Film

Jenny Agutter: 'The Railway Children seems like yesterday'

Revisiting the film which made her famous over 50 years ago, Jenny Agutter insists parallels can be drawn between the two eras

Jenny Agutter

Photo: © Sarah Lee / eyevine

We’re used to delays in this country. Fifty-two years after The Railway Children, its sequel has finally arrived. 

The original dealt with timeless truths, the importance of family and the joy of waving at passing trains, but also big issues. It was poverty that pushed the children to the countryside after their father was arrested for being a suspected spy. The sequel has similar aims, serving as a platform to explore racism and the horrors of war. 

The next generation of railway children are evacuees from Salford, fleeing Word War II bombs to find adventure and trains to flag down in the same Yorkshire setting as Lionel Jeffries’ perennial classic, based on the writing of E Nesbit.

The only railway child actually returning is Jenny Agutter, now 69. 

The Big Issue: The Railway Children Returns begins with scenes of children forced to flee war, which feels horribly pertinent in 2022. Why is this not now history?

Jenny Agutter: It’s a very, very powerful opening, the children being wrenched away. The film, like Nesbit’s story, tells the tale through children’s eyes. There’s no in between. They see something is wrong and therefore you have to put it right. Which, of course, fills one with hope, but it’s not the reality adults understand.

Why do we grow out of that perspective?

So many compromises happen on the way, don’t they? Through adolescence, our emotions change, we’re not quite sure about things. All the fairy tales we might be told, they don’t have happy endings. From then on, decision making is always clouded by the fact that you have to compromise. I think that starts to cloud one’s view of the best way forward.

What has Bobbie been up to since we last saw her?

I felt that it was really important for people who knew the original Railway Children to believe that this person grew up. You can see that she wants to make changes. So she would have become a suffragette, would probably have ended up being a magistrate, working with children, maybe journalism and returning to where she went as a child, back up to Oakworth.

Bobbie would have been a child pre-First World War. The world was much more innocent at that time. They didn’t see how difficult and terrible things can get. They believed a utopia was possible. The First World War must have hit her, the Second World War would have been devastating. And here we are again, we’re looking at horrible news each day. All we can do is to try and make sure that the swing of the pendulums in history don’t go too far one way or too far the other.

Jenny Agutter interview
Sheridan Smith stars alongside Agutter in The Railway Children Return. Photo: STUDIOCANAL/Jaap Buitendijk

You returned to where the first film was made. Bobbie says she remembers those times like it was yesterday – did it feel the same for you?

Yes, it seems like yesterday. The trains, the station, even the driver of the train was the same driver that we had on the Lionel Jeffries film. But then he introduces his daughter who is 40, who wasn’t born when we made the film. That shows you time has changed. And I have grown up, had a child, had a whole lot of work in between. My life has changed. But yes, part of me is the same person.

It’s like yesterday, and goodness me it’s a different world. But it’s interesting. When I did The Railway Children I’d just turned 17. The Vietnam War was on, there was pop art, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. I was wearing miniskirts. I felt so separated from this Edwardian world. But as time goes by, history squeezes up on you. Time is odd, it can telescope, and be drawn into the present very easily. I’m doing that with Call the Midwife as well. We’re in the ’60s, a very particular decade, and examining that. Some of it seems totally like history and some totally parallels with today.

Has being associated with trains given you affinity for railway issues? Do you support the strikes or should trains only be stopped by little girls with improvised petticoat flags?

I love public transport. Many changes have happened within the rail industry. It is yet another industry that’s hit by the economy that we have right now, and it needs really carefully looking at. I’m not an economist, I have no idea how that moves forward but I love rail journeys.

The Railway Children seems like it would be one of the Queen’s favourite films. Did she ever talk to you about it?

No, she didn’t. I did hear a lovely story one time that they were late – not for an event, because they’re never late for events – just arriving somewhere, and it was because they had been watching The Railway Children and had to wait for it to finish. I didn’t dare ask her if she had seen it.

The Railway Children Return is out now on Digital Download, Blu-ray and DVD

@stevenmackenzie

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