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Interview: Jenny Agutter, actor

18 August 2017

‘Prison punishes people by denying them a sense of belonging to society’

I’ve no idea why goodness is so difficult to portray in drama. I can only think of a few that stick in my mind: Hayley Mills as Pollyanna, or Ingrid Bergman as St Joan. Roberta in The Railway Children, which is the first role people associate me with, received a great deal of attention when it was first on the big screen, and then lived on years later on video and then DVD — as well as showing perennially at Christmas. Roberta was a very good, thoughtful child.


I’ve played a number of nasty roles and some murderous roles, espe­cially at the RSC, but they were in the theatre, where one doesn’t reach such large audiences or get so much press interest. People remember me as the nurse who was rather terrific in An American Werewolf in London. I wish I were like that, but I’m really not. I’m just ordinary.


Sister Julienne in Call the Midwife is lovely to play, partly because I was able to meet a niece of Sister Jocelyn, who was the person Jennifer Worth had in mind when writing her memoirs. Jocelyn’s niece gave me some excellent descriptions of her aunt. Also, my mother was looked after by a nun when she was at West­minster Hospital, and I remember her lovely cheerful personality. We’re now filming series seven.


Heidi Thomas’s writing is so good, but it’s sad to see how the storylines show us all becoming more bigoted and self-absorbed as we move fur­ther from the war. The British need a crisis to be at their best. When they aren’t, they sink into inertia and a “What about me?” attitude. I hope we’ve at least learnt enough not to become uncivilised again; for it’s possible for us to do great things and terrible things. It’s not down to government: it’s about individuals doing things, acceptance of each other, culture.


I’m not very fussed about being called an “actress”, but it just sounds rather peculiar to me. After all, you’re a writer not a “writeress”. Making the distinction doesn’t even follow today: think of Helen Mirren playing Prospero, and Glenda Jackson has just done King Lear. Nobody discussed her sexuality; they only talked about the poetry and emotion and how she put these across.


I’m most comfortable with modern pieces. I’m always looking for something new and different to play. It was nice to do The Avengers, for instance, and The Survivor, and Spooks. Every role gives you the chance to investigate elements of human nature.


I am lucky to have had some good roles in television, and classic films; but I don’t attach myself to their success. When a job is finished, an actor is always looking for the next role to play. In retrospect, I’m probably most proud of the theatre that I’ve done.


Film, or live theatre, or television are all equally enjoyable for different reasons. Rehearsal in the theatre is a shared creative experience, exploring a piece of drama. Film, particularly on location, introduces you to different things, and there’s a family feeling when working with a crew. Television’s a combination of the two, but you work faster, which is exciting.


The hardest job I’ve ever done was working with the RSC and opening in three plays to run in repertory within a few weeks.


I spent my childhood abroad, because my father was in the army. The first place I remember is Singa­­pore. We returned to the UK for a couple of years. My father took on the job of live-entertainment officer for the forces in the Middle East, and we moved to Cyprus. It felt like the same world Gerald Durrell inhabited in My Family and Other Animals. I loved it. We were a small family, and spent idyllic holidays in the Troudos mountains or sailing in our home-made boat. I also loved my ballet school there; so eventually my parents sent me to Elmhurst Ballet School, down the road from Sand­hurst.


I never seriously thought about being a dancer. I hadn’t the dedi­ca­tion to work every day like an ath­lete. I also knew there were limited opportunities and possibly a short career as a ballet dancer, though I still love watching the ballet.


When I was 16, I took a lead role in three films, instead of getting on with exams, and left school with no qualifications. So I just had to con­tinue with the profession I enjoyed and had fallen into. I had to work very hard to learn something about acting.


I’ve always loved travel and different cultures. I went to Los Angeles when I was 21, and wasn’t expecting anything from the place; but I loved it and met people who’ve remained friends. I realised very quickly that you made your own life there. There are different values, but once you understand that we’re two countries divided by a common language, you appreciate and work with the enthusiasm and openness, and hope to hang on to anything from your own culture that’s important. When I first came back to the UK from the United States, I’d become so accustomed to the American way of saying who you were and what you wanted that sometimes British understatement and modesty seemed a pretence.


I was extremely lucky to have a secure, loving family; so I hope to contribute in some way to those who don’t. Action for Children works with vulnerable families, and I was drawn to Ovacome when a child in my son’s class revealed, when they were all looking at family photos, that her mother had died of ovarian cancer.


I found out about cystic fibrosis 36 years ago when my niece was born with it. My brother and sister-in-law were both carriers; so when I was pregnant I had the test, but, although I was a carrier, my husband wasn’t; so there was no concern that our son would have it. I mentioned to Heidi Thomas that the sweat test to find out if someone had CF was devel­oped in 1958, and she wove this into a Call the Midwife plot about a child that was “failing to thrive” — as they called a child who seemed likely to die without apparent cause.


The St Giles Trust have their head­quarters near where I live. They would put invites through the doors to drop in and find out about their work with prisoners. One day I did. I hadn’t given much thought to the people who are on the extreme fringes of our society, but these are the people the trust look after. No one wants to think about them, but they need the most help. The amaz­ing programme that the St Giles Trust runs in prisons creates oppor­tun­ity for reconciliation and inclu­sion. Otherwise, prison-leavers have little chance in life.


We simply don’t want to know or to think about prisoners’ problems. Our excuse is that these people have brought this on themselves, though they may simply have made one bad choice, or been influenced by a stronger personality. They pay their debt through their prison sentence, and then usually end up paying for the rest of their lives as well.


It’s unglamorous work, but the St Giles Trust does the right things. They talk with people in prison, meet them when they come out, and help them find work. Women in prison especially lose contact with their families; so they help them get back to their families and live useful lives.


I wish there might be a way to instil a sense of belonging to society. Prison punishes people by denying this to people, but then their self-respect or respect for others is lost.


If you want to help, be tolerant and compassionate. Don’t throw stones. Lend a helping hand. It might work. It will work better than slamming the door shut and hoping the problem will go away.


A baby or child laughing is my favourite sound. The laughter is infectious, natural, and delightful.


It’s me that makes me angry.


I’m happiest with my family, sharing a cultural experience like theatre, film or a concert, or a meal together, or enjoying a walk in the countryside.


Outside of family, the greatest influence in my life was a publicist who looked after publicity for me for decades. He treated me like a child when I made my first films, and always made the business the best fun.


I stopped praying many years ago, but I breathe thanks for any glorious moment — to something or someone I can’t see.


People’s capability to use their imaginations to build a good future gives me hope.


If I found myself locked in a church with anyone, I’d choose Mary Wollstonecraft. She wasn’t bound by her time. She was a smart woman, an individual thinker, had a huge impact on women’s rights, and she’d be interesting to be around.


Jenny Agutter was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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