‘I’m scared of being in front of an audience’
Jenny Agutter may look at home in ‘Call the Midwife’, but she wasn’t born to act, she tells Elizabeth Grice
Ayoung man canvassing for Crisis, the homeless charity, stopped Jenny Agutter in the street the other day to tell her how much he loved the Sunday night television drama Call the Midwife. He added: “And I cry.”
He made no mention of Agutter’s pivotal role as the saintly nun Sister Julienne, and she’s fine with that. She says she gets approached “a lot and it’s always about the series and the way it affects people. It’s not a personal association but more that I belong to a programme that many people have taken to their hearts”.
Agutter has reached that tipping point in her long acting career when she is better known in a wimple, delivering babies in east London during the Fifties, than she is in an Edwardian child’s smock and boots as Bobbie in Lionel Jeffries’s classic 1970 film The Railway Children. Her adolescent fame is finally (and improbably) being eclipsed by her role as a wise elder in a religious order.
Call the Midwife has been a golden goose for the BBC since it launched in 2012. It gets an average weekly rating (across all screens) of 10.21 million viewers, and is a hit in 100 countries. This Christmas Day special will be the seventh; an eighth series starts in the new year. Babies are fantastic box office, of course, but Agutter admits she underestimated the power of Jennifer Worth’s memoirs of being a midwife in the Fifties, and never thought the television drama would go beyond the first series.
“We are sometimes called ‘comfortable, sentimental’. I wonder if those people actually watch the programme. It’s really quite hard and deals with the dilemmas that people face as well as some devastating issues such as abortion, racism, post-war immigration, thalidomide, child abuse and homophobia,” says Agutter. “The stories are strong but not over-dramatised. People identify with them because they’re close enough historically to reflect exactly what’s going on today. What gets [the characters] through is the sense that they are helping one another; that they are not on their own.”
Brexit is not far beneath the surface of her remarks. She feels that people voted blindfold in the referendum and says she woke up “in complete shock” at the result. “I find the back-stabbing absolutely ghastly because there’s something more important than people jostling for position. They should all be pulling together to sort this one out.”
As the Christmas special opens, it looks ominously as if Agutter is going to be written out of the series, since the Mother Superior of the order is dying and wants Sister Julienne to be her successor. But Sister Julienne dreads having to leave her work at Nonnatus House to take over at the Motherhouse, filmed exquisitely at Leith Hill Place, Surrey, the former home of Ralph Vaughan Williams, the composer.
The deathbed scene with the Mother Superior, where Agutter is at her shining best, was filmed not long after her father had died. “You can’t help but be drawn into your own emotions and feelings because they are just so very present.”
Featuring the irrepressible Miriam Margolyes as a nun with four Chinese orphans in tow, the episode deals with adoption, family separation and the subjugation of self that a religious calling demands.
Agutter is not a religious person but her social conscience is acute – she received an OBE for her charity work – and I would like to bet she is a staunch friend in a crisis. “I have huge respect for people who have faith,” she says. “What I find difficult is the political manipulation of religious ideas.”
She was brought up a Roman Catholic but quietly gave up organised religion as a teenager – the sticking point being confession. “You are tempted to make up sins. At school, it was a matter of who could get the most penance. It was quite competitive. ‘You’ve got a whole rosary! What did you say?’”
Her nun’s habit gives her a respect she doesn’t feel she deserves, and makes her wary of using expletives on set. She likes the liberation of having a cleanscrubbed face, and it is certainly the case that, at 65, her naturally big eyes, arched eyebrows and wide, generous mouth are at no disadvantage at all without make-up. She is slight and stylish, with long, bony fingers that look made for practical work.
Her father was in Combined Services Entertainment, so the family was peripatetic and she and her brother enjoyed “a bit of a
‘At school, confession was competitive: “You got a whole rosary! What did you say?”’
Gerald Durrell upbringing”; much of it in Cyprus. Agutter appeared in a Disney film when she was just 11 and, while still at ballet boarding school, starred in the films East of Sudan, The Railway Children and Nicholas Roeg’s cult classic Walkabout. (She was dismayed recently to find that pictures showing her innocently wildswimming naked in Walkabout, had appeared on the internet.)
Being yoked to The Railway Children all her life has never bothered her. “It might have done if it had stopped me getting on with other work, but it’s kind of amusing to be in one’s 60s and to be thought of as 16.”
Her parents seemed not to fuss when she went to Hollywood at the age of 21, perhaps assuming that she would soon marry and “everything would be all right anyway”. In fact, she was 37 and getting used to the idea of remaining single when she met her husband-to-be, Johan Tham, the Swedish hotelier, at an arts festival in Bath in 1989. She moved back to Britain and married him the
‘IT’S AMUSING TO BE IN ONE’S 60S AND THOUGHT OF AS 16’Jenny Agutter’s role in Call the Midwife, below, has finally eclipsed her Railway Children fame, right