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Spring 2005
Jenny Agutter: Still on track!
Jenny Agutter holding gun
Jenny Agutter in The Eagle Has Landed

Starting with her starring role in The Railway Children, screen and stage actor Jenny Agutter has been no stranger to West Yorkshire. We caught up with her ahead of this year's Bradford Film Festival which is holding a retrospective in her honour.


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Jenny's screen relationship with West Yorkshire began when her starring role in the TV series based on E. Nesbit's famous novel, The Railway Children, first brought her to the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway which had been reopened just a few months earlier. Two years later she was back for the movie version.

She has had starring roles in films as different as Walkabout, The Eagle Has Landed and An American Werewolf in London but in her long career she has played many different parts. Most recently she has been seen in the TV drama series Spooks and in The Alan Clark Diaries.

Jenny, you are the main celebrity featured at this year's Bradford Film Festival. Has filming in West Yorkshire given you some sort of affection for the area?

Jenny Agutter in The Railway Children
Jenny as Bobbie in The Railway Children (1970)

I think I've always had an affection for Yorkshire. I think my enjoyment of the place comes from the fact my father comes from Leeds so even as a child we'd go up to the Yorkshire Moors, and when we first made The Railway Children for television we used the Worth Valley railway line and I loved it. There's just something about the towns and the countryside which is so beautiful. I just seem to be brought back again and again. I was honoured this year by Bradford University - I am now a Doctor of Letters.

Have you made many trips to the Museum? (the Bradford Film Festival takes place at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television.)

Yes. It's a wonderful place and great to visit. This year I'm thrilled they've asked me up and I'm doing a Screentalk and taking a look at films I have made - apparently some of them are quite difficult to get hold of.

What film would you most like to see featured at the Film Festival?

Jenny Agutter in Logan's Run
Jenny with Michael York in Logan's Run (1976)

There are certain favourites that people know like The Railway Children, Walkabout and The American Werewolf which have become cult films in their own way and I'm very proud to be involved with them - they were great fun to make. There are also films I've had parts in which seem to have disappeared - films like Sweet William which I worked on with Sam Waterston. It was from a novel by Beryl Bainbridge, directed by Claude Whatham, and it was a great part to play. I think it was a really charming film but it just didn't capture the imagination when it came out. It disappeared but hopefully they've got a print of that.

What sort of role do you enjoy most?

I think I mostly enjoy straight forward drama situations, good characters. Sci-fi and horror is not a genre I like because the character doesn't have much to do except for running and screaming and shouting - Logan's Run was very much running through the sewage plant in Los Angeles shouting 'Help!,' falling in water and escaping through various ice caverns and that sort of thing, great fun but it didn't demand a lot. Funnily enough American Werewolf falls into this genre but Nurse Alex Price was a really good character to play. She was a down-to-earth nurse getting down to business. It was just unfortunate the person she fell in love with was a werewolf. I think there are some women who have come across that situation, not quite a werewolf but almost. They've been in a relationship where they've bitten off more than they bargained for. It's lovely doing period drama as well but it's about looking for a really meaty role.

Surely your recent role in Spooks would fit in with that - it seems a long way from The Railway Children?

Jenny Agutter in An American Werewolf in London
Jenny as Nurse Alex Price in An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Absolutely - it was great fun to play. I really didn't know which way she was going to go and what she was going to do because at the beginning, when I read the scripts, the producers had no idea what the character was going to be like. It's rather nice because you can make them how they are, and what they are going to be like, according to the moment. I felt that she was very self-obsessed and it was very much about doing things her own way but it didn't necessarily make her bad or good. It meant she was not a nice person and it was good not to have to play a nice character.

Spooks has also become something of a cult series?

It has, indeed. It was very exciting when they were starting it and I met the director and the producer because it really felt like a different kind of television and we were making something exciting. I was really pleased it came my way.

The Railway Children wasn't the first thing you did. When you started, as someone very young, did you really think your career would go as it has?

Some people go into the business with an absolute view of how they are going to do it but everything happened by chance. I was at a ballet school and had the opportunity to play in a film Walt Disney was making, purely because he was auditioning people at ballet schools, and I was auditioned and got the role. An agent saw me who was looking for a young girl, who had to be light because the character was injured and had to be carried, and that was the film East Of Sudan and it was shot entirely at Shepperton Studios and from then on work came in while I was at school.

The school didn't particularly encourage it so I only did good pieces of work. When Railway Children was being made for TV I was allowed to go up for that. Andre Wadja, a wonderful Polish director, was making a film so I could go up for that. Consequently I'd really done quite a lot even before the film of The Railway Children. I was 17 when we made that, and I'd Walkabout and another thriller before that, so I had quite a body of work.

The problem was that finished school and there were very few films being made at that time, suddenly the film industry in England had come to a grinding halt. I'd given up my school work, had no certificates to my name and it meant really learning my trade and going into the theatre. I went into a repertory theatre and to Hammersmith Theatre Company, and I joined Manchester 69 Theatre Company for a period of time and went on tour with Tom Courtenay. I ended up going to the National Theatre aged 20 or 21 and playing Miranda in The Tempest and from then on work has always been a matter of following my instincts. I went to America and that's when Logan's Run came up. I could never have foreseen that's what would have happened.

Although this is a retrospective I'm sure you are looking forward to doing a few more things yet?

Jenny Agutter in An American Werewolf in London
Jenny in Spooks: "It was good not to have to play a nice character"

I'm 52, married and have a child which I came to quite late. My son is 14 and, seeing as I started so early and my ambition is still to act, I made the decision not to make any compromises with my family life. This means I have to pick and choose my work quite carefully so it will fit in with what I am doing at home. I love being involved in film and television but it's made me thrust much more towards television, and towards roles which can be done in shorter periods of time. I don't want to go on tour in the theatre. What do I see for the future? I want to carry on working with really good directors - the size of the role doesn't matter. Character parts are interesting as are cameo roles in good productions and probably getting involved behind the scenes.

As you get older do you think parts for more mature women are getting better?

They are getting better. If you think of the writers who are about - Kay Mellor, for example, has written some wonderful things for women of all ages. Being able to look at women in their middle age is, I think, very interesting but I would think that, wouldn't I?

After the Film Festival will we see you returning to West Yorkshire ?

Absolutely. I will be up for The Railway Children walk on May 1st. It's the hundredth anniversary of the publication of the novel and every year there is a walk on the Bank Holiday weekend. This year it will be along the railway line and to the various locations where we shot Railway Children and it is raising money for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust which I work with a lot.

Jenny Agutter will be in conversation with Tony Earnshaw in the Pictureville Cinema on Saturday 5th March 2005.The 11th Bradford Film Festival runs from March 4th - 19th, 2005 at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television.

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