From Brookside to Silent Witness

The rise of television star Amanda Burton

Amanda Burton is an archetypal television star, with an instantly recognisable acting style and screen persona. The youngest of four daughters of a primary school headmaster, she was born in Ballougry, a predominantly Protestant area of Co Londonderry, in January 1957.

At the tender age of seven, she decided to become an actress. Like so many of her generation, Burton had to leave Northern Ireland to achieve her ambition, and after taking her A-levels she was offered a place at the Manchester Polytechnic School of Film, Television and Theatre. Burton left Derry, never to return again on a permanent basis.

After graduating, she landed a plum role as pretty Heather Haversham in Phil Redmond’s gritty Channel 4 soap opera, Brookside. Four years later, she was cast in the role of Detective Constable Margaret Daly in Boon, playing opposite the distinguished English actor Michael Elphick. There followed a succession of appearances in high profile series such as Casualty, Lovejoy, Medics and Morse, the latter alongside Kevin Whately and the legendary John Thaw.

In 1993, she was offered the lead role of Dr Beth Glover in ITV’s new medical drama, Peak Practice. Whately, with whom she forged an instinctive professional relationship, took the male lead as her on-screen lover. This marked a significant step forward in Burton’s career, and by the time she quit the series three years later, she had become a household name.

Her next role was in stark contrast to the glossy, glamorous Beth Glover, bringing her home to Northern Ireland in The Precious Blood. But in coming back, Burton found herself in unfamiliar territory, playing a feisty west Belfast Catholic woman, struggling to raise a teenage son since her husband’s murder 12 years previous.

Burton’s Northern Irish background was to play a crucial part in the series which, in 1996, catapulted her to the top echelons of television drama stardom. In Silent Witness, Burton played pathologist Dr Sam Ryan, a woman driven to the limits of professional perfectionism by the murder of her police officer father by the IRA. For this role, she has twice won Most Popular Actress at the TV Quick Awards, and in 1999, won the coveted National Television Award in the same category.

Although Silent Witness has never gone away—as co-producer she is now inextricably linked to it—Burton has tackled a number of demanding roles in the periods between the series. These include a mother trying to hide her terminal cancer from her daughter in The Gift, a three-part psychological drama, Forgotten, opposite Paul McGann, adoption drama Little Bird with Niamh Cusack, and the title role alongside Neil Pearson in The Whistle Blower, a two-parter about a woman whose family is taken into witness protection. In 2002, she adopted a lighter persona as Crown Prosecutor Helen West in the series of the same name, based on the best-selling books by Frances Fyfield.

In 2000, Burton moved into another area of the media when she authored a documentary about the plight of two orphaned bear cubs in Payette National Forest, Idaho. To this day, she maintains that having to keep her emotions in check while telling this poignant story was her toughest assignment yet.

After the death of her mother in 2001, Burton resolved to reduce her hectic workload, but she has, nevertheless, found the resolve to take on two new episodes of Silent Witness, in the modified format of two-part ’heavyweight’ stories screened on consecutive days. In 2003, she took on her first period role as Aunt Polly in ITV’s Pollyanna. Then it was back to form in the lead role of Linda La Plante’s thriller The Commander, in which Burton played the central character of Clare Blake, undertaking internal investigations in Scotland Yard’s serious crime unit.

Refusing to believe that a screen career and a family cannot mix, she has successfully established a stable and intensely private home life with her husband, photographer Sven Arnstein, and their two teenage daughters, Phoebe and Brid.

© Jane Coyle