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Jenny Agutter

Published on

Photo: Tim Jenkins

People think of me as very British, which I’m not. The first place I remember was Singapore. Then, from the age of eight to 16, we lived in Nicosia on Cyprus, where my father was running the entertainment for the Forces who were based in the Middle East.

I went to boarding school in England. Being at ballet school, I actually felt very lucky and rather a spoilt brat. In the holidays, I’d go back to Cyprus – it was all very Gerald Durrell... We had a lot of Greek and Turkish friends. We built a boat from a pontoon, and we’d go along the coast and spend our entire time bailing out the boat. Snorkelling, looking for coins and bits of pots from the old Byzantine town. It was an interesting contrast to living in England.

When I was 11 years old, I was cast in a Walt Disney film about the Royal Danish ballet, I think because I looked young for my age, my ballet was of the right standard, and I was uninhibited. But I was not an actor; I wouldn’t have been an actor in a million years. I wouldn’t have been a dancer, to be frank.

It was terribly exciting, being in a film at that age. To me, it was all just playing games. The director would say, “Look over here, a giraffe. A giraffe going by. Now there’s a lion. He’s frightening.” I thought it was Hollywood. Then I went back to school, and had it knocked out of me completely. They were not impressed. The thing about boarding school is that you’ve got to live with these people for months on end, so if you feel something isn’t acceptable, you very quickly withdraw.

From the age of 13, I was handled by a publicist who treated me entirely like a child, which was exactly right. I think that a lot of people who start work as a child get treated like an adult, which they’re not. Back then, I would say serious things like, “Do you think I should take this role?” And my publicist would say, “Well, what’s the grub like? Is it a nice location? Who’s making it?” He gave me the point of view that this should be fun... And that affected the way I chose roles for the rest of my career.

Unlike with dancing, I never learned the technical stuff that goes behind what you do as an actor, so I worked in the theatre for a while. I was terrified of being on stage. I still feel nervous to a certain extent – if you’re not, then you don’t have the energy you need. I ended up at the National in my early 20s, playing Miranda with Gielgud as Prospero in The Tempest. All the other actors of my age who were playing the smaller roles had come straight out of drama school. It made me feel insecure – I didn’t even know what an iambic pentameter was... To overcome it, I worked bloody hard. I was extremely lucky to be working with someone like Gielgud. He was the most generous, funny, delightful person. His way of working was to nod and wink and say, “Isn’t this fun? Aren’t we enjoying this? Come on, this is just great.”

I don’t understand people going to America and hating it. Why do they stay? If it hadn’t worked for me, I’d have been back in a flash. I did feel very much on the edge of the Hollywood scene, though. I didn’t like being told I had to go to awards and be seen at that event or another. What you learn in this profession is to keep your eyes open and to take the opportunities – you can’t always do exactly what you want.

I was always aware that you can be hot one minute and not the next, so I was very careful about money. I bought a house when I could afford to, knowing that I might have to sell it at any time, because real estate was a good way to keep one’s options open. Looking back, though, I do think, “Why the hell didn’t I push to have a production company?” But I didn’t have that kind of energy – I was much more like a cat. I wanted to see what was coming.

What’s happening in the industry regarding sexism is quite right. When I lived in LA, there were a lot of sleazy people around – people that you avoided spending time with alone. If I was invited to a private screening, or invited to ‘join on the yacht’ or a ‘special weekend party’ somewhere, I just didn’t do it. I know how insidious it is. Maybe you go to the screening, maybe someone makes a little pass. And you think that’s OK, but then there’s something else, and you’ve kind of got yourself cornered then. You think, “I can’t actually blow the whistle now.” Abuse starts in a small way.

Much as I enjoy acting, I’m really passionate about all the stuff that goes on around it. I love the photography, the special effects and the stunt choreography. If I wasn’t doing Call the Midwife – which I absolutely adore – I know I’d have got myself more involved on the other side of the camera.

There’s something deeply peaceful about Cornwall, but also quite stirring, because there’s a real strength to the land itself.If you go out into the garden when those mists have cleared, you think you might find yourself back with the dinosaurs; it’s as though time doesn’t exist here. I think it’s why the Cornish have such respect for the ruggedness and the difficulties of the place. Everything about the place is stronger than you. You lose fishermen; people fight to live here. The rewards are how beautiful it is.

I did a mini-series based in Europe many years ago, and had a flat in Belgium, and we would shoot in Paris and all over Europe. As Brexit happens, I look back on those open-ended artistic times, and I worry that it will all disappear. Cornwall has had so much support from Europe and it’s so sad to see that it’s turned its back on that. Today, you can eat Cornish meat in Cornwall because we have abattoirs that were paid for by European money. I wish Theresa May had just said “no, forget it. This wasn’t our policy.” What an idiot Cameron was. What a historic buffoon. What a thing to put on the line. No-one knew what the hell they were voting for...

The seventh series of Call the Midwife is available now on DVD.