How a trip to a Christmas fair touched Jenny’s heart and led to helping others
Call The Midwife star on why she’s supporting Daily Express Christmas charity appeal 2020
IT TOOK just one mince pie and a brief chat about the work of St Giles Trust to convince Jenny Agutter she needed to get on board. Ten years on from that Christmas fair, the actress remains a dedicated patron and spent lockdown – in Cornwall with her Swedish husband Johan Tham – fundraising for the charity. “They help the most vulnerable people in our society,” says Jenny. “People who’ve been addicted to drugs, people who have been in prison, people who are homeless, and, with Covid, it’s just been devastating. I mean really, really bad.”
In the middle of filming the tenth series of Call the Midwife, Jenny, 67, has reached back to the start of her career as Bobbie in The Railway Children to raise money for St Giles.
The film is celebrating its 50th anniversary and, to mark the occasion, Jenny is selling a limited number of the centenary edition of E. Nesbit’s original book, for which she wrote the foreword.
She signs the books and a photograph inside of her with Bernard Cribbins as station master Albert Parks, and Sally Thomsett as Bobbie’s sister Phyllis.
“St Giles is trying to keep its normal programmes going so they need financial help,” says Jenny.
“They recruit people who have first- hand experience of homelessness, mental health issues, crime, jail and drugs, so they can better relate to those they are trying to help. I have watched the peer groups that go into schools, and they do a great job, warning young people of the dangers of getting involved in county lines [ drug gangs] for example.”
Talking to Jenny on set is challenging during these Covid- inhibited times. Strict rules dictate that the Midwife cast all have to be filmed separately, so she is repeatedly called away. Added to which, she is wearing that wimple.
“I can’t hear anything with this thing on,” she giggles, “although it is a good thing because the character I’m playing is a very, very patient person who has time for everybody.
“I’m not and I don’t. That, and the fact that I have a crucifix around my neck and good clumpy shoes, slows one down a bit.”
Jenny admits her efforts to channel her inner Sister Julienne don’t always work.
“Sometimes swear words come out when I’m in my outfit and I get the most terrible looks because people assume that one will be much, much nicer.”
In fact, Jenny was raised a Roman Catholic but she has little time for organised religion now. “By the time I got to 16 it didn’t make sense to me,” she says. “To believe things that seem to be either superstitious or mysterious, without any scientific explanation, seems a little difficult.
“I have total respect for the values of many religions. What I don’t have respect for is the way they’ve been abused and used against people. Any religion that lacks tolerance is difficult.
“For me the idea of heaven and hell is what you leave behind. If you make the world worse in some way, that’s hell, and we’re heading very fast towards destroying so much around us.”
Jenny says that saving the planet should be the focus now. “If one had a cult it would be the David Attenborough cult for me,” she explains. “I would be a follower in a flash. His message is clear: it’s our responsibility and if we don’t stop doing what we’re doing bad direction.”
The daughter of British Army officer Derek Agutter, Jenny was born in Taunton but spent her childhood in Cyprus and Singapore while the latter was still under colonial rule.
Her mother Catherine refused to conform to the lifestyle expected of officers’ wives and took her daughter on adventures.
“Unlike most people she always had an interest in the place where she was,” Jenny says. “So we went out to the kampong ( villages), we had Chinese food, she would try things out.”
Jenny returned to England to board at the Elmhurst Ballet School in Birmingham. When she was seven, Walt Disney visited in person to audition dancers for his new film, Ballerina. Jenny was now, things
WITHOUT WIMPLE: Jenny in fundraising mode for St Giles Trust
chosen. She got an agent and was soon offered film and TV roles, including the part of Roberta, or “Bobbie”, in both the BBC series and 1970 Lionel Jeffries- directed film of The Railway Children.
In 2000, Jenny starred in a third adaption, this time playing Roberta’s mother.
She says: “There is still so much affection for it and I can understand that, because there is an innocence in it people want to hang on to. The same thing happened with Call the Midwife, people attach something personal to it.”
At the age of 19 Jenny moved into adult roles, beginning with Walkabout, where she played a teenager lost with her brother in the Australian outback. By 21, she had relocated to Hollywood and spent 17 happy years there, starring in a host of movies including Logan’s Run, An American Werewolf in London and The Eagle Has Landed.
In her late 30s, on a trip to Bath, Jenny met Johan, then a director of Cliveden Hotel in Buckinghamshire. He visited her in LA and hated it. “It was clear that if things were to get more serious I’d have to leave LA and come back.”
DOES she regret that? “It took a while to adapt to the English humour because I had been away so long,” she says. “I couldn’t quite understand why people didn’t say upfront what they felt about things. We British are far too polite, aren’t we?”
But if she hadn’t returned to the UK, Jenny suspects she may have remained single.
“I couldn’t have married earlier. It certainly wouldn’t have happened in Hollywood – relationships there are just not terribly mature.”
Jenny and Johan married in April 1990, and their son Jonathan was born on Christmas Day that year. Jonathan, a doctor, is now a father himself to little Oliver, born to him and wife Maude in October. “Yes, I am a grandmother at last,” says Jenny. “It’s fantastic, so exciting.”
She is now looking forward to having them all at her home in Cornwall for Christmas.
Of course, she is used to being surrounded by babies. But at the moment, the midwives are remaining at arm’s length. The mothers of infants in the show are standing in for cast members because Covid rules dictate the actors cannot
touch them. “I do love babies,” Jenny adds before laughing and saying: “Although don’t ever expect me to actually deliver one. I do worry that I’ll be somewhere one day when a woman goes into labour and everyone will look at me.”
During lockdown Jenny had only a few months off before she was back filming her starring role in the popular BBC drama, which has now reached 1966. But filming in a Covid world – including for the Christmas Day special – is no fun.
“It’s lovely to be working again but there’s no gossiping in the trailer in the morning or meeting for lunch on the canteen bus,” she says. “Every single crew member has their own little table to sit at which is all screened off.”
Series 10 airs early next year and Jenny cannot quite believe its enduring popularity.
“That’s a whole decade,” she says laughing. “At the beginning you assume that you’re just going to do this for a short while but what I didn’t really cotton on to is that ( author) Jennifer Worth’s memoirs were so successful as they were. It captured people’s imaginations.”
Jenny says that the show has had a serious purpose too by highlighting the deprivation of post- war London and the plight of women. “People say it’s sentimental and soft but we’ve tackled some really difficult subjects like female genital mutilation, Thalidomide and issues of abuse, both of children and women.”
One issue Jenny asked to have written into an episode was cystic fibrosis. She carries a single CF gene ( a person must have two to develop the condition), has a niece and great- nephew with CF and also raises funds for The Cystic Fibrosis Trust.
For Midwife fans, the good news is that there will be an 11th series. “I know we’ll definitely be doing next year. Ten years have passed without me feeling that there’s been a long commitment. The characters, there’s a lot still to find out.”
In true Sister Julienne style, she hopes that the pandemic will have taught everyone to be more compassionate, which is why she will be redoubling her efforts to raise money for St Giles.
She says: “If you read Dickens, he was trying to open people’s minds to what was going on with poverty. It’s the same today, people are often completely unaware.
“We are only as good, as a society, as the worst elements of it, and if we can’t take care of that then we are stuck.”
A NURSE who used her share of a £ 1million lottery win to fund IVF is looking forward to the first magical Christmas with her baby daughter. Single Rebecca Brown, 40, used £ 12,000 of the jackpot scooped by her family to fund her dream. Baby Ethel was born in January – and now Rebecca is hoping her story can break the taboo she feels still exists around IVF. She said: “Ethel was worth every penny and more besides. She is irreplaceable. “But we’re hopefully trying to break down the taboo of the subject so it does become more widely talked about. “I really hope that by chatting about my story others will find hope in their journey. “The more people talk about IVF, the less stigma will be attached to it and we can talk freely about it and help each other.” Rebecca, who is volunteering for Fertility Network UK, was told by doctors she needed to have a baby “sooner rather than later” in February 2018. Her smear test had revealed abnormal cells, which turned out to be pre- cancerous. The news followed a 2016 Lotto win, which saw her share a £ 1million prize with a family syndicate which included mum Yvonne, 64, dad David, 65, and sister Julie, 38. After funding IVF with some of her winnings, Ethel was born at the Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham – the same hospital Rebecca works at as an orthopaedic nurse. The family, who still play the lottery, are now looking forward to a very special Christmas.
Rebecca, who admits going on a spree on gifts, added: “I want Ethel to try and stay grounded but I think, like any new parent, you get a bit excited for their first Christmas.
“Lockdown didn’t help. We had nothing to do and nowhere to go – so while Ethel was napping I did an internet shop.”