Call the Midwife’s Jenny Agutter: “I do love playing a nun”

“Downton isn’t something I’ve watched much. It’s a wonderful fantasy of English life, but we [at Midwife] are reality, albeit a bit removed"

Jenny Agutter invites me to a gastropub in Camberwell, an outpost of south London, near to where she and her Swedish property developer husband, Johan Tham, have lived for 14 years. “People think Camberwell doesn’t exist because it’s not on the Underground. I nearly wore my ‘Bring the Tube to Camberwell’ campaign T-shirt. It’s a wonder- fully culturally mixed area, with every part of the world represented, and only 30 minutes from the West End. The vegetable store round the corner, run by a Greek Cypriot, even sells breadfruit, which used to be transported from the South Seas to feed Caribbean slaves because it’s high in carbohydrates.”

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Fascinating, I say, and she smiles. Now 62, slim and looking at least ten years younger, she’s been working since she was 11 years old, most famously as Roberta in The Railway Children at 17, and remains easy-going and gentle. “I’ve satisfied a lot of ambitions, but never wanted to be a big star. I wouldn’t have been good at it. For the Oscars you’re meant to walk down the red carpet, but I snuck in the back door. Not the thing to do!”

She’s had long experience of interviews. Richard Harris, with whom she starred in The Snow Goose in 1971, advised her never to become bogged down with the truth (“It’s only entertainment”), but she has no artifice and denies her painful breakup with the late Patrick Garland, who directed the film and was 17 years her senior, precipitated her move to the US when she was 21. “People like to think you have to be kicked up the butt to do something different. I just felt like a new start.”

But, first, more mundane considerations. She admits to a slight problem in her role as Sister Julienne (below) in Call the Midwife, which begins its fourth series today. “I keep asking if I can sneak in a pair of silk pyjamas to wear, but they’re very strict in the lingerie department so it’s just white winceyette and wimples for me.”

Midwife, with its brutish sentimentality, nostalgia for the 50s and homilies (“Certainty is fleeting – that’s why we must have faith,” says Sister Julienne) had more viewers than Downton Abbey during its first series in 2012. That doesn’t surprise her.

“Downton isn’t something I’ve watched much. It’s a wonderful fantasy of English life, but we [at Midwife] are reality, albeit a bit removed. Today everyone is so concerned with ‘rights’ and what we imagine we’re owed. In those days the attitude was more what we could do to help others. Viewers enjoy that sense of community. And at the centre of it all, babies are born, which gives us hope.”

Not for the squeamish, though: blood-soaked births are wincingly realistic. “It’s carefully shot – the actual birth is prosthetic and then a new baby is held in arms. Very clever and emotional.” Most of the cast cry on set now and again.

The new series is set in the 1960s. “Suddenly this exciting world bursts open. The Pill completely changed things. Poplar [where the series is set] didn’t have so many babies and that reduced a lot of pressure on families. Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll,” she announces happily.

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For the nuns? “My goodness, no. It hasn’t quite got to that. I do love playing a nun. You’d think it would be easy, but it’s one of my more difficult roles. It’s so far from anything I can imagine – that dedication, tolerance and faith – which is very different to ‘religion’. I like it when I have a chance early in the day’s filming to be in the chapel. It must be marvellous to have the contemplative psalms and plainsong chant- ing as part of one’s life. It puts you in such a good mood. If I do anything surprising – like swear – when I’m in costume, I get strange looks.”