“It was actually extraordinarily nice,” says Jenny Agutter of her three-and-a-half months with wimple and without make-up. “You weren’t thinking about whether this is the right costume or what one looks like. The nearest I got to civvies was taking the wimple off.”
Jenny Agutter became a household name playing Roberta in the 1970 film The Railway Children, but it was a series of more revealing roles that have endeared her to men of a certain age: Australian outback movie Walkabout in 1971 with its skinny-dipping scene, when Agutter was 16; An American Werewolf in London, where she played a comely nurse; and a scantily clad role in sci-fi romp Logan’s Run.
“Three decades on, I still will not go to a science-fiction convention because there’ll be people coming up to me in little green outfits,” laughs Agutter, with a mock-shudder.
Playing Sister Julienne
Her latest makeover is no less dramatic (if a lot more demure), and that’s what attracted Agutter to the role of Sister Julienne. “It’s quite different from anything I’ve ever played. It’s not about being good; it’s about the strength of character of a person that lives in a convent in the East End in the 50s.”
Beneath the wimple, Agutter found a strong-willed woman with a twinkle in her eye: “I met Sister Julienne’s cousin, who gave me some wonderful little hints about what she was like, and she said she had a wry humour.”
It’s a side that emerges in the delightful scenes in which Sister Julienne arbitrates (and sometimes fuels) her fellow sisters’ squabbles — scenes Agutter clearly relished. “The nuns are not perfect. Their way of life doesn’t mean they all get along with one another, and the fact that they don’t get along is very funny.”
What wasn’t funny was the squalor just beyond the convent doors, and Agutter was as shocked as the trainee midwife in the opening scenes. “I came from the 1960s ‘me’ generation, whereas the 50s were about recovering from two world wars. They were depressing and difficult times, and nowhere more so than in the Docklands.”
Yet there are a few things Agutter feels we could learn from the big-hearted sisters of Nonnatus House. “We’re seeing the difficulties that ‘me, me, me’ attitude has created. The people sitting outside St Paul’s have a point. One’s got to look at those issues and see how you can make society work.”
As for Agutter, she’s about to metamorphose again to appear alongside Samuel L Jackson and Scarlett Johansson in upcoming Hollywood blockbuster The Avengers.
“I’m sworn to secrecy! I wasn’t allowed a script until I got there, and when I did, I felt like a complete child being on big sets and a huge parking lot full of Winnebagos.”
She does let slip that two of these housed Spider-Man and Iron Man; we suspect Agutter won’t be able to avoid sci-fi conventions for much longer.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 17 January 2012.
Call the Midwife continues tonight at 8pm on BBC1/BBC1 HD