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The Man Who Captured Sunlight: actor Freddie Fox talks about his great, great grandfather

August 9, 2022 Arts, Theatre Comments Off on The Man Who Captured Sunlight: actor Freddie Fox talks about his great, great grandfather

He’s the son of Edward, the nephew of James, and brother to Emilia. It’s no wonder that Freddie Fox was born to play Hamlet.

Acting is deep in his DNA. Fox, 33, took on the ultimate actor’s role earlier this year, playing Hamlet as an addict which was his own idea. “I just wanted to emphasise the arc of the character in a way that I hadn’t seen done before,” he says.

“It seemed very obvious to me that he’s someone who’s out of control and subject to outside influences, he’s totally buffeted around. By the end of the play, he’s taken control of his life and the choices he makes. I felt the most extreme example of being totally out of control, and one that made total sense – given he’d just seen his father go into the ground and his mother into his uncle’s arms – was to be someone who was seeking refuge in drink.

“That’s the joy of the play, there are so many interpretations of it, so many ways you can do it, and all of them valid.”

Theatre is “incalculably important” to Fox. He hopes he’ll still be doing plays at his dad’s age (Edward Fox is about to star in a play at nearly 85). Fox says: “My art form in its purest form is an exchange of energy. It’s the giving of a gift to the audience, whether that be pure entertainment or a play that makes them think about their own lives, and theatre is the purest form of that.”

It’s fitting, then, that Fox is backing a new play, written by Doctor Who writer Gavin Collinson, which celebrates the life of his great, great grandfather, Samson Fox. There’s a poetry here too, that this play will be performed on the stage that Samson was instrumental in building: the Royal Hall in Harrogate. 

The play is called The Man Who Captured Sunlight. It is, Fox feels, a long overdue celebration of Samson’s life and legacy. Unable to perform in the play due to filming commitments, he plans to take part in an audience Q&A after the matinee and premiere of the play on September 23, 2022 in Harrogate, bringing along other Fox family members.

Freddie Fox by Tavistock Wood“No one would really know who Samson was, and yet if you trace the history of his inventions and the legacy of what they created now, he is probably one of the most important names in industry for this country. So yes, a bit of celebration of Samson’s genius is long overdue.”

A Harrogate premiere

The play is being produced by the Harrogate creative and ethical agency Cause UK, which had the idea after meeting Fox at an event it was supporting – the Harewood Proms in 2021. 

Samson is one of Fox’s middle names. He grew up with a photo of his ancestor on the piano in the family home, dressed “to the nines” in Victorian clothes, with his impressive and imposing beard. But it wasn’t until his sister Emilia did the BBC show Who Do You Think You Are? that he came to know the man more.

“I had an image of the guy in my head, but only latterly I found out the breadth of Samson’s genius.” Fox compares him to Elon Musk for the level of wealth, fame and innovation Samson had in his day. And yet Samson was born into poverty and worked in the mills in Bradford from the age of nine.

“He’s a totally self-made man, who used the money that he created to put back into the wider community. If you look at the legacy of an idea like water gas or the boiler flue, or indeed the Royal College of Music in London [Samson donated the funds to build the RCM], these are things that have benefited millions of people over the course of history.” 

The play’s writer, Collinson, has said that Samson’s inventions are the foundations of our modern world, including helping to make travel more efficient, affordable and safer. As a philanthropist and donor to the arts, without Samson Fox we may not have had the likes of Alfie Boe – who studied at the Royal College of Music. It’s a Doctor Who time-bending scenario then that it was Boe who invited Fox to perform a Bowie medley at the Harewood Proms, where the idea for the play began.

Bowie beginnings

Fox’s uncle, Robert, is the theatre producer of Bowie’s Lazarus musical, and was good friends with the musician. Fox never met Bowie, but is a huge fan. “I lived vicariously through Robert and his memories of David and how amazing and sweet he said David was as a man.

“He knew David right to the end of his life and went to visit him in hospital, just before the end, and David, ill and weak, still insisted on walking him back to the elevator at the end of a hospital corridor. He turned and said to Robert, ‘you know Robert, you really are a genius for doing this’, and Robert turned to him and said, ‘listen, of the two of us there is one genius in this room and it sure isn’t me’. They had a sweet relationship.”

The name of the new play, The Man Who Captured Sunlight, refers to how Samson – who was once Mayor of Harrogate – had “bottled the sun” with his hydrogen water gas that provided some of the world’s first street lighting. At the time, visitors travelled far and wide to witness this wonder. The comparison with Musk is on point. “Samson was the early forerunner of hydrogen power,” Fox says, “which is what everyone is turning cars into now. It’s quite remarkable how ahead of the curve he was.”

The Man Who Captured SunlightFox also is proud of his ancestor’s altruistic streak. “Of course, there was the burning, rugged individualism of someone who wanted to succeed, and who wanted to create inventions. But also there was this altruistic tenor to everything he did, which was how do we make the world a better place for people?”

The play is centred on a dramatic legal battle that befell Samson in later life against the literary figure Jerome K Jerome, overseen by the same barrister who prosecuted Oscar Wilde, and stars Joe Standerline as Samson, an actor who has appeared in various TV shows including Victoria, The Full Monty, and Safe.

Fox says: “I can honestly say I thought the play is brilliantly written. Insightful, moving, funny, poignant. Gavin has woven the poetry and theatre of the Fox family of today into the fabric of the lives of our industrialist predecessors – a beautiful touch.”

Like Samson, Fox is determined to give back. He is committed to supporting young people in theatre take their first steps in the business. “You’ve certainly got to give as much of yourself back as you can to help people.”

Taking centre stage in the Fox family isn’t easy. As the youngest, a major role was playing Jeremy Bamber in the chilling White House Farm, and he gave a star turn as Freddie Baxter in Cucumber and Banana, acclaimed shows written by another Doctor Who alumnus, Russell T Davies. But Fox is also often cast as the posh or arrogant boy, including Mark Thatcher in The Crown, a Bullingdon boy in The Riot Club, and a spook in the sardonic spy series on Apple TV, Slow Horses, starring Gary Oldman. 

Despite currently filming for Apple and Hulu, he’s determined to make it up to Harrogate for the play. “Regardless of my connection with the Royal Hall, which I just think is the most amazing building anyway, I just think the notion of celebrating great new work, particularly as the story of Samson is so intrinsically tied to Harrogate, is utterly vital. It’s tremendous.”

By Ann Chadwick

Main image of Freddie Fox by Tavistock-Wood.

The Man Who Captured Sunlight, including a Q&A with Freddie Fox after the matinee performance (subject to filming commitments) is on 2.30pm and 7pm, Friday, September 23, 2022 at Harrogate’s Royal Hall. Tickets £25 + box office fees. https://www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/The-Man-Who-Captured-Sunlight

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