‘Is that Jenny Agutter?’ a rather refined older lady whispers to me, having not seen her face but simply heard the sound of her voice, as the actress disappears off to buy us coffee in London’s National Gallery. We’re in highly salubrious surroundings, and Jenny and her distinctive, terribly well-spoken voice, fit in perfectly.
At 66, the actress is still the ultimate English Rose and yet while we might think of her as rather jolly highbrow, she couldn’t really be any more mainstream, currently starring in the massive hit TV drama Call The Midwife, the last episode of which goes out on BBC1 tonight.
Jenny has spent the past six years rocking a wimple of a Sunday evening as Sister Julienne, while being watched by an astounding 10 million viewers, the highest ratings currently on British TV.
The actress, a lovely lady who utterly charms the pants off us, has, of course, been in the public eye most of her life, having starred in the classic kids’ movie The Railway Children as a teenager. And despite going off to make Hollywood blockbusters, remained more famous for waving that hanky about on a train line than anything else she ever did. Until now.
Jenny, who is married to hotelier Johan Tham and has a 27-year-old son Jonathan, talks to us about behaving herself in a nun’s habit, delivering a baby in a tenement block toilet, and finally growing up…
Did you ever think Call The Midwife would become the most popular show on TV?
I never imagined. I thought, ‘Will people want to watch something about nuns and midwives in the 1950s?’ But it is family-oriented and it touches people from all different ages and backgrounds. It covers social issues, and everyone can identify with the joy and possibility and anxiety that comes with a new child. It’s gone to hundreds of countries – I even get letters from China, and every time I’m stopped in the street now it’s for someone who wants to talk about Call The Midwife.
What’s it like playing a nun, someone who is good all the time?
It’s harder playing a person who is consistently good than to get into a nasty character, and to show someone who has a kind of faith I could never understand. She isn’t like me at all. I’m very impatient, stupidly so with myself and with other people. I’m not tolerant in the way Sister Julienne is. I get cross about things. She’d rather look after the problems that exist.
You must have to lose all sense of vanity in that wimple…
The wimple and habit help a lot with becoming her. It’s harder to swear in a wimple, I behave a bit differently as soon as I put it on. Even the shoes help. I’ve had the same ones for the last six years. They’re clumpy and falling apart, but we keep them together and polish them – I even got some new laces recently. And no make-up, except for covering shine, I’m not allowed mascara or lipstick. But I win because I get more sleep in the morning as I don’t have to go into make-up. There’s something freeing about not thinking or worrying about the way you look.
Does it make you desperate to glam up?
It does make you want to put some lipstick and a dress on. Someone came and did make-up for me recently and I was like, ‘Yes, go for it! Ooh, lashes!’ I’ve never been able to put too much on, though, or I look like a doll face.
So has CTM finally taken over The Railway Children in terms of what you’re most famous for?
The Railway Children has always had a huge following. It came out when I was 18 and I went off to Hollywood when I was 21, but it kept being shown on TV and the generations grew up with it. It was odd to come back from America where no one had spoken about it at all, to everyone mentioning that before anything else. Logan’s Run, An American Werewolf In London, no, always The Railway Children. I was 30, 40 and 50, yet still 16 and in The Railway Children. It has a continuum, which Call The Midwife has finally taken over, so Bobby has now turned into a nun. People have finally accepted that I’ve grown up.
How did you avoid going off the rails like most child actors?
I’ve got a very solid small family. My parents were unimpressed by the film industry, it wasn’t taken very seriously. What goes wrong with a lot of young actors is they’re thrown into it too seriously and the responsibility and weight of it falls on them. Plus, you do something that is a huge success and the next minute you’re out of work, nobody cares about you at all. That’s happened to me so many times.
You mustn’t even remember not being famous…
It honestly means absolutely nothing. The other day when I arrived in Liverpool at a BBC showcase they were like, ‘You’re in the wrong place, are you working on the show?’ as though I was a stagehand. That was a blow to the ego. Sometimes I get recognised, other times I don’t, it’s always a surprise to me. I’ve never given up travelling on public transport and I never know whether people are looking at me because they recognise me or because I look peculiar. I got on the tube once and I was like ‘why is everyone looking at me today?’ and when I got home I realised I still had a badge saying ‘Actor Jenny Agutter’ on the top of my coat.
How do you cope with selfies?
People say, ‘Can I take a picture of you?’ and you look like sh*t, but you don’t want to say no because then that person is going to hate you and tell everybody else what a sh*t you are. I try to look my best, but you’re in Tesco and someone stops you right there with the swedes in your hand, looking rather startled. I look better in a wimple than I do in Tesco with my hair all over the place.
Which was wonderful. I was all, ‘Look at the size of my Winnebago, for goodness sake.’ It was bigger than our whole production office on CTM. And the size of the crew and the special effects and the stunts people, I still feel like a child, totally delighted by it.
What’s been your worst ever job?
I did a film called The Dark Tower, which was beset with problems. It was a gothic horror set in a modern tower block in Spain, which got pulled down while we were filming. The continuity person would have long Spanish lunches with wine and continuity went out of the window for the afternoon.
Do you get asked to do all the reality shows?
Strictly has come up. Although I had the perfect situation in that we did a Children In Need special with Call The Midwife, so it was just one week’s work, which gave me a very good idea of what they go through and no, I couldn’t do it. Helen George did it and my God was she exhausted. I was asked to do Celebrity Mastermind, which would make me incredibly nervous. I’d get up there and not be able to remember my name.
Tell us something about you that would surprise us…
I love rap. I love Eminem. I don’t know what it is about it, it strikes a chord with me. I used to do juggling too, but I’ve given that up because I couldn’t do it well enough.
How would you describe yourself?
Impatient. Hardworking. And eager. Eager for everything life throws at me. I’m a social person, but also quite shy in a funny way.
What’s your biggest regret?
I regret things I didn’t do rather than what I did do. Not talking with my mother more, there were so many things that were not said. She died 12 years ago and I spent more time worrying about her physical care than just being with her. It’s the times I’ve not been there for the people who suddenly aren’t in one’s life any longer.
Call The Midwife has already been signed up for another three series, can you ever imagine not doing it?
I tend to take it year by year. I stepped out of Spooks after two years and that carried on and I’m sure this would have a life without me, but Sister Julienne does feel central and certainly I was upset when I was put out of my office.
Behind the scenes on Call The Midwife
“The first baby delivery I had to do was in a lavatory in a tenement block. It’s often the first time you’ve spent time with the actor and you’ve got your hand on their crutch. There’s a midwife with us on set and she’ll be saying, “No, don’t put your hand there, put it there.” We rehearse the births, because they have to be highly organised – someone will bring in a week-old baby and you can only have them for 15 minutes and you never know what is going to happen. Usually they’re sleeping, which is unfortunate as obviously a just-born baby would not be doing that.”
For Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, Jenny is supporting the charity Ovacome’s social media campaign Because You Are Special To Me. #Because is for women to share symptoms of ovarian cancer with people close to them on Facebook and Twitter.
Ovacome use the term BEAT to remind us of what to look out for.
B is for Bloating that does not come and go
E is for Eating less and feeling fuller
A is for Abdominal pain
T is for Telling your GP
For more information go to ovacome.org.uk