Full Exclusive interview with Jenny Agutter
Set in the East End of London, “Call the Midwife” chronicles life in the post-war district of Poplar, depicting subjects like the effects of thalidomide with compassion, as well as how people deal with poverty, race and immigration amidst all the change happening around them. Midwives, who ride bicycles, live with nuns at Nonnatus House and all have the goal of providing excellent care throughout the community. There is always a light moment as well as a feeling of hope and at least in one episode each season, the subtle nuance of a scene that causes viewers to tear up. While there are difficult moments in life, these delightful characters always manage to endure, which is why this show itself has been so steadfastly popular on PBS. KLCS talks exclusively to Jenny Agutter, who plays Sister Julienne at Nonnatus House, as she shares her favorite moments, what drew her to the role and why she thinks this show is so relatable around the world.
Call the Midwife is one of the shows that I eagerly await each year, wishing it aired the same time as it does in the U.K., although we do get the Christmas show the same day as the U.K. It’s an escape but it’s also real in how it depicts what happened historically in the U.K. with nuns and midwives on bicycles. What do you think makes it so relatable?
For young people there’s a piece of history; it’s clear enough even for people like myself, to remember the ‘60s as a child. And I remember it a different way than perhaps Sister Julienne would be experiencing it. It was an exciting time, wonderful pop groups, amazing clothes, extraordinary arts and music. For an adult, it was a complicated time because it brought with it all sorts of social issues, there were wars going on, there was the space race, a lot of things to worry about. I think that people today enjoy looking at the community which is dealing with a lot of social problems; we see them go through difficult circumstances and survive and I think that people need that. It’s not just that the storytelling makes for happy endings; because sometimes we don’t have happy endings, but what we do show is that the people survive it all the time. Sister Julienne herself would have come through the first and second World War, would have been a child in the first and gone through the second and [she] changes. Things seem to happen faster and faster, here we are in this modern world, using our technically which we never needed to do in quite such a way as we are today and that only developed more recently.
You mentioned something that is my next question. It must be wonderful to be part of a show that creates such a warm connection around the world and it touches people; it doesn’t just give entertainment and escapism but also educates about how people got through tough times post War in the U.K.
Yes, and I think even though the circumstances are different in different part of the world, it’s always interesting to watch. Recently just watching films for the last Oscars, a lot of those films were foreign films. Normally they would be in foreign film categories, but they weren’t, they were placed with mainstream movies and all up for awards and the thing that was interesting, if you were looking at China or Spain, or all of these places and different places, different latitudes and yet completely related to the people. There are in terms of the way people behave with one another, it’s the same. The social circumstances can be different, the way humanity feels, the way people cope with one another remains the same always.
Since Nonnatus House is very much the anchor and center where everything happens, as Sister Julienne your character is the anchor of the series; she has a very calm, grounded feeling. Do you feel that way as well, that your character has an important role as she is also very grounded herself and must weigh her role and belief as a nun within the changing world that includes birth control?
That’s right. I don’t fully understand her, she’s an extraordinary person and I see what you mean as being an anchor, and she feels that love of charity and she’s committed and has a calling, and people who have a calling are very extraordinary, and it requires some inner strength that I’m not as patient as she is. Generally, if there’s a problem I want to sort it out, with Sister Julienne I can see that she just deals with it. So she is someone who takes on not the cause of the problem, but the problem itself. And it’s terribly important to have those people. There’s people who are just committed to taking care of problems. They care, that want to give everything to other people and I think that’s an extraordinary thing. If we were all caregivers, that would be great (laughs), you need all the people contributing whatever it is they can invest to make it all work. But you’re right, as far as Nonnatus house is concerned, I do see Sister Julienne is very much [the anchor]. What was lovely in this season we just had was getting out of the habit.
That was one of my questions for you about this season.
You have a daily regiment, you have your work and even though changes are happening, it doesn’t necessarily happen to you. But we see Sister Julienne question a lot. She’s seen the pill coming and being used in a different way that she had imagined. But she still is able to continue her life, but she is closed up, because you’re in a habit, you’re closed in an environment; you have your time of concentration. What happens with that is it devoids you from what’s happening to other people and therefore in this season, one was able to see her get insulted from somebody. A woman who said, “You don’t know what it’s like, you don’t live like a woman in society today, you live in your enclosed and perfect little world.” It never occurred to her that people would see her as anything other than contributing. She doesn’t learn a lot from it other than – yes, there is a different world and it is different and you are treated differently when you’re out of the habit.
That was my favorite episode this season, the one that centers-around the Sound of Music coming to the cinema. I love Judy Parfitt as Sister Monica Joan she is such a great counterpoint to Sister Julienne; she’s childlike yet speaks as though she were in a Shakespeare play. In the episodes, she asks you to organize a group trip. I thought it was interesting your character had two different people criticizing that you don’t know what it’s like to be in the real world. What do you feel that scene was about when you went to the movie theater and you had that childlike smile? I loved that moment of her watching “Sound of Music” by herself. What was that scene intended to do for your character?
It was fun to do, underneath that habit there is a person who just relates to enjoying the outside world. And being in a crowded cinema and I think she just enjoys it, she actually enjoys that moment. She doesn’t enjoy the jeers of the men; she doesn’t enjoy a lot of things. The other thing was, “Yeah, actually the nuns should enjoy it too. (laughs) I should enjoy it with them.” Underneath it all, I think she does have a sense of fun and enjoyment.
I love how in the latest Season, nine, you can see that shift in Sister Julienne after being less than enthusiastic about birth control and Trixie’s busyness in that extracurricular task, to dealing with a prostitute whose only way to a better life is not having kids and your character then asks Trixie to help that girl.
You’re very perceptive.
I re-watch the episodes; I find them very grounding.
In the U.K. and the States [they] join us for “Call the Midwife Unite.” And I was suddenly very aware of how important it is, having the opportunity to see a community of people deal with really difficult circumstances, and often without happy endings, but they always cope, they always get through. There’s been a lot of great, strong stories. I was re-watching Season eight, episode eight; there was hardly a moment when I wasn’t reaching for the tissue. That whole complicated story of the young girl who had Hodgkin’s and the Jewish couple where the mother was dying and there were so many different things happening within it and it ends with this party scene, this ball, and the young girl with the Hodgkin’s is at the dance and you know her life is coming to the end and yet somehow people cope with it. You can only live for that day and therefore live it.
While the poverty is sad to watch, I’m not looking forward to Poplar changing either, since in the latest season much is made of all the old flats being torn down for new buildings. It was sad that it starts out with Sister Julienne getting a letter that Nonnatus House will be torn down too. This is the second time in the show this has happened, that you have to move. Last time it was the real life building being torn, but this time is that for purely the storyline because Poplar is changing by the mid-1960s?
It’s driven by the fact that it would have been. You see the streets around the corner going and it symbolizes the kind of change, right up to the building itself. I think it’s always good to physicalize those things. Where they work from is under threat. So there’s two – one is the building itself and are they important within that community any longer? So they have to reach out and work out where they’re important. It brings up other questions as well, like with the prostitute, Julienne becomes attached to that she wants to have a family, but she doesn’t and she can’t live that life. Julienne has to accept that that’s the way things are and deal with it in the modern way, which is to say, “Trixie, will you please makes sure this young woman goes to the clinic?” (laughs) She needs that modern help. Before we had to move because the building was coming down. Even where we are today, there’s nothing sure.
What drew you to this role and show when you were offered it?
This coming up is the 10th season. When I first read it, I thought it was just eight episodes, which I thought this is wonderful and a wonderful team behind it. I thought, “This was terrific.” I remember it was set in 1958 and I have to keep looking this date, because I thought, “This midwifery seemed like Victorian times.” Because we’d been so held back by the war and things, that one forgot the changes that came to midwifery and looking after pre and post-natal care changed so much as did so many things. Those changes are enormous. For me coming in, I thought it feels like an extraordinary period of time and it never occurred to me that we would do more than one season and I thought it’d be lovely to do.
Is that fun, as an actress, to be one character in a show that is long running?
I never thought I’d be a nun for 10 years (laughs). I so enjoy the writing. I so enjoy the investigation of the period of time. What I love is investigating, each year that comes brings new surprises and the writing remains really good and the stories remain really good and therefore I’m held to doing it.
There’s always an episode or two that also makes me tear up, you mentioned you did watching episode eight, does that often happen to you when you watch as well, are you able to have the same escapism that we have?
There’s so many characters one is removed from watching oneself. Just as a piece of storytelling, I do get caught up by it, and one of the things I really enjoy is, when we do, is to have a read through of scripts. You see the whole arc of the story and you see all the actors around the table and there are many times where it’s really hard to get through reading it, and that’s just people reading out loud around the table. There’s always three stories that are interwoven. I love what guest actors do and what they bring to it. And the other thing is the birth scenes – there’s no way you can’t be around a tiny baby that’s not much more than two weeks without being deeply emotional about it. I think it’s because always with any new child, there’s always so much hope and all your desires of things to be perfect are there, and part of you know it’s not going to be. Yet you’re hoping with this little perfect person coming, that it will be, there’s always hope. Which is what was so devastating about thalidomide and other diseases, which affects one at birth, is that joy is taken away, because one is given a problem to deal with immediately.
There is always an episode where I will watch over and fast forward to the scenes where they’re having meals around the dining room, or sitting in the living room knitting or kitchen having tea. These scenes are my favorite cozy moments where it’s just the cast, do you have certain moments or scenes you look forward to doing as well?
I have to say I love those tea scenes, it does bring a lot of people together; we sit and chat. It’s a lovely moment to catch up with everybody, see how people feel, see the different ideas, to gossip and to talk and to play scenes, which are often central to what’s happening. Everybody gets together and they manage to have their different views of one particular event, so that’s lovely in terms of scenes to play. We actually did a Zoom tea together. (laughs) It was lovely because Max was there, Danny was there and he completely dressed-up, he was in a great tie and white suit on; he looked wonderful. People had cooked things and put them out.
The show goes from post-war England in the 1950s in East London, where Poplar is, to the mid-1960s now. Do you have any favorite moments of the seasons during the 1950s or do you prefer these later seasons now in the 1960s?
It’s like real time. I always forget what happened. When I read that first year, it just feels so different and the world that we were talking about contained enemas and not really having good control of pain. There were so many things that weren’t available to them. The uniforms have changed on the nurses. It’s like today, there’s a sort of escalation as the years go by of the different things that affect them. I don’t know if there was one year where I felt more strongly. One of the things in the beginning of last year, Season Eight, was the big freeze. That appealed to me. My first memories of going to boarding school, were icicles hanging off of roofs and having to wear as many clothes that you could possibly find, because it was so cold. You had long johns on, tights on, skirts on, coats on, scarves and everything to keep warm. So it was a revisit. And when I watched Trixie (played by Helen George), Leonie (Elliott, who plays Lucille Andersen) and Jennifer Kirby (who plays Valerie Dyer), they all come in their character costumes. I said, “Ooh, yes, I remember that skirt!” (laughs) It’s mini skirts and hot pants. Also the excitement of the space age, when I saw them land on the moon; it’s like I’d gone into a completely another time and yet I remember how exciting that was. For me, they’ve compacted the ‘60s, which is why I like seeing the script as they come up. Rediscovering those times. A lot happens in the ‘60s. It’s very specific, we move on year after year. And each year, Heidi (Thomas, creator of the show) will bring in, like at the beginning of this season, Churchill’s death. What that meant to the nuns as opposed to what it meant to the nurses, who were that much younger. Looking at time gone by. One year, because I have cystic fibrosis in my family, I was able to put to light to Heidi in the story. In ’58, ’59 to ’60, they were able to test whether or not you have cystic fibrosis. So I put it forward as an idea. Most of the times what they were saying about babies, they say it’s “failure to thrive,” and that’s would happen a lot because they didn’t specifically know it was cystic fibrosis. That episode dealt with that. Each year will bring with it, a lot of research goes on, whether it’s the space program or the Olympics in the U.K., or some particular sports event or medical thing happening, they’ll bring that in and use that throughout. With thalidomide, the whole of that year dealt with the arc, because you couldn’t do that in one story any way. There was a confusion; nobody knew what was happening in the beginning and eventually they discovered what it was. I think that’s what’s interesting for people now when you’re watching the series. At the center, it is just a story of community dealing with the problems, dealing with their lives together, but as a historical piece, it goes from year from year and you see how each year affects them.\
Do you have any particular favorite episodes that you were in or not that you enjoy watching or playing?
Season eight, episode eight was one I was not actually in very much and I just thought it was a beautifully crafted episode. It was beautifully told. There were all sorts of extraordinary scenes. It’s a current show, but it deals with a period of time that’s gone by. As we are right now, I find to hard to deal with any drama that seems to be set today. I have all these questions, where once you’re removed, I just can relax and go, “This is in this particular time frame and this is what’s happening.”
I think they can still relate. No matter what time you’re living in, people are just people.
Yes, exactly, circumstances change, social situations may change, cultures are different, but people remain the same. It’s the framework that keeps changing. We don’t change people.
Is there anything else you want to say about this show for anyone who has yet to discover it and can stream it on PBS Passport?
I do know just from reading Tweets on Twitter from people who have not been aware of the show before or put it in a certain category, suddenly would see an episode and realize that they’ll always find somebody in there that they can identify with. I find that really interesting and I think that that’s what draws different people in. I’ve had people stop me and recognized me, and had to stop me just to talk about “Call the Midwife” (laughs), [it was] a young man; I found that really touching because he wasn’t an obvious person to be watching. And then a burly older man, “Oh, it’s Sunday, I’ll be watching it later!” And again, he wouldn’t have been an obvious audience and it is a surprise who comes to the show, but I do think it’s because within the context of the Poplar community, there’s so many people that you can see within it, “I remember someone like that” or there’s always someone that you’re in touch with.
The show is really about people, minus the fact that it is about midwifery, it really is about a community of people and struggle.
Absolutely. You can turn away when the baby’s arriving, but what is good to watch is the people. Births are the center of it, but it’s the community that it’s about.
You can see bonus content including behind-the-scenes footage on KLCS|Passport’s Call The Midwife PBS page: https://watch.klcs.org/show/call-midwife/ . Check regularly for news on the upcoming Season 10 and stay up to date by following CTM on social media via Twitter (@CallTheMidwife1) or Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/callthemidwifeofficial/).