Jenny Agutter takes the Grown-Up Test

Perhaps best known for her childhood role in The Railway Children and as Sister Julienne in Call The Midwife, Jenny turns 63 just before Christmas – but how old is she in her head?

Related: Love Call The Midwife? Read our Q&A with Pam Ferris

Memories of a childhood Christmas?

My mother made a big thing about Christmas because of her own poor childhood. The decorations would go up on my birthday on December  20. She used to make clothes for my dolls and one year my father put together a dolls’ house for me. My older brother always showed  me where everything was hidden.  

Is there a tradition you always follow?

As children we always had stockings and they are still part of Christmas today. When I was 22 and living in America my father sent me back with a Christmas stocking. But I couldn’t take it through customs because there was an apple in it.

Best Christmas ever?

When it was my 50th birthday the entire family plus my closest friends came with me to Tobago. One doesn’t often get to spend Christmas with friends, so this was rather amazing. 

Best present?

My son Jonathan who was born on Christmas Day. A surprise present because he was five weeks early.

How are you spending Christmas this year?

At home in Cornwall. Because my husband Johan is Swedish, we celebrate on Christmas Eve with a midwinter poor man’s meal – salted meat and fish, herrings, beetroot, eggs, apples. We drink Schnapps and sing Christmas songs. The next day is my son’s birthday and we’ll cook a goose, which is his favourite.

Your childhood nickname?

I was known as Piglet at ballet school, because I was very small but had a voracious appetite. 

Object you’ve kept from childhood?

My doll Penny, given to me when I swam a breadth across a pool in Singapore when I was four years old. She is quite tall with a rubber head, and a plastic body, and curly hair. I think she used to say ‘Mama’. 

Your longest friendship?

With Cath. We met at boarding school when we were about nine. Although we were very different characters what we had in common was that we travelled a lot. My father was in the army so I’d lived in Singapore and Cyprus. Cath had lived in America and Japan. We thought it was strange to meet children who had lived in the same house since they were born.  

A life-changing moment?

Going to Berlin when I was 11 to screen test as a dancer for a Walt Disney film called Ballerina. If I hadn’t got that part, I wouldn’t have done any of the things that have happened since. 

School prefect or school terror?

I was a prefect – that might have been the headmistress’s sense of humour because I had to get up in the morning before everybody else and ring the school bell, and I found it so hard! 

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I was at ballet school but didn’t want to be a dancer. There was part of me, having been brought up Catholic, that thought I would get into good works and become canonised. And now I’m a TV nun!

If your 16-year-old self could see you now what would she say?

At 16 I appeared to be older because I spent a lot of time around adults. I was in Australia doing the film Walkabout. I was working quite a lot then, so I think my 16-year-old self would be very pleased to see that I still am!

Who did you have a teenage crush on?

Paul McCartney. The Beatles song Love Me Do was always playing on my small mono battery-operated record player at school. We used to argue about which Beatle was the best.

Moment you felt you were finally an adult?

When I was 21 and went to live in America. Although I’d been in a flat on my own prior to that, everything was completely new. However, there is a kind of childish element to Hollywood, so I felt more grown up than most of the people there.

What did turning 60 mean to you?

I used to think it was some kind of cut-off point. But the truth is I feel no different. I’m going for it. I intend to carry on working and playing until I drop dead.

What makes your heart sing?

Seeing an extraordinary sun rise or sun set.

Most prized possession?

A beautiful portrait of my son when he was about 12.

Twitter or Facebook?

I’m not fast enough to keep up with Twitter. But I do know how to use Instagram and Facebook. And just looking stuff up on the internet is fantastic. 

The bad habit you can’t break?

Untidy paperwork. I have a mass of plastic carrier bags as my filing system.

Last time you laughed until you cried?

Well I couldn’t cry because I was dressed as Sister Julienne on the set of Call The Midwife. And the fact we are not allowed to laugh makes things a lot worse. Helen George (Trixie Franklin in the BBC drama) gave me a line that was ever so slightly wrong but for some reason nearly reduced me to tears.

Glass half full or half empty?

Half full. If it starts getting empty, I top it up.

What did you parents teach you?

They gave me a real sense of enjoyment about travel, and they made it about proper exploring. You didn’t just go somewhere to look, you found out about the culture and the people, different food and different points of view.

When was the last time you stood naked in front of someone?

In front of my husband. I like being naked, but not in front of anyone I don’t know. I always make sure the curtains are closed.

Diet and exercise?

I don’t believe in diets at all. It makes one far too aware of eating. As far as exercise goes, I cannot sit still. I can’t stand on an escalator, I have to walk up it. I walk everywhere at a rapid pace, which to me is a work out by the end of the day. I don’t understand people driving to the gym and parking outside.

Thing you can’t throw away?

I still have my script from Star! the film about Gertrude Lawrence starring Julie Andrews, with a lovely note on it from her. I played her daughter when I was 15.

What gets you on the dance floor?

Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got To Do With It. She makes me want to sing and dance.

What was the last public complaint or protest you made?

I’m very different to my character Sister Julienne who doesn’t complain. I think it’s important that one protests and signs petitions. The one I signed most recently was about a Victorian building being pulled down.

Name two people from the past you’d like to sit next to at dinner.

Sir Walter Raleigh, just to hear some of those stories about his travels. And Florence Nightingale, because she was a real campaigner and a real feisty acerbic person.

Your hope for the future?

To keep on working. I’d also like to get behind the camera instead of in front of it.

Verdict: Dancing to Tina Turner, working hard and happy naked? You’re a good 40 in your head! 

Call the Midwife returns with a Christmas Special this year and new series in early 2016. 

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