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A Talk with Jenny Agutter

"We were not always the railway children."

       -- The opening line of Edith Nesbit's novel The Railway Children


Jenny Agutter's career did not begin with The Railway Children, and it will almost certainly not finish with it. But in an acting adventure now spanning four decades, the likeable British actress is still identified in the minds of many with the teenage girl who wanted her Daddy to come home.


The young Judy Garland embodied the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz so entirely that in the minds of many she was never anything other than the little girl who followed the yellow brick road all the way to the Emerald City in 1939. Thirty years later, Jenny Agutter experienced a similar defining moment as Bobbie in The Railway Children.

In spite of the many parts she has played since, including starring roles in Silas Marner, The Buccaneers, and A Respectable Trade for Masterpiece Theatre, she has always been the innocent girl in the bobble hat who lived "with father and mother in an ordinary red-bricked fronted villa with coloured glass in the front door." In fact, so completely did she become Roberta that making a new film of The Railway Children seems utterly inconceivable. Yet a further 30 years on, not only is there a new production of the 1905 Nesbit classic, but Jenny Agutter returns as Mother.

Agutter first read rumors of her involvement in the 2000 version in the newspapers and was receptive rather than skeptical.

"I had made The Railway Children for TV two years before the film, so the 1970 production was not the first time I had been involved in the story," Agutter reveals. "No one film is ever totally faithful to its original. A novel is often open to reinterpretation.

"It was important to me that this new adaptation should succeed in a different way, not just be a 'remake' of Lionel Jeffries' remarkable film. If I hadn't believed that the producer, Charles Elton, and the director, Catherine Morshead, were going to make something special, then I would not have got involved. Fortunately my belief in them was rewarded, because I am delighted with the film."

Saying "yes" was actually a lot simpler the second time around.

"I nearly said 'no' all those years ago, because I had just made Walkabout, which was a film about loss of innocence and had a very bleak view of where society was going. With The Railway Children being a piece about the keeping of innocence, the two were at odds with each other," says Agutter. "But I met the director, Lionel Jeffries, and he was so engaging and so full of vitality that I couldn't turn him down. And obviously I'm thrilled that I did it, because you just don't know when you make a film whether it will be any good, let alone a classic. It would be wonderful if the new film could have the same impact."

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Following in the footsteps of a screen legend will be hard enough for young actress Jemima Rooper, who plays Roberta, but Agutter will also face comparison with Dinah Sheridan.

"Dinah Sheridan was truly magnificent. She was almost entirely capable as Mother," says Agutter. "But that was very much to do with Lionel's film. It had a quality about it which looked at the family with an element of perfection. This film has a sense of fragility about it. You are less sure that 'it will all come all right in the end.'"

The glorious Technicolor of the 1970 production will be in short supply this time around. Unglossed, Agutter will be quite unlike her predecessor.

"Today I wanted to draw on different aspects of the character," she says. "At the beginning of the book she had no financial responsibilities, and is surrounded by servants who take care of everything. When her husband is taken away she is devastated.

"They move to the country, where she is preoccupied with trying to make money so they can live. The children are left to their own devices, exploring the countryside, the railway line, meeting people, and growing up through their adventures -- just as Nesbit herself had to."

Edith Nesbit's Bohemian lifestyle as a young girl mirrors that of Agutter's, who spent much of her childhood moving from country to country. The affinity has moved Agutter to begin work on her own film project based on Nesbit's life.

"I am at present putting together a film about this extraordinary woman, which is another reason why I was interested in playing the role of Mother," Agutter explains. "Her imagination was stimulated by an out-of-the-ordinary upbringing. Her sister had tuberculosis, and as a consequence the family traveled in search of warmer climates. She led a complex and difficult life, full of contradictions. Her success as a writer came in her 40s, when she started writing stories that evoked her childhood.

"In The Railway Children, Nesbit writes about her memories as a child, living near a railway line in Kent, but the story is also about a woman struggling financially, making her money writing children's stories. So I imagine Mother to be somewhat like Edith Nesbit at the turn of the century."

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The innocence of childhood is a topic that seems to fascinate the older Jenny Agutter, probably because acting success robbed her of an ordinary upbringing.

"You have to remember that my life was far from normal. I was taken into the film world at the age of 11, and I've never been out of it," she says. "But I think children today face the difficulty of taking on responsibility beyond their years. We often assume they are more grown up than they are because their behavior is so adult-like.

"Often they are merely copying what they see. There is such an abundance of unexplained adult 'stuff' available to them in the media, such as adverts, soaps, and the news. Mother certainly could not have hidden from the children what happened to Father in 2000!"

Agutter continues: "I am sure that too much responsibility too early prevents the emotional growth that 'game playing' promotes. It also stifles the imagination. It is a wonderful thing to grow up with your imagination intact, as Edith Nesbit clearly did."

Although Agutter (along with co-stars Sally Thomsett and Gary Warren) came to represent the film that became the epitome of wide-eyed innocence, in reality they were far from it. Agutter, who had already stripped naked in the Australian film Walkabout the year before, was 17 at the time of filming, while Sally and Gary were 20 and 16 respectively.

She chuckles at the memory of Jeffries slipping a half crown into her hand after a good day's filming.

"It was almost like a game. Lionel Jeffries created a family feeling on set, and confirmed myself and Sally Thomsett's sense of being young children by giving us half a crown, as a reward, if a shot went well."

But she does not feel that she ought to be passing on any words of wisdom to Jemima.

"Seeing Jemima Rooper, aged 17, playing Roberta, I am reminded of myself at that age. I remember how much I enjoyed the filmmaking," Agutter muses. "[But] Jemima is a modern young woman, a lovely actress, who uses both her intelligence and instincts in her work. She has created a different Roberta."

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The closing lines of The Railway Children represent one of those timeless moments in British cinema which still move grown men and women to tears.

Although not emotionally affected, Agutter's memories of the action remain vivid:

"The Railway Children is a wonderful story, and I am proud of my association with it. I have grown up with it, and it has remained a part of my life. Lionel's film touched a lot of people. It will always remain like a favorite photo in an album that one looks at again and again, the memories vivid and intact."

But she readily admits that she can rarely bring herself to watch the video.

"It's not the first film I reach for now, but it's up there on the shelf somewhere. It's just that there's so much else that has gone on in between."

It is precisely that "in between" that people tend to forget when picturing Jenny Agutter. For the millions watching The Railway Children in 2000, the memory of the young Bobbie of 1970 will still be unmistakably etched into the features of the 47-year-old.

She has come full circle, and although inevitable comparisons will be trotted out by critics, this film should be seen in its own right and should finally release the actress from the time warp of public perception.

"I hope people who strongly identify me with Bobbie won't find it hard to think of me as grown up," Agutter says. "Time does not stand still. My Roberta grew up many years ago. I am glad that this story of Nesbit's does not just remain in the memory, but can be told by different generations. Who knows how we will view it in another 30 years?"

To learn MORE about Jenny Agutter's other starring roles for Masterpiece Theatre, visit the Archive Database at Masterpiece Theatre Online.


Kindly reproduced with permission of Carlton Television, © 2000.


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