in focus

Laurence Fox: Journeyman from acting dynasty who became resident ranting sexist on Right wing TV

A member of the Fox acting clan once best known for his cosy role as a TV detective, Laurence Fox has swapped ITV for GB News and become an ‘anti-woke’ outrage merchant. How did he get here, asks Katie Rosseinsky?

Wednesday 27 September 2023 18:50 BST
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<p>Fox has railed against ‘cancel culture’ and describes himself on X as a ‘trans lesbian of colour’  </p>

Fox has railed against ‘cancel culture’ and describes himself on X as a ‘trans lesbian of colour’

I say quite a lot of unfortunate things,” Laurence Fox admitted during an appearance on Good Morning Britain back in 2020. “But I think it’s really important for one to express one’s opinion, and for that opinion to be attacked or taken down with bad ideas or better ideas.” Since then, the actor has banged the free-speech drum repeatedly, stressing his right to “express one’s opinion”.

And he has also said a lot more “unfortunate things” in his new capacity as the hard right’s resident contrarian, culminating in his appearance on Dan Wootton’s GB News show on Tuesday night, when he made offensive and misogynistic comments about the political journalist Ava Evans. “Show me a single self-respecting man that would like to climb into bed with that woman ever, ever, who wasn’t an incel,” he said. “We don’t need those sorts of feminist 4.0. They’re pathetic and embarrassing, Who’d want to shag that?”

His remarks provoked an outcry, with Ofcom announcing an investigation and GB News issuing an apology, before eventually suspending Fox and Wootton. Fox, however, has said that he “stand[s] by every word of what I said”. For anyone who hasn’t been keeping up with the Harrow educated actor’s descent into right-wing trolldom, it begs the question: how the hell did the bloke best known as the sidekick in ITV’s inoffensive detective show Lewis fall so far?

Fox was born into an entertainment dynasty in 1978, the third son of The Remains of the Day actor James and his wife Mary Elizabeth Piper; his younger brother Jack most recently played a Jane Austen scoundrel in ITV’s re-imagining of her unfinished novel, Sanditon. His paternal grandfather was the theatrical agent Robin Fox, while his grandmother, the actor Angela Worthington, inspired a Noel Coward song, “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington”. His uncle Edward, meanwhile, is a two-time Bafta winner, whose children include Silent Witness star Emilia and Slow Horses actor Freddie. The two sides of the family, though, didn’t spend much time together when Fox was growing up, he has said, alluding to the presence of “two big egos in one room”.

After appearing opposite Mick Jagger in notorious Seventies gangster movie Performance, James took a break from acting and found Christianity instead; he and Mary spent a decade as missionaries in Leeds for the Navigators group, and Fox and his siblings were brought up in Yorkshire as evangelical Christians (James once revealed that his mother was less than impressed by his religious fervour: “She was quite convinced I’d been snatched by a cult and that I was weird and was indoctrinating the kids,” he told The Times).

At the age of 13, Fox was enrolled at Harrow School in north London. “I was a troublesome, mischievous kid who broke rules because there was nothing else to do, other than going to classes and meeting downtown chicks,” he later recalled. He was eventually asked to leave a few weeks before his A-Level exams, after a PE teacher discovered him having sex on the dance floor at the sixth form ball; he later struggled to get into university after his teachers gave him less than glowing references.

With one of the most expensive schools in the country on his CV, Fox sometimes gets namechecked as part of Britain’s extensive cohort of publicly educated actors (see: the higher profile likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Damien Lewis, Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne). His attitude towards this privileged education is a little topsy-turvy. In 2015, he said that “it was hard coming to terms with being posh” but it was “a relief to come out” as “a posh British man. And proud”. A year later, he backtracked, telling the Daily Mirror: “I may sound posh because I went to public school but I don’t feel particularly posh.”

After a stint working as a gardener, Fox landed a prestigious spot at Rada where, he once claimed, he was made to feel like an outsider (or in his words, treated “like a nonce”) for being an ex-public school boy. He graduated in 2001, leaving with a string of roles to his name, including a brief turn as an aristocratic suitor in Julian Fellowes’s proto-Downton murder mystery Gosford Park, appearing alongside a who’s who of British acting talent: Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas, to name a few.

Laurence Fox and Kevin Whately in 'Lewis'

Then came a succession of wartime dramas, from Foyle’s War to Colditz. It was his stint in the latter that eventually helped him land his best-known role to date. Actor Kevin Whately just happened to catch the final 10 minutes of the made-for-TV movie about prisoners of war, around the time that the producers of his Inspector Morse spin-off series Lewis were looking to cast a younger actor in a supporting role: just as the taciturn, Wagner-loving Morse had been paired up with the affable Geordie Lewis, now he needed his own diametrically opposed sidekick. “[I] saw this young English boy going bonkers and wandering out to be shot, and I thought: ‘He’s interesting,’” Whately told The Independent. “As it happens, I was meeting all the powers that be the very next day for lunch and did say that he would be worth taking a look at.”

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Whately’s recommendation paid off, and Fox would play the erudite, often moody Sergeant Hathaway for almost a decade after joining Lewis in 2006, solving crimes against the backdrop of a gloriously telegenic but alarmingly murder-ridden Oxford. It was a significant year in his personal life too: he met his future wife Billie Piper, then best known as a teenage pop idol turned Doctor Who star, when they started rehearsing for their revival of Christopher Hampton’s play Treats, which ran in the West End in 2007. “I knew there and then she was the one for me,” he said a few years later, when asked if he believed in love at first sight. They married on New Year’s Eve, in a church ceremony attended by Whately, Piper’s ex-husband Chris Evans and her Doctor Who co-star David Tennant; the following year, the couple welcomed son Winston, and their youngest child Eugene followed in 2012.

Bit-parts in films like Elizabeth: The Golden Age and Austen biopic Becoming Jane followed, along with a role as King George VI in Madonna’s critically panned Wallis Simpson movie W.E. (he appeared alongside dad James, who played King George V). But by May 2016, his personal life started to overshadow his work when news of his split from Piper hit the press. “Laurence Fox and Billie Piper have separated,” a terse statement from the former couple’s representatives announced, confirming that “no third parties [were] involved”. Piper was eventually granted a decree nisi in just 50 seconds, citing Fox’s “unreasonable behaviour”. A protracted – and expensive – custody row ensued. “It was quite a drastic life change,” Fox later said. “Goodbye, money! Goodbye, wife! … Obviously, you miss the large bank account but that’s not everything.”

Fox founded the Reclaim political party, but it has enjoyed little success at the polls

His split from Piper coincided with the launch of his musical career: featuring lyrics like “Don’t fall in love / if you don’t want a gun fight”, his debut album inevitably invited speculation about the break-up. He released another record, A Grief Observed, in 2019; The Times summed it up with: “Think lyrics by Jordan Peterson, guitar by George Ezra”, while The Guardian scathingly branded it as “less Chelsea Hotel, more Chelsea Travelodge”. Glimmers of Fox’s new political persona emerged while he was promoting this second record. First, he criticised his old drama school Rada for “virtue signalling”, taking issue with them sending him a general email requesting script submissions with “at least a 50 per cent female representation in cast and character”. Then he slammed the Duke and Duchess of Sussex for being “ultra-woke” and for “hypocrisy” over their use of a private jet. He claimed that he had been “banned” from calling one of his songs “Me Too”. “I’ve said some fairly hardcore things,” he boasted. “I was worried it was going to be cancelled.”

But it was his appearance on Question Time in January 2020 that really sparked controversy. When audience member Rachel Boyle, a researcher with a specialism on race and ethnicity, described Meghan’s treatment by the British press as racist, Fox dismissed her comments. “It’s not racism,” he said. “We’re the most tolerant, lovely country in Europe. It’s so easy to just throw your charge of racism at everybody and it’s starting to get boring now.” When Boyle then called him a “white privileged male”, he then hit back by claiming that she was in fact being racist towards him.

The run-in was dissected endlessly in the media, and a social media post from actors’ union Equity’s minority ethnic committee branded him a “disgrace” soon after (the union later issued an apology to Fox for the post, stating that it was a “mistake for Equity as an organisation to criticise him in this way”). A few days later, he sparked yet more controversy when he criticised the inclusion of a Sikh soldier in Sam Mendes’s First World War film 1917. Appearing on James Delingpole’s podcast, he said that seeing actor Nabhaan Rizwan on screen had “divert[ed] me away from what the story is”; he then claimed that “there is something institutionally racist about forcing diversity on people in that way”. He later apologised for “being clumsy in the way I have expressed myself over this matter”, writing on X (formerly Twitter) that he was “as moved by the sacrifices [Sikh soldiers] made as I am by the loss of all those who died in war, whatever creed or colour”.

Fox’s week of scandal marked the start of a new era of his career: as a self-proclaimed “anti-woke” campaigner thriving on controversy. His last mainstream acting role – a turn as an oddly accented Mancunian drug dealer in Netflix thriller White Lines – aired shortly after, in March, and as the Covid pandemic hit, he became an outspoken critic of the coronavirus lockdown. Later in 2020, he announced the launch of his political party Reclaim, focused on tackling “wokeness” and described by one Westminster source as “basically a Ukip for culture”. Soon after, he revealed on X that he had been dropped by his agent in a phone call. “I want to thank my acting agency who let me go on the phone just now for reaffirming exactly why I am doing what I’m doing,” he wrote.

Fox campaigning during the London mayoral election in May 2021

Next came an announcement that he would run for mayor of London, in a fight against “extreme political correctness”. Despite garnering pages and pages of media coverage, Fox’s campaign for City Hall ended up as a damp squib, culminating in the loss of his £10,000 deposit after earning less than 2 per cent of the vote (his 47,634 votes put him in sixth place). When he stood as a candidate in the Uxbridge by-election earlier this year, after Boris Johnson stepped down from parliament, he received just 714 ballots (and once again said goodbye to his deposit).

But alongside these more formal attempts to become embedded in the country’s political fabric, Fox has also embarked on more bizarre exploits on social media. In 2022, he was briefly banned from X after posting a swastika made from Pride flags, violating the platform’s policy on “hateful imagery”; more recently, he shared a video showing him burning rainbow bunting. In his profile on the site, he currently describes himself as a “trans lesbian of colour”.

Although Dan Wootton and GB News may have apologised to Ava Evans after Tuesday night’s incident, it seems that Fox is unrepentant – and his decision to share a screenshot of a private message between him and Wootton is unlikely to go down particularly well with the broadcaster either. The entertainment industry might have turned its back on Fox – whose last screen project saw him play Hunter Biden in a bizarre docudrama funded by Breitbart News – but he seems to be enjoying his current role as a professional outrage merchant. Even if no one else is. 

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