Jenny hits the jackpot! With a new film and the runaway success of Call The Midwife, Jenny Agutter’s never been so red hotShe’s known for her racy roles, but it’s playing Sister Julienne in Call The Midwife that’s brought Jenny Agutter back to the big time. Now it’s roll on series two, she says.
21:30 GMT, 20 April 2012
22:09 GMT, 20 April 2012
When the first few episodes of the BBC’s brilliant Call The Midwife were on TV earlier this year, Jenny Agutter was stopped at passport control.
‘This officious looking middle-aged passport control officer beckoned me over,’ she says.
‘I thought, “Oh my God, what have I done wrong” He said, “Missing Call The Midwife tonight but I’ve got it on tape.” It touched everybody didn’t it I think we were in competition with Top Gear. Can you imagine Childbirth or cars’ she throws her head back and roars with laughter.
Jenny Agutter appeared as the strong-willed yet compassionate Sister Julienne in the popular series Call The Midwife
Jenny, of course, appeared as the strong-willed yet compassionate Sister Julienne in the hugely popular series. She says she didn’t have a clue the drama was going to be such a hit when she read the script, but knew it was good.
‘The director had been very much in touch with Jennifer Worth (the nurse who wrote the best-selling trilogy about her life as a midwife in London’s East End on which the series was based, but who sadly died three weeks before filming began last June). She knew everything that was being done on Call The Midwife and everybody who was in it and gave it her blessing.’
The series, which also featured Miranda Hart as hapless toff Chummy, was a huge hit with audiences growing from 9.8 million to 11.4 million over the series.
The episodes were filmed in London’s Mill Hill where she, Miranda and Pam Ferris ‘hung out and talked a lot. You have to quickly get to a point in rehearsal where you look as if you have a relationship with someone, so you take a lot of your guard away. People reveal more than they would ordinarily.
In the habit: Jenny with Miranda Hart and Pam Ferris in Call The Midwife
‘Miranda’s brilliant. She has such a delicate side and Pam’s great too. When we were filming I thought it was good, but I wondered who it was going to appeal to. The first time somebody stopped me to say they loved it, I had to ask why. This summer we’re filming a second series of ten episodes.’
Sister Julienne is based on a real nun called Sister Jocelyn. Jenny met her niece, ‘They’d brought in professional singers for a scene we were filming,’ she says.
‘I stood next to someone who said, “I’m a friend of one of Sister Jocelyn’s nieces.” I said, “Oh, I’d love to get in touch.” So I got to meet this wonderful woman who gave me a detailed account of what Sister Jocelyn was like. Playing a nun is a very hard call. It’s completely outside my experience, so it was important for me to find out about women who dedicate themselves in that way. These women have an extraordinary acceptance. For them, the world is the way it is. If there’s a problem, they just take care of it.’
Jenny, 59, seems to have a knack of
starring in our best-loved dramas. Remember her teenage Roberta in The
Railway Children, the series that took us back to more innocent days
when daddies always came home and young girls only took off their
knickers to wave them at trains
‘It was a petticoat,’ says Jenny. Then,
of course, she took pretty much everything off to swim naked in the
1971 film Walkabout, set in Australia.
Every time a child is born you feel like crying because
there is every possibility of that life being wonderful
She’ll be 60 in December and has the
sort of slim, toned figure most 30-year-olds would give their eyeteeth
to go skinny-dipping in. She says she manages it with yoga, lots of
sleep and ‘not looking in the mirror too many times’.
I tell her if I
had a body like hers I’d have more mirrors than Simon Cowell and I think
she’s secretly pleased. ‘There were head-ons with my mother
[Catherine, who died of a stroke six years ago]. Why didn’t I make
myself look better And when I got to 30 why didn’t I put more make-up
Today, she’s not wearing so much as a dash of lipstick when we meet in London’s Royal Academy to talk about her new film Outside Bet, a comedy drama about a group of printers caught up in the strikes of the 1980s. It’s based on a novel, The Mumper, by Mark Baxter, who worked in the printing trade during the Wapping strikes, and features the colourful characters of his youth. Jenny plays Shirley Baxter who with her husband Mark (Phil Davis) and friend Smudge (Bob Hoskins) try to make the most of their predicament by investing their redundancy in a racehorse.
The film is set in Camberwell, south
London, which is where Jenny lives with her husband of 22 years,
Swedish-born hotelier Johan Tham, and their 21-year-old son Jonathan.
‘When I met Bob Hoskins I knew he was from north London,’ says Jenny.
asked him what the difference was between north and south London,
hoping he might tell me some of the nuances in the different accents. He
said, “Well, you can’t find your way round south London.” What I love
about the film is it’s very upbeat with a good outcome. And the
characters, like Midwife, are from real-life.’
A teenage Jenny, right, as Roberta in The Railway Children in 1970
She says she thinks Midwife struck a
chord because ‘people are looking at a 1950s they never normally see, so
they feel nostalgic, while others get caught up in the wonders of
childbirth. Every time a child is born you feel like crying because
there is every possibility of that life being wonderful.’
As if on cue her mobile rings and it’s
Jonathan, who’s studying medicine at Cambridge. Her face lights up when
she speaks to him. Jenny was 38 and freshly married when he was born
five weeks prematurely. She would love to have had more children, but it
‘It’s interesting because I got pregnant like that,’
she says snapping her fingers. ‘I was pregnant when I married. We’d
already decided to get married.
‘He was born on Christmas Day so it was
very peculiar. The one thing I did learn is every birth is individual. I
started off in labour first thing in the morning. He wasn’t due for
five weeks. I called my obstetrician who said, “Are you in labour” I
snapped, “I don’t know. I haven’t been through this before. I feel
crampy.” He said, “You’d better come into hospital.”’
Jenny says she maintains her figure with yoga, lots of sleep and 'not looking in the mirror too many times'
Jenny was in labour for much of the day
and when Jonathan was finally delivered with forceps, she haemorrhaged.
‘All hell was let loose,’ she says. ‘But they had it under control as
fast as anything. Jonathan didn’t come out crying so they whisked him
off worrying about his lungs but he was fine.’
Jenny adores her son, but was overwhelmed by the responsibility. She says she couldn’t stop bursting into tears and often felt a failure.
‘Looking back I think I did have post-natal depression in a small way,’ she says. ‘I got straight back into work and I’d forget things completely. Some women are natural mothers and they’re lucky. But the idea everything comes naturally is not true.
'You’re left with this person who’s your responsibility. People say you’ll recognise their cry. I could hear a cat cry and think it was Jonathan. You’re more tired than you’ve ever been. Your life’s gone through such a change. Lucky the person who doesn’t feel some sort of difficulty. At the same time you’re thinking, “This is so extraordinary.”’
The miracle, really, is that Jenny’s a mother at all. She’d been living alone in Los Angeles for 17 years and had pretty much given up on having a family when she met Johan at an arts festival in Bath. ‘By the time I’d got to my mid-thirties I was quite settled with the idea of being single. My husband came from leftfield. I wasn’t good at relationships.’
An army child sent to boarding school at the age of eight, she learnt to be self-contained because girls could be ‘quite hard on one another so you’re too vulnerable showing everything about yourself’.
After filming The Railway Children, Jenny dropped out of school and fell head over heels in love with film director Patrick Garland who was 17 years her senior and directed her award-winning performance in The Snow Goose. Needless to say, she was in pieces when after three years the relationship ended, which was when she hotfooted it to the States.
‘There’s always going to be a heartache the first time you open up to somebody. But now I can see it wasn’t going to be an ongoing relationship. I wasn’t grown up enough. Being an actor, you had a front and that was the person you put forward. Close friends could see they were difficult times, but I didn’t unburden myself to anybody.
'There was nobody who got to know everything about me. It was easier that way. When I met Johan I thought, “This is a really interesting person,” but didn’t entertain any idea of a relationship because he’d just come out of one.
'Anyway he lived in England and I was living in LA. He wrote to me and we spoke on the phone. I really liked him but it was just a friendship. I was in a relationship in the States. I think the Catholic side of me never liked the idea of playing around. It just doesn’t feel right.’
Needless to say, the friendship developed. ‘He wrote beautiful letters. His humour and everything about him came very much to the fore. It’s rather an extraordinary thing when you meet someone and whatever falling in love is happens separately.’
She is, she says, ‘truly blessed’ in her marriage and in her son.
‘I remember my mother saying to me once, “I can love you but I don’t have to like you,” after an argument. You’re always going to get it wrong as a parent in some way. Just like childbirth, none of the textbooks seem to apply to the child you have.’
With which Jonathan rings again to give his mother the date for his graduation and, again, she lights up.
Outside Bet is released on Friday.