Jenny Agutter tells us why the fate of Sister Julienne, her TV character, came as a bolt from the blue
Problem pregnancies, traumatic births, natural disasters, life and death situations... nothing usually fazes the serenity of Sister Julienne. However in the new series of much-loved Sunday night drama Call The Midwife, this calm composure is seriously challenged by the presence of formidable Sister Ursula at Nonnatus House. To recap, Sister Ursula, played by Harriet Walter, was left in charge when Sister Julienne went to Africa at Christmas. Now Sister Julienne is back, it seems the Mother House have decreed Sister Ursula remain as ‘head’ nun. Sister Julienne is upset by this – and so was Jenny Agutter.
- Everything you need to know about Jenny Agutter
“I was very shocked when I heard what would be happening to Sister Julienne from Call The Midwife writer Heidi Thomas,” she admits. “In fact I gasped out loud. I was upset to find that Sister Julienne’s office would no longer be mine. As both a character and an actor, the office was my personal space and a place I could retreat to. Now it was no longer mine, it felt a bit like having your name taken off your dressing room door! But once I’d recovered, I realised it was good for the drama to have this new source of conflict.”
In our eyes, Sister Julienne is pretty close to being the perfect ‘sister-in-chief’ so why has she been demoted? “It’s not that straightforward,” Jenny explains. “Sister Julienne is not a Mother Superior.
It’s the Mother House that controls what happens at Nonnatus House and the powers-that-be have decided to change and reorganise things. I was talking to someone who used to work with nuns and apparently this happens sometimes.
“It’s now 1962 in Call The Midwife and times are rapidly changing – perhaps this is why the Mother House have decided to change who’s in charge at Nonnatus House.”
But Sister Ursula seems terrifying!
“She’s certainly very efficient,” Jenny smiles. “Sister Julienne’s nose is put out of joint but it’s especially difficult for her because she’s a Christian and is trying to be charitable. She’s trying to think positively, believing she can learn from what is happening. She also feels she’ll enjoy spending more time with the other midwives and nuns rather than being behind a desk most of the time. But when Sister Ursula acts in a way that Sister Julienne doesn’t believe is the best or right way, Julienne has to examine whether this really is the case or whether it’s her personal reaction to Sister Ursula now being in charge.”
Whether Sister Ursula stays in charge remains to be seen but we do know that Call The Midwife has been commissioned for a further three series in addition to this one. Is Jenny on board for all three?
“I really don’t know at this stage,” she replies, “but it is undoubtedly very exciting and encouraging for everyone involved. It means that there is absolute faith in the production. As Call The Midwife moves on through time, new issues and problems present themselves, which means fresh storylines constantly popping up, rather than going over the same themes. This is very satisfying. So much was changing in the Sixties. For me personally, growing up during that time was incredibly exciting – the music, the fashion, the sense that anything was possible. But Sister Julienne views it very differently. She’s experienced workhouses, and lived through two world wars and the struggles that came with that. She finds the changes of the Sixties really quite bewildering.”
The world in which Call the Midwife is set may be changing but Jenny (64) says it’s the babies that remain at the heart of the series.
“It’s the birth scenes that are still the most challenging yet also the most precious and wonderful. We’re often handling real newborns so everything has to be very carefully worked out and Terri, our resident real-life midwife, is there at all times. I’m often asked if I could now deliver a real life baby and the answer is still most definitely not! I’ve learnt a lot about handling babies but I’m not an expert.”
Filming each series takes six months. “It is a serious commitment,” says Jenny. “We get the scripts only a week or so before we start filming and it’s only then that we get to know how many days we’ll be working. It’s never full-on, all day, every day, but when you are involved in a major storyline the hours are very long. You leave home at 5am and don’t get back till around 9.30 at night. I enjoy those kind of days, though. I love working hard. I find it very difficult to do nothing. I like being active, in fact I’m one of those people who finds it impossible to keep still.
“There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good walk – ideally along a Cornish clifftop – but just walking to the shops through the park will do. It’s my favourite form of exercise and I even do it when I’m travelling on the London underground. I mean, why stay still on the escalators when you’re able to walk up them?”