Tuesday, 07 January 2014

'Mature actresses are in demand...long may it continue'

From the Australian outback to sleeping rough in London...Call The Midwife star Jenny Agutter knows a thing or two about real life

Written by Kate Cleaver
Southeast London isn’t the first place you imagine bumping into Jenny Agutter, but as any of her neighbours will tell you, she is very much a local fixture. When not filming, she divides her time between there and a bolthole in Cornwall with her husband Johan Tham and son Jonathan.

‘I love living in Camberwell, where I am surrounded by ordinary people who are doing amazing things for the community,’ she told me recently. ‘As an actor you can make a difference by drawing attention to things you care about and you can encourage and congratulate the wonderful volunteers for their relentless work.’

For the past 14 years she has spent one night per year sleeping on the bleak London streets to support Action For Children, and in 2012 was awarded an OBE for her work as an ambassador for the charity.

‘When I started, there were about 30 of us – this year, when it poured with rain, between 300 and 400 people were sleeping out in London and about 900 right across the country. Marvellous. The important thing is that you meet the young people who have been helped by the charity and can talk to them about sleeping out, which for them hasn’t been by choice.’

If it sounds like the kind of thing her Call The Midwife character Sister Julienne might have said, that’s because there are similarities between the two. Both are seen as very downto- earth types: born to drink from bone china cups but selfless enough to roll up their sleeves. Where they do differ is on the issue of coiffure.

‘It is actually very freeing to wear a nun’s habit and wimple, with absolutely no need to worry about hair or make-up. Mind you, I’ll be putting my make-up back on straight after filming,’ laughs the glamorous 61-year-old.

In patent pale heels, dark satin trousers and a tailored matching jacket that, once removed, reveals sculptured arms, she spent at least five minutes of our interview describing a favourite Zandra Rhodes gown made ‘from an extraordinary gold with endless perfect pleats’.

The girl who famously played Roberta in The Railway Children (in the BBC serial of 1968, then the film of 1970) is a natural – one who draws the line at any kind of ‘face work’ and whose beauty has shone right through her fabulous career.

Based on Jennifer Worth’s memoirs about midwives working with nuns in poverty-stricken 1950s London, Call The Midwife has been a runaway success and there is huge anticipation for the third series in the New Year. ‘I don’t know if one really knows why something is so successful,’ she said. ‘You cannot explain that bit of magic that happens.’

Magical performances have been a feature of Jenny’s career. She was only 15 when she captured the nation’s heart in The Railway Children. She then flew to the Australian outback to film Walkabout – with its risqué undertones and nude swimming scene – before appearing as Fritha in the BBC TV film The Snow Goose, for which she won an Emmy.

Jenny-Agutter-590-02Jenny (centre) as Sister Julienne in Call The Midwife

At just 21 years old, Jenny played Miranda in Sir Peter Hall’s production of The Tempest with Sir John Gielgud, at The National Theatre. ‘I felt an enormous sense of achievement. I particularly loved working with Sir John, who had great generosity of spirit and was hugely encouraging, despite telling me on the opening night that “Nobody could play Miranda, not even Peggy (Ashcroft)”.’

Years later, Jenny says Sir John’s enthusiasm for theatre touched her again when she worked for a second time on Equus. She had played the stable girl in Sidney Lumet’s 1977 film with Richard Burton and Peter Firth and won a Bafta for her role. But more recently, she was asked to take the part of Hester, who introduces the troubled boy to the psychiatrist, in the 2007 stage production of Equus, this time with the young Daniel Radcliffe in the lead role.

‘On opening night I was very nervous, having not done theatre in a while. I walked off stage at the end of the play feeling rather unsure and dazed and came across a life-sized photograph of Sir John, which I had not seen before. He was smiling with that special twinkle he had, and seemed to be saying, “Wasn’t that fun, isn’t this what theatre is all about, just enjoy it”. From that moment, I did.’

It was after a long season at the National Theatre that Hollywood beckoned and she was signed up by MGM to make the 1976 science fiction drama Logan’s Run. She describes it as the tail end of the Hollywood era. ‘I met Kirk Douglas, Fred Astaire and worked with make-up staff who had been there since the 1930s and 1940s.’

Then, 14 years ago, she revisited her Railway Children debut when she was cleverly cast as the mother in Carlton TV ’s adaptation. Spy drama fans will also remember her as Tessa in the BBC TV series Spooks.

But it is as the unflappable Sister Julienne that she has most recently captured our imagination. Jenny says she has found Call The Midwife completely engrossing. ‘When I first read the script, it seemed so primitive compared with midwifery today. The fact is that in the East End at that time there was extraordinary hardship in the homes the nuns visited. Bathrooms were not common and in some Edwardian tenements, several families shared a lavatory.

‘It is very interesting to look back at the 1950s when, despite the poverty, people were so grateful to be alive, having survived the war, and put all their energy into rebuilding their lives. The National Health Service was in its early days, women were out to work for the first time and Edwardian Britain was at an end. I am aware that for many watching the show, this is history before their time.’

She utterly commends Miranda Hart who plays Chummy in the series. ‘In real life, Miranda is poised and confident and she is well able to make fun of the supposed awkwardness endured by “big” girls. I love the way she’s a hero for 14- and 15-year-olds who don’t happen to be size 8!’

Jenny is also an inadvertent champion for a different group of girls: those of us over 50.

‘I have been very lucky to have been offered a huge range of roles throughout my career – and these days mature actresses are in demand,’ says Jenny. ‘Long may it continue!’

Action For Children: 01923-361500, www.actionforchildren.org.uk

The new series of Call The Midwife will be broadcast early this year.

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