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"

She was brought up as a Roman Catholic, but rebelled at 16. “There are some wonderful things about all religions, but they’ve gone awry over hundreds of years by being politically manipulative. Religion often uses faith as a blindfold, saying anyone who doesn’t believe the same as us must be wiped out. It’s not God saying that. It’s people, which is so dangerous.

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“My mother was very much a believer and she always felt guilt – Catholics are good at that. She lost two children to cystic fibrosis and must have felt deep pain throughout her life. She was supportive and uncritical of me and my brother, but not an easy person. I wish I’d had closer conversations with her. Ironically, she spoke to my son freely about everything, including the war, which she never did to me or my brother. Both parents wanted us to have a comfortable life, with everything perfect.”

As her father was in the Army the family travelled extensively and when she was eight she was sent to Elmhurst ballet school, then in Camberley, Surrey, as a boarder. “I didn’t question it, but it’s peculiar and made a difference in my life.” She was nicknamed Piglet because she was small and ate a lot.

The school sent her for screen tests and she had her first part in East of Sudan in 1964. “My parents weren’t impressed. My father was entertainments manager in Cyprus, but my mother didn’t think showbusiness people were quite ‘right’. I have to say that everyone I came across as a child actor was entirely delightful and took care of me.”

The Railway Children (above), for which she was paid less than £10,000 (about £160,000 today), was pivotal. “I stopped school, which was foolish and I wouldn’t advocate it for anyone, but never mind. We had a wonderful royal premiere, were on the front page of the newspapers for a short time, and that was it. I was out of school, with no training, little education and not much happening in films. I did a lot of television and went to the National Theatre, where everyone had a theatrical background and knowledge I lacked. Peter Hall urged me to go into rep, but that’s not where my heart lay and I’ve only ever been able to follow what I feel. So I went to America, where no one had heard of The Railway Children.

“It wasn’t entirely foolish. I had an American agent whose guesthouse I stayed in. And I’d won an Emmy for The Snow Goose. But for six months I thought nothing would happen – I was going up for adverts, and then Logan’s Run came along [in 1976]. Many people go to LA and hate it. I didn’t. I like the openness and the ‘can do’ attitude. In America it’s ‘can do’ – until it fails. In England it fails – until you ‘can do’. There were disappointments – parts that went to someone else, bad reviews – but you push them away. Friends help me get it in proportion.”

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“I avoided pitfalls by realising it’s no good looking for gold unless you dig. I joined a little ballet company and made sure I didn’t wander around vaguely. I was also never comfortable with hire purchase. I got my first car from Rent-a-Wreck, and felt extremely privileged to enjoy life in my little rented flat. As soonasImademoneyIputitdownonan investment house in West Hollywood. At one point I thought of going into the property market, which is much more simple in America.”