A Veggie of Substance
by Tony Wardle
"I think we’re going to have an excellent season now that we’ve got the wonderful James McFadden from Motherwell alongside Wayne Rooney.” Of all the statements I anticipated Jenny Seagrove might make, this wasn’t one of them!
Why is one of Britain’s most sensitive and beautiful actresses – who lives in London – getting excited about the Everton football team? Well, the fact is her partner, theatrical producer and impresario Bill Kenwright, owns them and the Toffeemen have displaced Spurs in her affection. Oh, the power of love!
To walk into anyone’s house and see that famous This is Your Life red book on view is something of an event. Walk into Jenny Seagrove’s elegant house in Little Venice and you’ll see two of them neatly stacked on the grand piano – one of her life and one of Bill’s. To say that they are both extremely successful would be an understatement.
One of Jenny’s first screen appearances was in the film Local Hero. She then shot to fame as Emma Harte in the 1983 TV drama A Woman of Substance, which still rates as Channel 4’s greatest drama success, pulling in 13.8 million viewers. Based on Barbara Taylor Bradford’s bestseller, Jenny starred opposite Deborah Kerr, a youthful Liam Neeson, John Mills, Gayle Hunnicut and Miranda Richardson. It was followed by other starring TV roles. And then she disappeared from the small screen for 15 years to concentrate on films and theatre. She’s back now, though, playing the barrister Jo Mills opposite Martin Shaw’s Judge John Deed in the series of the same name.
“Judge John Deed is an extremely happy shoot. One of the ex cast wrote saying how much he’d enjoyed working on the production and added, ‘It must have been the catering’ – it’s all strictly vegetarian. This makes life an absolute delight and the food is so good. It’s all down to Gordon Newman, the writer and producer, who sets the ethos for the shoot.”
Vegetarianism is clearly important to Jenny. “It is a part of my life, central to my beliefs because I am passionate about animal rights. I’ve been fighting for them in one way or another most of my life. I’m not a violent person and don’t believe in using violence but when you see the torture and pain to which so many animals are subjected I can fully understand why people do break down doors or smash cages to free them.”
Jenny’s awareness of animals as sentient, feeling creatures was not a sudden Damascene conversion but grew over the years. Born in what was Malaya – now Malaysia – in 1958, she was first influenced by her mother’s love of animals. Most kids get excited by their first cat or hamster but Jenny remembers playing with baby apes and bears. That came to an end when she moved to boarding school in the UK at just nine years old.
Although not veggie, her first husband was Indian actor Madhav Sharma, who introduced her to the ancient concept of Ahimsa – stepping lightly through life and doing as little damage as possible in your passing. That includes not damaging animals.
It took another step forward when Pamela Stephenson launched her Parents for Safe Food Campaign, revealing the appalling cocktail of chemicals that much children’s food contains. That spurred Jenny into eating only organic foods whenever possible but she soon became aware that it wasn’t the entire answer, merely a start. Of course it does improve animal welfare and reduces the onslaught that livestock farming has on the environment but nevertheless, animals are still killed in the same slaughterhouses. And Jenny Seagrove did not want to be a party to that. She can’t remember exactly when she gave up meat but the thinking which led to it was crystal clear.
“It’s so obvious that animals have feelings and experience much the same emotions as we do – joy and happiness, fear and grief and they have an emotional memory. You can see an animal working things out in its mind. It may not be exactly the same as our mind but it is equally complex and they are sentient beings with a soul.
“Anyone who has a dog knows this is true. I love dogs. I love their companionability and when you have a dog there is another heartbeat in the house.”
As Jenny speaks she briskly tries to towel away the mud and pond-water smell from Gizzie, her extremely affectionate Springer Spaniel who accompanies Jenny on all her film locations. He looks as though he would sooner keep the mud – and the smell.
“If you’ve been out and come home, there is an entirely different feeling to a house where there is dog waiting for you. When my last old Spaniel died I truly grieved because I had lost a member of my family. There is little difference between the sensitivity of a dog and the pigs who are crammed into factory farms or any other farmed animal. People simply close their eyes and their minds to the cruelty and abuse because it’s convenient to do so.
“I am convinced that if the entire population had to watch footage of the undercover exposes that Viva! does, half of them would immediately go veggie.”
Jenny Seagrove is slight and slim and gorgeous and seen as something of a national treasure. But she’s also active for animals. In the past she has given her backing to several groups and has been vocal in her support. When she says she wants to help you, she means it. Jenny now appears in our Gifts for Life catalogue and fronts our super new Christmas Feast leaflet.
I first met her on the Judge John Deed location. ‘Met’ doesn’t really describe it accurately. I was filming Martin Shaw for our anti-factory farming video, Not in My Name, in the rambling acres where the series is shot. Jenny appeared in another part of the grounds and Martin suggested I try and recruit her. I chased after her and when I eventually caught up I was so out of breath I could barely speak.
I tried to gasp out an explanation in staccato, solitary words, her blue eyes holding me unblinkingly. ‘This man’s a freak’ – that’s what they seemed to say – but I managed to get out the word Viva! and the blue eyes blinked: “Of course I know Viva! and yes I’ll do anything I can to help.” And she has – and we thank her most sincerely.
Jenny is very careful about her health and says proudly that she has never missed a day’s work in her life. As well as her low-fat vegetarian diet she takes selected supplements. Supplements! If you want to see Jenny’s eyes flash with anger just mention that word and the EU directive that outlaws many of them.
“I cannot imagine why people take HRT (hormone replacement therapy). It is mare’s urine, unspeakably cruel and it kills people. Meat also kills people yet neither of these is banned but a whole range of vitamins and herbal supplements are banned on the basis of virtually no science whatsoever. If I develop something like cancer I will not take chemicals and pills or undergo chemotherapy. I will rely on naturopathic and herbal remedies and hope they work.”
But she wasn’t always healthy. In her late teens she became anorexic. Whenever that word is mentioned in conjunction with vegetarianism my heart sinks because there have been unscrupulous attempts to link the two. Of course it’s nonsense and the science shows it to be. In Jenny’s case, the anorexia happened long before she became veggie.
“It was all tied up with unresolved family issues but triggered when a friend of mine was photographed by David Bailey. He made her look absolutely gorgeous while I, at that time, was chunky and wore glasses and felt far from gorgeous. I decided to lose weight and suddenly it gained me some attention. So, I lost more weight and the attention increased – and so it went on.”
If she was ever an ugly duckling, she certainly turned into an elegant swan many Springs ago and has graced a whole string of movies with her beauty, usually in the starring role. So it comes as a bit of a shock when she says:
“I have often thought of giving up this silly job of acting and working at the sharp end for animals. But in the end I have decided to carry on acting and use my position to help gain what publicity I can for them.”
Jenny Seagrove does turn work down if it clashes with her beliefs. How, I wondered, did the blood and guts of her Hammer House of Horror roles fit in with that.
“Its all comic book stuff really and the blood is phoney so if people want to be frightened, that’s up to them. I did have reservations about a film called The Guardian, which was very violent but it was an extremely good script and a bit surreal so I felt it was far enough away from reality and decided to do it. It’s now become something of a cult film.”
Jenny has done voice overs on anti-vivisection videos and in her role as Jo Mills, reality and fiction sometimes meet, which pleases her.
“When you see footage taken inside laboratories it shows animals being tortured – there is no other way of putting it. One of the Judge John Deed storylines was of a young man who needed a heart transplant but refused it because of the animal experimentation done in the process of perfecting the techniques. Jo defended his right to refuse and I think that’s why people
like Jo Mills, she is prepared to take on cases with a strong ethical component.
“I am genuinely proud to be part of this drama and working with Martin Shaw is a delight. We have an empathy – often unspoken communication – and understand how each other works. We know exactly what the other is thinking and what they are going to do in a given situation. We operate the same way so I am working with mates, with a shared ethos and that is unique and a wonderful way to spend your working day.”
Jenny believes that vegetarianism is a vital way forward for individuals and the planet but isn’t strident about it, putting her faith in education and gentle persuasion. Perhaps it works as Bill Kenwright isn’t veggie – or at least he wasn’t.
“Bill had a key moment a few months ago when he got up one morning and watched a TV programme about an abattoir. When I appeared he told me about it. “It was horrible”, he said, “I wish I could be like you – a vegetarian.” I simply answered, “So what’s stopping you?” He thought for a moment and replied, “Nothing!” and gave up meat that day.
“He added something so poignant that I’ll never forget it. ‘It’s very painful loving animals.’ And he’s right. You see their transparent happiness and their dependability on humans but you also see how frequently they are let down.”