TheRailwayChild’s grown up

Tuesday 24th September

Actress Jenny Agutter on approaching 60, her wellbeing regime and her charity work. By John Lyttle.

Maybe it’s the timeless impact of The Railway Children and her unforgettable role as the young Edwardian heroine, Roberta, but it seems impossible to think of Jenny Agutter as ever being selfish, narcissistic or careless.

Who could, after the tear-jerking finale when she sees her father – released from wrongful imprisonment – emerge from a cloud of steam from the train and runs to him, crying, “Daddy! My Daddy!”?

And if subsequent performances in movies as diverse as Equus, Logan’s Run and An American Werewolf in London share a defining quality it’s a warm, embracing empathy. With liberal dashes of class and sex. (On which note, it should be pointed out that there’s an entire generation of heterosexual men who remember Agutter’s pioneering nude scene in the cult classic Walkabout, as well as racy scenes in American Werewolf.) And with the Catholic and military traditions of care and duty you might imagine that she inherited from her parents, it’s surely no accident that her next role is as a midwife-cum-nun in a BBC six-parter.

Yet here’s the actress sitting pretty in her elegant five-storey Georgian home in Camberwell, south London – on the market as she is about to move to her second home in Cornwall – declaring that she wasn’t always the sensitive English rose the public has adored from child star to mature screen and stage presence.“From 17 to 37, I lived in Los Angeles because at that time there was no British film industry to speak of and LA was where the work was. And living over there requires a fierce concentration on self and career, a blinding focus. I recall a boyfriend saying, ‘It’s always your plans. Always your timetable. We always have to do things your way. Well, it can’t always be me, me, me.’“Then I met my fiancé [now husband, Swedish hotelier Johan Tham] and was married and expecting within a year. I had lived an independent life for a long time. It was me, me, me. But it was still a shock to hear. Returning to Britain, married and pregnant, was a profound jolt... And then to have a baby and having to care for others was quite a wake-up call.”

She’s certainly made up for lost time. Today, she is talking to benhealth about her charity work, as varied as it is passionate. For instance, living in south London near a troubled council estate bound her to both the St Giles Trust, which aims to break the pattern of juvenile offending, and to Action for Children. Similarly, her involvement in the Cystic Fibrosis Trust – she is its patron – arises from the fact that she is a carrier herself, as is her brother. They didn’t find out, though, until her niece, Rachel, was diagnosed as having the condition.

“She’s 32 now, likes a party and works as a magazine picture researcher.” As with all CF sufferers, Rachel must live with the difficult knowledge that she may not see her 40th birthday. But through her son, Jonathan, a decade ago Agutter was drawn into Ovacome, the ovarian cancer support network.

“He came home from school deeply upset about the passing of a schoolmate’s mother. It was his first childhood brush with mortality. He couldn’t understand how mothers could simply disappear. ”Investigating, she discovered the tragically early death was from ovarian cancer, at the time considered a silent, symptomless killer.

“It’s not,” Agutter declares, impressively informed about her subject. She reels off the Ovacome campaign mantra, BEAT: “B is for bloating that is persistent. E is for eating less but feeling fuller. A is for abdominal pain. And T is the most important – telling your GP.

“Women, mothers particularly, are socially conditioned to put everyone else, men, children, friends, first,” adds Agutter, who came to marriage (aged 37) and motherhood (at 38) relatively late.

“It’s a mistake for a woman not to take good care of herself. Take the emergency procedure on planes. Put the oxygen mask on yourself first and then put the mask on the child. It makes sense, doesn’t it? You must be in a fit state to help. Women are still the glue. Without them things fall apart and in the most devastating way. So women have to listen to their bodies. Monitoring and maintenance is common sense.”

Agutter’s own self-maintenance regime has reaped impressive rewards. Indeed, few would believe that the actress playing svelte and attractive double agent Tessa Phillips in the BBC spy drama Spooks last year was just two years shy of her 60th birthday. We’ll have whatever she’s having, please. 

Happily shifting between nine and ten stone, Agutter is today wearing a summer dress that does full justice to a figure that was first honed by early ballet training.

“I’d like to say it’s thanks to  yoga and Pilates,” she says, “but I’d be lying. In fact, it’s thanks to the fact I am so impatient and rush all over the place – I always seem to be tearing up the escalators on the Tube in rush hour. Walking is good daily exercise.

“I also meditate – not as a religious practice but to clear and calm the mind. I’ve given up coffee, too. Caffeine didn’t make me energetic, it just made me anxious.”

So not always a tranquil,  unflappable English rose?

“Oh, Jenny the English rose!” Agutter exclaims. “I never understood that. I was never in England as a child; as a military family we went all over. Then I lived in America, so I never got the English rose thing. It seems a long time ago... I’ve been asked to write my autobiography twice and I’ve said no because I don’t enjoy looking at the past. It’s a bit frightening to contemplate your mistakes, don’t you think?”

She pauses and reflects for a moment. Then adds, brightly and sincerely, “Besides, living for today means the chance to show what you’ve learned from your lessons.”

fact file: Beating ovarian cancer

Ovacome is the only ovarian cancer charity to offer a free, nurse-run helpline, together with an online symptoms tracker. Patron Jenny Agutter is passionate about the need for women to be aware of symptoms that can mean catching the disease in the earliest stages – some 29 per cent of cases are discovered at A&E departments, often too late for meaningful medical intervention.

Ovacome’s ongoing BEAT campaign (see details in the main interview) is designed to make every woman more aware of the symptoms of ovarian cancer to avoid that situation. And this year saw the addition of the ground-breaking symptom tracker to help women and their GPs come to a prompt diagnosis.

Visit www.ovacome.org.uk Or you can speak to a nurse by calling the Ovacome Support Service on 0845 371 0554.

Note: Original source - benhealth issue 17.

Ends

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