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24 September 2014
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Jenny Agutter is Jane Clark

Jenny Agutter is Jane ClarkJenny Agutter has a self-possession born of almost four decades in the spotlight.

But the actress, who found herself on an express track to fame after starring in Edith Nesbit's The Railway Children at the tender age of 18, admits she was slightly apprehensive about her latest role.

Jenny is about to be seen as strong minded Jane Clark, wife of the late, flamboyant Tory MP Alan Clark (played by John Hurt), in BBC FOUR's The Alan Clark Diaries.

Declares Jenny: "I was thrilled about the role. The overall piece was extraordinarily well put together and written, and Jane was an intriguing character – a little bit of an enigma in the script. I relied very heavily on meeting her and, initially, thought that the responsibility of portraying her was quite frightening."

Then Somerset-born Jenny, who played MI5 boss Tessa in BBC ONE's spy drama Spooks, discovered that she and Jane shared a similar background of growing up in an Army family and leaving home for a boarding school education.

As the child of a British Army officer, Jenny's childhood was peripatetic and the countries in which she grew up included Germany, Singapore and Cyprus. When she was nine, she became a boarder at Elmhurst Ballet School in Surrey.

"All those things are very formative," she says. "The world of the Army removes you entirely from class and also makes you very self-dependent.

"You have that sense of travel, different societies and close-knit family, because of moving around and the practicality of getting on with things wherever you are. You have to make decisions in your life quite fast; you're moving on, you're self-reliant."

Jenny, now 50, retains the delicately sculpted features and slender, straight-backed, dancer's poise that have graced a plethora of roles on stage and on screen.

Today, she's talking in a private club in London's Sloane Street, where an A-Z of designer stores would satisfy even those Absolutely Fabulous fashion victims Eddie and Patsy.

Jenny is married to businessman John Tham. Her son celebrates his birthday on Christmas Day.

On meeting Jane, Jenny says: "I felt I came across a woman who was extraordinarily energetic, amazingly youthful, very practical and seems to live very much in the present – probably what has stood her in good stead throughout her life."

She continues: "Jane married at 16, so she went from one family to her own family– she had her children young – so her clear self-reliance comes from somewhere else; maybe the Army background and being at boarding school.

"Alan Clark must have seen her as this wonderful, vital young woman and somebody who was able to get on with things.

"The whole romantic idea of marrying someone and living in a castle must have been extraordinary at the age of 16, but then there's the running of the castle and the living there and the living with Alan Clark, all of which she just took on and did.

"When we were filming at Saltwood, she was very forthright. She's quite open about what it was like to live with Alan – she isn't inward-looking."

Jenny gained a unique insight into the woman who was married to the controversial politician for 41 years until his death in 1999 at the age of 7l.

"She isn't somebody who delves into the emotional aspect of how difficult it all was; she's somebody who enjoyed the life she lived, had some pretty rough times when things were hitting the press, but dealt with it more straightforwardly than a lot of people would imagine.

"She's not retrospective or introspective, and these were all the things I had to draw on to play the character."

Alan's liaisons with other women were grist to the tabloid headline mill. He once had affairs with a South African judge's wife and their two daughters – three separate seductions which, inevitably, found their feverish way into the newspapers.

Jane simply scornfully told her husband: "If you bed people of below-stairs class, they will go to the papers."

Comments Jenny: "If she thought it was a bad lot, she would have walked out. But I think she actually enjoyed her life; she enjoyed her time with Alan and felt secure in that relationship.

"She was angry at what happened, but wasn't eaten up by the anger and took it out on him instead. She has talked about throwing plates at him and has referred to him as an 'sh-one-t'.

"But she didn't feel, whoever he was having his infidelities with, that he was destroying their relationship by giving all of himself to somebody else. I think Jane had the whole Alan Clark and probably the other women had some element of him."

Filming at Saltwood in Kent lowered the drawbridge on a castle which combines grandeur with down-to-earth family life.

"It's grand, but it's a castle on a small, intimate scale and really is a home," explains Jenny. "It has no sense of being ritzy or glamorous, the glamour is in the history, not in the decoration; and the glamour is also in the most amazing collection of art, from Rodins to Picassos, Constables to Sargents.

"The castle is filled with paintings and books, but it isn't ostentatious. There is nothing that is displayed in a way that looks as though it's about money; it is all used and a part of it, with children's drawings up against priceless paintings, but there is a real history and that is what one is in awe of."

Jenny was also fascinated by both the history and politics of The Alan Clark Diaries.

"It was interesting to be involved in a piece that is historical, but with a modern flavour. It is talking about politics from the point of view of somebody who is slightly out of time – who had a sense of history – which I don't think politicians do today and I don't think they did in Alan Clark's time."

She likens Clark's diaries to Don Quixote: "They have the sense of someone out of time; someone with a sense of the grand in a world that isn't quite like that.

"He had a sense of history which came from his father (Lord Kenneth Clark, who brought the landmark series Civilisation to the BBC) and from living in a privileged world, which gives it lots and lots of layers."

At the age of 11, Jenny was plucked from ballet school and kept on her toes as a young dancer in the Disney film Ballerina.

She first played the wholesome Roberta ('Bobbie') in the television production of The Railway Children when she was 14.

Three years later, following her controversial portrayal of a teenager stranded in the Australian Outback in Nic Roeg's Walkabout, it was full steam ahead as she reprised her role as Roberta in Lionel Jeffries' legendary film about the young heroine and her family.

She was flying high the following year when she won an Emmy as Fritha in BBC TV's The Snow Goose and joined the Royal National Theatre in 1973, playing Miranda opposite Sir John Gielgud in Sir Peter Hall's production of The Tempest.

By the age of 21 she was based in Los Angeles, where films included Logan's Run, The Eagle Has Landed, American Werewolf In London, Sweet William and Equus, a role which brought her the accolade of a British Academy Award.

She returned to England after her marriage and the only aspects of Stateside life that she misses are her friends and sometimes the sunshine.

"My life is so much here and I didn't see myself retiring at the Golden Crest Retirement Centre on Sunset Boulevard, talking to old actors about what it used to be like in the old days," she adds, a twinkle in her cool, green eyes.

In 2000, she was again linked with The Railway Children when she played Mother – the role filled by Dinah Sheridan in 1970 – and a very personal ongoing project for Jenny is a film, which she will be writing and producing, about the life of E Nesbit.

"When I came back from the States people were still referring to The Railway Children because it had been ever-present," she explains.

"It had come out on video, it was shown at Christmas and it had, suddenly, another life. There was another generation being brought up on it.

"And just at that time when I came back I read something about Nesbit herself. I was fascinated by why people were so obsessed with the past and innocence and Lionel Jeffries' film, and I think part of it is because it's an absolute classic.

"The other part is Nesbit and her ability to create innocence. I would like to make a film that is a rites-of-passage piece, how we address growing up."

It's a full circle of perfect continuity for the actress who booked her ticket to stardom in that enchanting Edwardian tale.


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