JENNY AGUTTER talks to HELLO! about her fifty year career, receiving an OBE and what we can expect from the eighth series of Call the Midwife
She has been acting for over half a century having kick-started her career with a role in East of Sudan, aged just 11, followed by being cast as Roberta in 1970’s The Railway Children -- and since then it’s been non-stop for Jenny Agutter.
The elegant, softly-spoken British actress’s résumé is a clear indicator of just how multitalented she is having had starring roles on both television and the big screen.
But the 66-year-old plays down her success, despite winning an Emmy Award for her part in the TV film The Snow Goose, having a glittering Hollywood career that saw her play Jessica alongside Farrah Fawcett’s Holly in Logan’s Run and being awarded an OBE for her tireless charity work.
The Equus star is back on our TV screens reprising her role as Sister Julienne in the eighth series of British TV drama Call the Midwife, which premieres on BBC First (OSN channel 215) on January 13 and which is set to stir up all the usual emotions as the people of Poplar get ready to face 1964.
We catch up with the humble, modest star to discuss growing up abroad, her love of travel and to find out what’s in store for the nuns and midwives of Nonnatus House.
You started your acting career so young, was it hard being a child star?
I was at a ballet school and auditioned for a part in a film for Walt Disney about the Royal Danish ballet. Whilst I was auditioning for that I got a part in East of Sudan with Sylvia Simms; the main reason I was cast in that was because I was light and she had to carry me around a lot! That was the beginning of it all – not so much of a star really, although they made me feel like a star. It was terribly exciting. From then on I did things off and on. The first thing that made an impression was when I did The Railway Children.
You lived abroad for part of your childhood?
We lived in Singapore for three years before heading back to the UK. Whilst I was there we visited Hong Kong and Malaysia. I went to school there and my first memories are of life in Singapore actually.
Do you look back fondly on your time as an expat child?
The travelling was a completely positive experience. I absolutely love to travel. I love finding out about different cultures and am so lucky to have that army background, which meant I got to travel a lot.
When my father left the army we lived in Cyprus for eight years, which was a bit like My Family and Other Animals, very Gerald Durrell really. I got my love of different cultures from my parents -- my mother was
British, born in Liverpool and one of 10 in an Irish family, Dad was an only child from Yorkshire. My mum in particular enjoyed exploring different cultures and learning about their food. I got that enthusiasm for going places and meeting people from her.
Call the Midwife has been hailed as the BBC’s most successful drama, did you imagine it would be such a huge success?
No, not at all. I saw the wonderful scripts, but I suppose I didn’t really quite see the power of it. Jennifer Worth’s memoirs had been hugely successful and I think that gave it the impetus in the beginning, and then Heidi Thomas wrote really great scripts and stories. She is a very good storyteller. I always thought that would be it, after series one, you know, nuns and midwives, tell that story, done, but it had a huge audience.
Then she started to go beyond Jennifer Worth’s stories, working with researchers and going from 1958 into the sixties. Each year would bring huge change that influenced the people of Poplar. There were medical advances, changes in attitudes, skirts getting shorter -- though not for the nuns! 1964 was much more affluent than 1958 and more people were choosing hospital births.
And during all of that you have dealt with some pretty controversial historical medical issues…
Yes, one of the big ones was the storyline about thalidomide and their discovery of what it was, of its link to what was thought to be a benign medicine at the time given to stave of nausea and morning sickness in pregnant women.
There are some seriously emotional scenes, particularly those involving new born babies…
If you are doing a childbirth scene it’s very hard not to be emotional when there are little babies on the set. Their mothers are there and you get immersed in doing the scenes very quietly. That can be incredibly emotional. And we are put into wonderful situations working with guest actors so you can’t help but be touched by some of the things that you are involved in on set.
Your role as Sister Julienne is a caring one and quite non-judgmental, but you have some fairly wild children to look after such as Trixie, played by Helen George… do you feel at all motherly with the rest of the cast?
It’s really interesting. We have a really eclectic group of people – some are older, some are younger, with different sorts of training, people from musical backgrounds... I don’t have formal training at all apart from life experiences.
We all just enjoy each other’s company and I’m not sure there’s anyone who can say: “Well my experience puts me in a position where I can actually show everyone what it’s all about.”
The industry has changed so much that the relevance of my previous work – it was black and white TV, there were huge great cameras being lumbered around set -- is barely existent. There is so much to learn from younger people because they all bring something terrific, so I can’t really be a motherly figure.
Are you as good friends off set as on?
We are all very close and really enjoy each other’s company. Helen is a very good communicator and keeps in touch with everyone. Somebody actually arranged for us all to go and see Linda [Linda Bassett who plays Nurse Crane] in the Royal Court when she was performing there.
What’s in store for the ladies of Nonnatus House in series eight?
We have to deal with the aftermath of Barbara’s death, which is hard because there are pictures of her everywhere! It’s hard to lose someone. New nuns come in. Miriam Margolyes joins us as Sister Mildred, a very unusual nun. Fenella
The cast are together for an eighth series (above), but it all started when Jenny was cast aged 17 in The RailwayChildren (middle inset). The actress at the BFI London Film Festival with a slew of stars including Bill Nighy, Romola Garai and David Tennant(bottom left)