‘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

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - CHRISTMAS TELEVISION -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.