How does it feel being 68?
Post 60, age is meaningless. It’s a matter of how well you are. If I was in any other profession, age wouldn’t make any difference. But as an actor, I am not going to be playing Juliet.
I have to immerse myself in the age I am, which as a woman is a very good age, particularly today when women are doing more with their lives. They’ve had motherhood and are now getting on with other things. There is nothing that holds one back. There are new things to explore. I’m enjoying it.
The new series of Call the Midwife is set in 1966 when you were 12. What was life like for you then?
My father had left the army and he and my mother were living in Cyprus while I was boarding at Elmhurst Ballet School in Surrey. At half-term my friend and I would go to the King’s Road in London where it was all happening – the music, the art, the amazing fashion.
And the previous year I had my first acting role in the TV series Alexander Graham Bell with Francesca Annis and Alec McCowen.
Love Call The Midwife? Read our Q&A with Pam Ferris
Has playing Sister Julienne in Call the Midwife made you more spiritual and forgiving?
I wish! Patience is something Sister Julienne has in bucket-loads, but I don’t. What I love about her is that she ‘takes care’ of problems whereas I’m always trying to solve them. Although I was brought up a Catholic, I don’t understand the sort of faith that she has. But I can grasp her extraordinary dedication and her acceptance and tolerance.
What’s the biggest life lesson you’ve learnt?
That you can’t control what happens or what’s thrown at you, but you can follow your instincts and grab opportunities as they come. I had the chance to act in the 1966 Walt Disney film Ballerina when I was 11 because I was at ballet school, and I took it.
You stole our hearts in The Railway Children and it made you a star at 17. Did you grab the opportunity?
I played Roberta in the TV series of The Railway Children, but almost said no to the film because at 17 I thought perhaps I was too old for the part. Thankfully, I did it. Last year there was to have been a big 50th anniversary gathering at Oakworth Station in West Yorkshire where it was filmed, but it was cancelled due to Covid. Instead, I raised £7,000 for charity by selling special edition Railway Children books, for which I had written a foreword.
You’ve been married for 30 years. What’s the secret of a long-lasting marriage?
To keep on listening because one of the things that can happen over time is that you stop paying attention to your partner properly. It’s good that my husband Johan’s work is completely different from mine, but we share interests such as music, art, food and travel. Over 30 years, a relationship changes. It’s a matter of caring enough to make it work.
How to be a better partner
You got married at 37 - what took you so long?
I had no desire to marry. I liked being single. Boyfriends said, ‘It’s really hard being with you because you make all your own decisions.’ But I loved being independent. By the time I met Johan, I had gone past any sense of wanting to marry and have a family. So, it was a surprise having someone who was totally accepting of the fact that I did things my way!
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Your GP son Jonathan recently became a dad to baby Oliver. Are you a doting grandmother?
I enjoy loving this wonderful baby that’s come into my life without the responsibility of bringing him up. It’s lovely when your child has a child and you can revisit that baby time again. We also have teenage grandchildren [Johan has two stepchildren and a daughter from previous relationships] and I enjoy them enormously, too.
The good grandparent guide
What would you most like to change in the UK?
Education. In schools, it’s all about how you do in exams. I would bring back more sport, arts, theatre and music because those are things that you can take with you through life. We need to prepare children for life in the best possible way and our education system doesn’t do that.
What would surprise us to know about you?
I love rap. Not violent rap, but artists like Eminem. Rap is a wonderful expressive form of poetry. I like the music of it. My first experience of it was when I lived in LA and was working with children at a school in a poor black neighbourhood. I can still remember the brilliant Romeo and Juliet rap they did. They really related to the story, especially the gangs.
Sister Julienne rides a bike. Would you, in real life?
Not on one of the Call the Midwife bikes! They are very heavy and difficult to control, and trying to get on and off them in a habit is a challenge. You have to shout, ‘Watch out!’ as you hurtle past the camera.
The 10th anniversary series of Call the Midwife continues on Sundays at 8pm on BBC1
A longer version of this article appeared in the May 2021 edition of Saga Magazine.