and recently sacked from GB News for making sexist remarks – is the son of Freddie’s uncle James (who starred in Nicolas Roeg’s graphically sexual and violent film Performance with Mick Jagger in 1968 before temporarily quitting acting to concentrate on evangelical Christianity for six years).

Although that makes things sound turbulent chez Fox, Freddie assures me that his childhood was actually “very calm. It helped that my father was 51 by the time I came along. He’d already had two children and my mother had had one. I benefited from their age and experience.” Although they’re all in the same profession he says they’re not at all competitive. “My parents always encouraged us to shine. They’re never clouds in the way of the sun, nobody’s ever trying to be the big dog.”

Although Freddie and his dad disagree over politics (Edward’s passionate support for Brexit saw his son call him a “f***ing idiot” in an interview with the Daily Mail), they’re so close that the cast of An Ideal Husband (in which they co-starred at the Vaudeville Theatre in 2018) referred to the pair as “Fredward”.

Diagnosed early with dyslexia, Freddie tells me he found much of the written work at his London prep school, Arnold House, “a nightmare. I wouldn’t have any GCSEs or A-levels if I hadn’t been given extra time, because my reading was so slow – although I’m over most of those hurdles now.” But his confidence and kindness must have shone through the struggle, as he became the school’s head boy (later playing a head boy on screen, aged 20, in an episode of ITV’s Marple).

He tells me drama classes gave him “a chance to get up and DO SOMETHING. I don’t think I was very good. But my teachers were really supportive and I was very bold. I throw myself into everything. Even now, directors will tell me ‘We love what you’re bringing... could you just do 50 per cent less of it?’” Having played Hamlet on stage two years ago, Fox is now itching to re-play the Dane “also with 50 per cent less... although not off the ticket prices!”

Kit Harington and Fox in the adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s spooky story ‘Lot No. 249’
Kit Harington and Fox in the adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s spooky story ‘Lot No. 249’ (BBC/Adorable Media Ltd/Colin Hutton)

Although Freddie was born in London in 1989, he thinks of his home as Kimmeridge in Devon. “That’s where my parents live now. We spent every school holiday there.” I take in Freddie’s creamy complexion and picture his sister Emilia – skin pearly white under the fluorescent morgue lights of the Silent Witness set. You’re all too pale to travel without a boatload of suncream, right? “FAR too pale,” he laughs. “Dad didn’t like taking planes anyway. And I prefer the countryside to the town. I’d rather be out in the woods in the dark than on Oxford Street.”

The Fox family’s paleness and poshness have often seen them cast in period dramas – often as villains. Freddie tells me he’s probably best known “in Britain, at least” for his chilling turn as mass murderer Jeremy Bamber in ITV’s 2020 true crime miniseries White House Farm. The Independent’s critic praised Fox’s performance as a “skittish party boy with a twinkling eye and a dark heart”. But he tells me that when he was first offered the role of Bamber – who was convicted of shooting his parents, his sister Sheila Caffell, and her six-year-old twin sons in Essex in 1985 – his dad counselled caution. “He said: ‘Think about that. REALLY think about it.’”

As part of his research, Fox drove out to the village close to White House Farm, Tolleshunt D’Arcy, to find a landscape of “flatness, stillness and silence that I’m sure is normally lovely but felt quite unsettling, quite sinister in the context of the crime”. He also befriended Colin Caffell, the ex-husband of Bamber’s sister Sheila and the father of her murdered children.

Fox knits his fingers together as he marvels humbly at Colin’s “ability to talk about something that nobody could get their head around if they hadn’t experienced it. His ability to recover emotionally, and start again with another family, was very moving. I was very touched by how honestly he was able to talk to me about it all... about the twins.”

Fox as killer Jeremy Bamber in ‘White House Farm’
Fox as killer Jeremy Bamber in ‘White House Farm’ (ITV)

Bamber attempted to frame his sister – a former model who suffered from mental health problems – for the crimes. Fox tells me that when he went back through the archive to read newspaper accounts of the case, he was “shocked” by the sexism and lack of compassion in the reporting. “Those red-top headlines were brutal,” he sighs, “even by the standards of the tabloid media. I do think that sort of thing has improved massively. Can you imagine how bad things would have been if they’d had social media back then?”

Another shudder. Unlike Laurence, Freddie doesn’t use social media at all. “People will tell actors they need it.” He pulls a face, perhaps thinking again of his Twittering cousin. “But they really don’t.”

Although he’s only dated women – he’s reported to be living with Sex Education star Tanya Reynolds – Freddie has often been cast as bisexual or gay characters, and has never ruled out the possibility that he might fall in love with a man one day. He played the “bisexual nympho” in Russell T Davies’s Cucumber (2015) and the androgynous model and singer Marilyn in the 2010 Boy George biopic Worried About the Boy.

Today he tells me he’s just watched the Wham! documentary on Netflix and was really touched by the warmth of the friendship between George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley at a time when straight men weren’t always so kind to their gay peers. “It made me so happy to see them,” beams Fox. “I know George had his difficulties, but he was clearly so loved...”

Mark Gatiss says there’s often a homoerotic charge to Conan Doyle’s work. Some read that into the Sherlock Holmes stories, and it’s certainly an undercurrent in the friendship between the three male characters at the heart of Lot No. 249. Abercrombie Smith – played as a vintage, ’tached model of straight Victorian masculinity by Kit Harington – finds himself increasingly intrigued by Fox’s unwholesome, nocturnal Edward Bellingham. It’s an end-of-empire tale, too, tapping into the three men’s anxiety about their control of the frightening foreign life force they’re struggling to contain.

I absolutely believe in ghosts. Why the f*** NOT? Isn’t it a more interesting world with ghosts in it?

Fox tells me he grew up on the Sherlock Holmes stories. “My dad read them to me and then – because of the dyslexia – came the audiobooks. My favourite Holmes and Watson were John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson [in the Fifties BBC radio adaptation]. I learned to imitate them both...” He does wicked impersonations of both actors for me, chuckling. “I thought it was hilarious that this man was meant to be the master of disguise when he had the most identifiable voice on the planet.”

When Gatiss made his TV Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Fox fought hard for a part but missed out. So he was cock-a-hoop to be cast in Lot No. 249. Gatiss tells me that “Freddie is fundamentally very naughty and doesn’t seem to have aged a day in the 11 years I’ve known him” – making him perfect for a tale of the undead. Gatiss reminds me that in the original story, Bellingham is “a rather toad-like villain, but I sensed that Conan Doyle also found him rather fascinating. His decadence, his flirtation with dangerous, dark powers... perfect for Freddie’s curled-lip haughtiness, although beneath that cruel swagger beats a heart of pure gold.”

Fox is as open to the idea of life after death as Conan Doyle was. He quotes from Hamlet – “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” – and suggests that Shakespeare’s line “encompasses a belief in magic; in the odd and the strange. These things are obviously interesting dramatically, but it’s never a bad idea to be humbled by thoughts of what we don’t know...”

Does he believe in ghosts? “Absolutely! I think actors, artists, are probably more in tune with that sort of thing. Women more than men. Children more than adults.” Has he seen one? “No, but I know very some very rational, sane and lucid people who have, and I trust them. I mean: why the f*** NOT? Isn’t it a more interesting world with ghosts in it?” And though Fox hasn’t seen a ghost, he tells me he spent the night with one.

It was when he was filming the BBC adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, in which he played the banking heir Tony Kroesig, during the first and second lockdowns. “We ended up staying at this amazing Gothic place near Badminton in Somerset. It was full of brocade and heavy velvet stuff. Lots of the rooms were very impressive, but you didn’t feel anything... until I went into the room where I was staying that had a big four-poster bed with hanging drapes. I went in and thought: Pfff!”

He shivers. “The temperature just went ‘boom’. So I went down to reception and asked if they could put the radiators on. The receptionist told me the heating was on but the room was haunted. She said it in the most matter-of-fact way, as though she was telling me what time they’d be serving breakfast in the morning. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said, ‘It’s just a woman who walks up and down the corridor. You probably won’t see her.’”

Fox tells me he lay awake the whole night listening for supernatural sounds. “I wasn’t scared. I didn’t think anything was going to hurt me. But I wasn’t alone. I knew she was there.”

I can’t tell how sincerely Fox believes his campfire tale, but he tells it like such a pro that I realise I’ve leaned all the way forward in my chair. As we leave the BBC, he tells me he’s looking forward to a festive run in She Stoops to Conquer at the Orange Tree Theatre in London. “We’ve made the play quite Christmassy and set it in 1930, so it’s got lots of laughs and a great Charleston,” he says. On his few days off he’ll be heading down to Dorset to swim in the sea – a longstanding Christmas morning tradition – and then drink some wine with his best friend Henry. I decide not to rattle his chain by asking if he’ll be seeing Laurence.

I’m looking forward to curling up with my kids and rewatching Lot No. 249 on Christmas Eve. “Christmas and ghosts are inextricably linked,” says Gatiss. “It’s partly down to Dickens, of course, but also that feeling that, as the year dies, the boundary between this realm and the next grows thinner. We’re remembering people who have gone, and all our Christmases past. It’s only right that the two fit together like chocolate and orange!”

‘Lot No. 249’ airs on BBC Two at 10pm on Christmas Eve

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