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"

Single in Los Angeles for 15 years, presumably she had a few unsuitable boyfriends? “Not many. LA is never-never land and there are few mature men in the film industry. They’re not required to be.” She also, she says, put up invisible barriers, making sure no one came close enough to her to ruin an enviable life.

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“Living alone I made every decision and did things my way. I was never lonely. I don’t think I ever have been. The only loneliness is being at a party where you don’t know anyone. I was self- centred, and it took me a long time to grow up because I didn’t do it with my peers. Working with older people I had a sense of being smarter and wiser than I was, even though I knew zilch. I faked it in order to fit in and not feel insecure.” She even tried to smoke – unsuccessfully.

She wasn’t really mature, she says, until she was in her 30s, after meeting Johan at an arts festival in Bristol in 1989. They married a year later and had their son Jonathan, who is now 24 and studying medicine at Cambridge. “You grow up when you let someone else into your life in marriage. It’s a hard adjustment, coming to terms with other people’s realities and the fact that you’re not going to do everything your way, although it’s wonderful to have someone else there. At least you know, sort of, who you are by then.”

“In my 20s I felt much more maternal than in my 30s, but there was no one around to have a child with. I thought about having one on my own, but knew I wouldn’t cope. I needed support. I was less broody when I was in a posi- tion to have a child, but thrilled when I became pregnant. However, they don’t tell you that, the moment you’re pregnant, your life is taken over. Everything you do, think and feel is affected.”

She returned to live in London with Johan and cut down on work: “I didn’t want to compromise the family so that had to take precedence.” Now, though, she thinks there’s something of a renaissance for older women. “There’s a more mature audience to be catered for and great stories are being writ- ten. You no longer have to be young for ever, which is terrific. Men can be attractive at any age, but for women it’s still associated with childbearing and sexuality. It has to change. Maybe I’m more hopeful than I should be, but look at Miranda [Hart, who plays midwife Chummy] – so attractive, and although she goes on about being ungainly, she’s really very secure. She grew up tall and gangly and had the strength of personality to overcome it.

“When I was in Hollywood a producer told me I should have the bags under my eyes done. I was very British and said no. I know a couple of people who’ve had face lifts and it was terrifying – black and blue and swollen. It doesn’t do it for me. But men are conned into it, too. There’s an industry and it doesn’t end with women.

“I did worry about being 60, didn’t like it at all. It was nothing to do with the age – more my own attitude in the past, thinking how old it made other people seem. Are you seen in a different light because it’s the retirement age? I had a nice party and now have free travel and freedom in my mind. We all worry about death, which our society doesn’t accept very easily. I’d like to just pop off.”

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Call the Midwife returns to BBC1 tonight (Sunday the 18th of January) at 8.00pm