Actress Jenny Seagrove on running the Mane Chance horse sanctuary in Compton
- Credit: Andy Newbold
She may be rather better known as a QC in the hit TV series Judge John Deed, but away from the limelight, Jenny Seagrove spends most of her time running the Mane Chance Sanctuary in Compton, near Guildford, where she cares for horses and ponies that have been abused or abandoned. Jack Watkins pays a visit…
In a cosy cabin at the bottom of the paddocks at the Mane Chance Sanctuary in Compton, actress Jenny Seagrove reflects on her recurring associations with this attractive corner of Surrey.
“It’s weird, isn’t it? First, there’s the fact that I went to school at St Hilary’s in Godalming. Also, when I’m in London, I walk every day in Kensington Gardens, the location of Surrey artist GF Watts’ Physical Energy, an enormous statue of a horse, and, suddenly, here I am in Compton, working with horses.
“So now I’m just down the road from Godalming, I’ve become a patron of St Hilary’s, and Watts’ life-size mould for Physical Energy is just two minutes up the road at the Watts Gallery. It’s almost like I had to come back!
“It’s so strange how life pushes you where you’re not expecting to go, but as long as you are prepared to go with it, you can have quite an adventure.”
A second chance
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Running the Mane Chance Sanctuary, which she set up in 2011 to rescue and care for sick, abandoned and abused horses, is possibly her biggest adventure yet. The Kuala Lumpur-born star of stage and screen has always loved animals and, as a self-confessed tomboy child, initially had ambitions to become a vet.
“At St Hilary’s, which I attended as a boarder from the age of nine, the headmistress introduced me to poetry. So I blame her for my love of the spoken word and performance, but I’d never thought about acting as a career at that point. I’d studied all the sciences and was set to become a vet until I woke up one morning thinking: ‘I can’t do this; I can’t put animals down.’”
Announcing her decision to become an actress instead, she recalls that her mother “turned green” at the thought. She never lost her interest though in nature and animals, and always remained a keen horse rider. However, only an accomplished and well-established performer, confident in the direction of her career, could take on something as demanding as running a charity, and it’s plain that she is putting her heart and soul into the undertaking.
In fact, it was the “heart” that led to her involvement in the first place, she admits. “I’ve been a patron of a lot of charities related to old people, special needs children and animals, all of whom really need our help, and I’m also a trustee of the Born Free Foundation,” she continues. “But I’d been supporting this girl in Kent, who’d been looking after animals she found in the most appalling circumstances and was struggling to get enough funds. When she rang and said the horses hadn’t eaten for four days, I realised I would have to set up Mane Chance. I put a lot of my own money into it, and also rang friends like Martin Shaw and other generous friends who helped out financially. But it had to be done because otherwise the animals would have been put down, or split up and sent elsewhere.”
Buying the land
Finding a new place to keep the animals was another hurdle. “Another great help to the charity was Max Clifford, God bless him, and through his contacts he got us permission to come here rent-free. When the opportunity came to buy the land, I got a couple of the trustees to come in with me, so now the three of us own the place and we rent it back to the charity for £1.”
Set in 47 acres, with only the sound of traffic rumbling along the A3 to disturb the otherwise perfect serenity of the spot, the sanctuary is currently home to 25 horses and ponies. Jenny admits the place “still looks a mess, because we haven’t got enough money to make it look better,” but they employ five paid members of staff, and “horse whisperer” James French has enabled them to make progress with “a lot of very damaged horses.”
James’s skills were put to transformative effect on one of her favourites, the giant Ernie. At 18 hands and in his mid-20s – old age in the equine world – Jenny describes him as a gentle giant, but that wasn’t always the case. “When we took him on, he was in a stable 24/7 with the words “I bite” written on it, because nobody could touch him; he’d taken someone’s hand off, put another person in a coma and couldn’t be with other horses. He was a really dangerous animal, but James got onto it and within a few days he was out in the field. He’s now integrated with the herd, and he likes a pat and a scratch.”
But the therapy can work two ways, she maintains, and she is keen to stress that another facet of the sanctuary’s work is with special needs children. “Horses are such empathetic creatures and if you learn how to work with them, you can really help people with all sorts of physical and mental problems.
“Another of my favourites here is Grimbo, a Shetland who was going to be exported to Belgium as horse meat. Each week, the local Shooting Star CHASE hospice brings a small coach with half a dozen very poorly children to meet the ponies, and Grimbo seemed to understand how to interact with them from the very first meeting.
“He just goes over without needing to be led, and puts his head in their laps. One lad with motor neuron disease can’t even hold a mug of tea, but if we put the Shetlands on either side of him he is able to reach out and stroke them. And I know of an anorexic girl who’s now eating again because of the horses.”
On the day that we meet, Jenny is wearing a royal blue cardigan that reminds me of the colours of Everton FC, of whom her partner, the producer Bill Kenwright, is the chairman. Jenny smiles, and admits to being a fan herself. She even used the connection when recording a song – The Main Chance – to raise funds for the charity, with students from the Everton Free School singing the chorus. Written by Geoff Morrow, Jenny is joined by Pete Howarth of The Hollies – “he’s got a voice from God” – and though she was nervous about going into the recording studio at first, she believes the experience has given her more self-confidence about her voice. “And that’s good, because in my last two shows, I’ve had to sing.”
Morrow’s lyrics, especially when heard over an accompanying video on the sanctuary website, really touch a nerve. It’s a sweet song, a classic single that, in the days when Top of the Pops was beamed weekly into nearly every living room, might have taken off nationally. As it is, Jenny’s sung it live on Terry Wogan’s show, it’s been played by Steve Wright, and been Record of the Week on BBC Radio Surrey and Sussex.
A tour de force
How she finds time to fit it all in is remarkable. During a theatre run, she’ll often work all day on charity business, before going off to perform in the evening, and then returning home to do more charity work. Already this year, she’s completed a tour of the provincial theatres, starring in a revival of Noel Coward’s comedy Fallen Angels, opposite her great friend, Sara Crowe, but she’s already busy with her next project – a gripping new show from The Agatha Christie Theatre Company, Murder on Air, in which she will star alongside stage and screen stalwart, Tom Conti.
“It’s basically three Agatha Christie radio thrillers, which we are doing on stage, but performed as if it were a live radio broadcast in an imaginary radio studio,” she continues. “It’s going to be great fun.”
Reflecting on the theatre scene here in Surrey, with recent performances including the New Victoria Theatre, Woking, the Rose in Kingston and the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford, Jenny believes that “the Kingston and Guildford audiences are real theatre-goers. They love their plays and the auditoriums and halls are always crammed. In Woking, I think, they tend to go more for musicals, but they are all a joy to work in.”
She can’t say much yet about her next big screen project, a British film that she starts work on in the autumn, but I’ll be keeping a look-out for it. The domestic acting profession is a business characterised by a lot of very generous and kind people in my experience, but I’d put Jenny Seagrove among the friendliest and most grounded of the lot.
My Favourite Surrey...
Restaurant: The Keep in Castle Street, Guildford. They do good food and it’s a lovely atmosphere too.
Shop: The Watts Gallery gift shop in Compton is superb. I love it in there.
View: Across the fields from the top of the sanctuary. We’re near the Hog’s Back and you look down over the fields to the surrounding valleys. It’s gorgeous.
Place to relax: Again, it would have to be here at the Mane Chance Sanctuary – why not come and pay us a visit at our open day this month to learn more about this special place? (see details on the right)
Place to visit: Richmond Park. I love nature and I can get lost in it. And the Isabella Plantation in spring with all the rhododendrons is lovely.
A life in acting…
1957: Born in Kuala Lumpur on July 4, 1957. The family moves around in Malaysia, Singapore and Sarawak. Aged nine, attends St Hilary’s, Godalming, as a boarder, then Queen Anne’s School, Caversham.
1976-1979: Attends Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Contemporary students include Daniel Day-Lewis, Amanda Redman, Greta Scacchi, Miranda Richardson and Alex Jennings, to name but a few.
1982: Big screen debut with a small part in the acclaimed British drama Moonlighting, starring Jeremy Irons as a Polish labourer. Also stars with Rupert Everett in A Shocking Accident – a short film that wins an Oscar.
1983: Plays a marine biologist with webbed feet in Bill Forsyth’s fondly remembered character comedy Local Hero. She is cast opposite Peter Capaldi in his first screen role.
1984: Stars in an American TV adaptation of the Barbara Taylor Bradford novel A Woman of Substance. The UK screening brings Channel 4 a record audience of 13.8 million.
1986: Takes the title role in a stage production of Jane Eyre marking the silver jubilee of the Chichester Festival Theatre in West Sussex.
1993: First West End stage appearance in a work by one of her favourite playwrights, Noel Coward, appearing in Present Laughter, opposite Tom Conti, at the Globe Theatre in London. Highly acclaimed stage performance in Coward’s Brief Encounter as Laura Jesson, a role immortalised on celluloid by Celia Johnson.
2001: Joins the long-running BBC legal drama Judge John Deed as QC Jo Mills, with Martin Shaw in the title role.
2014: Stars opposite Sara Crowe in her long-term partner and theatre producer Bill Kenwright’s revival of one of Noel Coward’s least performed but funniest comedies, Fallen Angels.