Fans of Call the Midwife are celebrating a new arrival – series nine of the BBC’s enduring masterpiece.
After a Christmas Day visit to the Outer Hebrides, the nuns, nurses and midwives are now firmly back in Poplar in London’s East End. Jenny Agutter, who plays the saintly Sister Julienne, is clearly happy to be back in her costume. But when asked why Call the Midwife is so popular, she does not find it easy to put her finger on it.
“People say it’s sentimental but actually I think it’s quite hard-edged,” she says. “The characters are always facing problems and they aren’t always resolved. I do think though that the stories capture the imagination and the feel-good factor comes from the strength of the community. And there are always babies, which keep people hooked in.”
The new series started with the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965 but what more can we expect over the coming weeks? The drama is now entering a bold and innovative era when society is changing fast, tower blocks are multiplying and the East End is rising from the ashes. “The great thing about moving from year to year,” Jenny says, “is you can focus on the situations that affect people at that particular time – social, family and women’s issues. And while it’s historical, it’s close enough to be remembered.”
Naturally the odd birth does take place in this series but also making an appearance are diphtheria, drug abuse, cancer and fistula. Sister Julienne herself is facing a changing world. In particular, more and more mothers are now opting to go into hospital to give birth, challenging the traditional home visits by midwives. “My character also finds herself caring for someone whose lifestyle does not make her the perfect mother,” says Jenny. “She’s a prostitute and doesn’t make responsible decisions. It’s because she was never mothered properly herself. I enjoyed playing that role very much.”
Call the Midwife has been on our screens since 2012 and another two series have already been commissioned by the BBC. But if Jenny Agutter and Sister Julienne seem the ideal match today, there have been plenty of others before it, the first as long ago as 1964. At the time, Jenny was just 11 and learning to dance at 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 for the part and I got it.”
Since then she has starred in a huge catalogue of film productions, from the whimsical Walkabout, set in Australia, and the heart-warming 1970 version of The Railway Children, to An American Werewolf in London. Slipped in between have been dramas for television such as The Alan Clark Diaries, guest appearances in things like Midsomer Murders and seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“Walkabout left a huge impression on me,” Jenny reflects now. The film follows a schoolgirl, played by Jenny, and her younger brother as they wander lost through the Outback. “When we were filming, it involved us camping in the desert and walking up mountain sides where it felt like no-one had ever been before. I remember sleeping on an old iron bed in the open covered with just a mosquito net.”
Naturally you can’t talk to Jenny Agutter for long before asking her about The Railway Children. She has starred in no fewer than three versions of Edith Nesbit’s charming Edwardian story. She remembers the first – a BBC TV version in 1968 in black and white – with fondness but it is the 1970 film version by Lionel Jeffries that will be most people’s favourite.
Set around the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, this film captured Edwardian life and childhood innocence perfectly and remains richly tender, warm and nostalgic. There are many beautiful, poignant moments, culminating in the tear-jerking reunion of father and daughter on the steam-shrouded platform of Oakworth Station. The film seemed to capture something of the spirit of Yorkshire. Did she realise at the time that it would become so highly regarded?
“I very nearly didn’t do the film,” Jenny reveals. “I’d just done Walkabout, had turned 17 and thought it was going back over old ground. Luckily Lionel Jeffries was very persuasive. “When we were working on the film, it did feel it was kind of blessed. It was early spring and we had gorgeous weather. Lionel was a larger than life character and a father figure. He seemed like an Edwardian gentleman himself, which helped us get into the feel of the period.”
In An American Werewolf in London, Jenny played a nurse. Coming out 10 years after The Railway Children and Walkabout, it represented something rather more complex. It famously starts with two American students encountering a frosty reception from locals at a “Yorkshire pub”, enticingly called the Slaughtered Lamb, before they set off to walk across the moors where they are attacked by a werewolf. “When I got the script for the first time and read it through, I wasn’t sure,” says Jenny. “If it hadn’t been John Landis directing, I would have baulked at it. I wasn’t sure how the humour and horror would go together.”
Jenny’s latest film, Sometimes Always Never, was released last year. Also starring Bill Nighy, it focuses on a man looking for his lost son. “I had a fun part to play,” she says, “and it’s a very funny film, beautifully written.”
The innocence of her early roles, coupled with her subsequent sexier image, made her something of a fantasy figure to men of a certain age.
With her warm personality Jenny has also been cited as the perfect dinner party guest. Mind you, if you were eating with her, you might want her to do the cooking. A self-confessed “foodie”, she once appeared on MasterChef, winning against Ulrika Jonsson and Rick Wakeman.
Despite her busy schedule Jenny still manages to find time to help out charities. She is an ambassador for Action for Children and is also a patron for both the Campaign for Better Transport and the St Giles Trust. But it is her connection with the Cystic Fibrosis Trust that is perhaps most touching. 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 own niece Rachel was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at the age of six months but remains well.
Jenny’s charity work is a big part of her life and eight years ago she was awarded an OBE for it. Despite her own relatively comfortable upbringing and a successful career, she has not forgotten the need to help others. Sister Julienne would be proud.
Call the Midwife is currently showing on Sunday evenings on BBC1.