SISTER TREASURE: JENNY AGUTTER
Jenny Agutter has been something of a national treasure for more than half a century Sebastian Oake catches up with the Call the Midwife star...
Christmas and a special edition of Call the Midwife have become as inseparable as turkey and cranberry sauce and now fans of the nostalgic midwifery drama have a keenly awaited new arrival to celebrate – a fresh series this month.
Jenny Agutter, who lives for a significant chunk of the year in Cornwall, plays the saintly Sister Julienne. She says the new series has some strong storylines and also explains why she loves appearing in what has become a flagship programme for the BBC. I really enjoy being part of something that can look at a period of history and highlight the way in which people lived then. And while it’s historical, it’s close enough to be remembered, which makes it more interesting.’
The sixth series of Call the Midwife is set as 1961 moves into 1962. The great thing about moving from year to year is you can focus on the situations that affect people at that particular time – social, family and women’s issues,’ she says. Previous outings have dealt with topics such as the post-war baby boom, the threat of nuclear war and the thalidomide scandal, so what can we expect over the coming weeks?
Happily, Jenny is willing to divulge a few secrets. One of the issues that is featured is violence at home. There’s a Cray Brothers-type character who treats his wife badly. There’s also a focus on Down’s Syndrome – about how a teenager with Down’s fits into the world and how people perceive them. And there’s a look at immigration from China and West Africa in the sense of it forcing cultural change within families through a struggle between modern and old values.’
And what’s in store for Sister Julienne herself? Well, unsurprisingly there are some births! And Julienne gets hands-on with quite a few of them. It’s always lovely to do birth scenes. We use a prosthetic baby, of course, but usually at some point a real one appears in the scene. I always find it terribly emotional.
But the new series is largely a change of pace for Sister Julienne. She is at a loss after the death of Sister Evangelina at the end of the last series and there is a lot of upheaval for her.’
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Sister Julienne has been a mainstay of Call the Midwife since it was first shown in 2012. Presumably then Jenny has some favourite moments? I would pick out the thalidomide story in the last series in particular. It was full-on, brave and interesting and fulfilling to do, while also hard to do. I also enjoyed the side story about Charles Newgarden, played by Nicholas Farrell,’ she adds, referring to the perhaps surprise revelation that Sister Julienne had a romantic interest before becoming a nun.
It was interesting finding out that she had had love in her life,’ she explains. You always question why someone chooses faith and service and we discovered that she made the choice to serve despite understanding love and having experienced a relationship.’
Call the Midwife is just the latest in a long line of film and TV appearances for Jenny. It’s actually hard to believe, bearing in mind that she has held on to her good looks and retained a certain girlish youthfulness, that Jenny’s acting career has spanned more than 50 years. Her first film role was in 1964. At the time, Jenny was just 11 and learning to dance at Elmhurst Ballet School in Surrey.
I went for an audition as a small girl for East of Sudan. The film involved being physically carried around quite a bit, so they picked me up and decided I was light enough and I got the part!’
Since then she has starred in a huge catalogue of film productions, from the whimsical Walkabout, set in Australia, to the heart-warming 1970 version of The Railway Children to the gruesome cult classic An American Werewolf in London. Slipped in between the films have been dramas for television such as The Alan Clark Diaries, guest appearances in things like Magnum PI and Midsomer Murders and seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Despite her busy work schedule, Jenny also finds time to help causes close to her heart (she has been awarded the OBE for services to charity. in 2012). She is a high profile supporter of Action for Children (which works with vulnerable young people), Ovacome (the ovarian cancer charity), Graeae (the disabled-led theatre company) and the St Giles Trust (which works with ex-offenders, helping them move on in life).
But it is her connection with the Cystic Fibrosis Trust that is perhaps most touching. The charity supports those suffering from a hereditary disease that leads to a build-up of mucus in the lungs and digestive system and can be life-shortening.
Jenny has worked with the charity ever since learning that members of her family, herself included, are carriers of the mutated gene responsible for the condition. Her niece Rachel was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at the age of six months but remains well and is now in her mid-30s.
Rachel is doing fine,’ says Jenny. She is married and keeps herself as healthy as possible. She is very careful about avoiding picking up colds, which can end up on her chest.’
That said, it might be best for her to avoid too many breezy cliff-top walks with her aunt at this time of year in Cornwall. For Jenny, however, the coast still has its attractions in winter. Kynance Cove is always a very beautiful place but it’s nicest in winter when there’s no-one there,’ she says.
Introduced to Cornwall by her husband Johan, who owned a house here when they met, Jenny heads to her cottage on the Lizard whenever her London-based life allows.
I love Cornwall. It’s a huge county but most of the time we tend to stay very much close to home, around Cadgwith, Coverack and Lizard. Mind you, we do roam out sometimes and both Zennor and Sennen Cove are wonderful spots.
The other great thing about Cornwall is there is so much in the way of crafts and small businesses. It’s a really enterprising place with small markets selling local stuff.’
Local continental-style cheeses are a particular soft spot for Jenny and she picks out local Gouda, Cornish Blue and Helston White as some of her favourites. In truth, Jenny is something of a foodie’, once appearing on Celebrity Masterchef and winning against Ulrika Jonsson and Rick Wakeman. It’s no surprise, therefore, to learn that she loves eating out when she’s in Cornwall.
There is such good produce in Cornwall and new places to eat are popping up all the time,’ she enthuses before disclosing that three of her favourite eateries are The Square at Porthleven, Coast in Lizard village and the New Yard Restaurant on the Trelowarren Estate near Mawgan.
Good food and Jenny Agutter clearly go hand in hand. It may be a long way from artisan eateries in south Cornwall to the grit of London’s East End in the early 1960s but if Call the Midwife keeps going, the modern foodie revolution could just become a storyline one day.