Fifty years ago Alf Wight (aka James Herriot) released his first book, If Only they Could Talk, based on his life as a vet in the Yorkshire Dales. Since then Herriot's tales from the Dales have sold 80 million copies worldwide and a hit TV series started in the ‘70s.
Fast-forward and settle down … as All Creatures Great and Small, a brand new Channel 5 TV adaptation of heart-warming stories, breathtaking views, animal antics, Dales drama and farmyard fun is coming your way. Carolyn Nicoll caught up with its stellar cast to find out more.
Talking from a film set in Bulgaria, Nicholas Ralph chats about his first screen role playing Yorkshire’s favourite and most famous vet.
I’d never come across James Herriot or All Creatures Great and Small before. When the script came through I thought the writing was incredible and felt an instant connection with the character. My parents knew of the 1970s show, but my uncle is a massive fan of the books and as a boy had read them all. He lived near Alf Wight’s veterinary practice and when I told him about the audition he hit the roof (in a good way) ...and that was just the audition. He was beside himself when I got the role.
James’ character is funny, lovable, charming and slightly awkward. His compassion for the animals and his passion for his field and his intelligence are all traits you can’t not like.
There are similarities, in that I studied like James in Glasgow, and we both travelled to Yorkshire for our first ‘Herriot’ jobs, so it was like art imitating life.
My first day on set was with Sam (West) who was lovely and helpful from the first second. I’d ask him questions all of the time, he is such a well-renowned actor, he keeps you on your toes. Callum (Tristan) and I hit it off straight away. James and Tristan are best pals in the show and he was so much fun to be around on set. Cal is a comic genius, his timing and the choices he makes are amazing, but also his physical comedy is absolutely brilliant. The casting in this show is so on point. We’d film 50/60 hours each week and then go out for dinner together because we all got on so well. Luckily we managed to get everything shot just before lockdown.
This has been a pretty huge opportunity for me playing such an iconic role. The world of James Herriot is absolutely massive and is still thriving today. Big shoes to fill and of course the nerves that go with it, but the overriding emotion is excitement.
I have huge respect for the production vet Andy Barrett and the animal handlers who worked on the show. They are the pros. I would ask them everything, even down to the most minute details. There was no holding back, Callum (Tristan), Rachel (Helen) and myself were taken to meet cows, horses, sheep and we were straight in there in wellies and vet coats getting up close and personal with the animals. We were taking the cow’s heartbeat and there is a triangle that you go through from stomach to lungs to heart, you check those three points … and we did.
The weather for the first weeks of filming was amazing but then the Yorkshire winter came and being outside was sometimes tricky. One morning in particular when it was raining and I was measuring ponies with this big stick slipping around, taking me forever, I was shivering from the cold until they shouted ‘action’ and then I had to pretend to be cool. As soon as they said cut I was shivering again and wrapping up in my big, warm coat.
Before the show I thought the animals would be the challenge but because of the handlers and the people who looked after them and trained them were so incredible, for the vast majority of the time, it went off without a hitch which was pleasantly surprising. Look out for gorgeous George, as we all called him, the Golden Retriever in the show (plays Jess) who was my buddy and just delightful.
Driving vintage cars took a bit of getting used to, but they were fantastic and you couldn’t get me out of them. In the Vauxhall the gear stick was like the ones on a school bus, jangling about, it was like I was never really quite sure if I’d hit a gear or not. It is a guessing game at the start, you throw it in a direction and hope something sticks.
I’m from the Highlands of Scotland which is picturesque, but when I got on the train and I was travelling through The Dales for the first time, much like James did, my eyes were glued to the window because it is like a beautiful painting. You could literally film 360 degrees. Every time we went to a new location, whether it be Broughton Hall or Ripon Racecourse or The Dales, we would look around and think how incredible.
Oscar-winning Rachel Shenton talks Helen, Herriot, vintage style and a bit of ‘bull’!
I had read in the script that Helen heroically wrangles Clive … he’s a bull …and I thought ‘oh my goodness, how am I ever going to be able to do this?’ I had never been up close and personal with a bull, so I asked to meet Clive before I shot the scene. He has a better CV than mine, he’s been in everything. I went to visit him in the field and called my mum afterwards to tell her that his head was the size of my car bonnet. He is huge, but has a real gentleness about him. Clive has been hand reared which is why he is so good around people and completely unfazed by the cameras.
What I love about Helen is what I learned from meeting the real-life Helen’s (Joan Danbury Wight) children, Rosie and Jim; that she is mischievous and fun loving in spite of having been through some really tough times. They shared with us some stories that you couldn’t glean from books or from visiting a museum. Stories about their parents and what they were like together which was very insightful.
Helen has the best wardrobe, bar none. Ros (Little) and the wonderful costume department did an amazing job. She was the first woman in her village to ever wear trousers and in 1937 that was pretty bold. Helen loves her dungarees and corduroys and two pieces. She has serious style for a farmer’s daughter, practical chic. She is on the back of tractors and wrangling bulls and moving cattle around and you can’t be doing that in a dress.
The first encounter with James, Helen is bemused and intrigued. Having grown up in Darrowby she is aware of the village and its people, and James is very new and fresh. You would never know it was Nick’s first TV job. There is a real easiness to him and he brings that to his character. It sounds corny but we couldn’t have wished for a better team on this show.
It has been a dream job for me. I had tractor lessons and in one scene I’m driving the tractor across the fields but I had no idea when to stop, so kept going, and going, I almost ended up out of Yorkshire. I also got to drive vintage cars, met all sorts of amazing animals and I did it all with the backdrop of the Yorkshire Dales, which is such an epic scene, it is like a character in itself. Oh, and I got to go to the amazing Keelham Farm Shop in Skipton.
From a family of acting royalty (mum Prunella Scales and dad Timothy West), Samuel plays Siegfried Farnon, the unpredictable veterinary surgeon and proprietor of Skeldale House who reluctantly hires the recently qualified Herriot to join his rural practice.
I read several of Herriot’s books when I was young and loved them, they are beautifully written and very funny. An extraordinary ubication of a time, of a place and community.
The role of Siegfried really appealed to me. We have a great tradition of eccentrics in this country which other countries tend to look on as sort of mad, but when I worked with Andy Barrett, the vet on set, who had worked for Donald Sinclair (the real Siegfried), and in fact lent me his hoof knife for our very first scene, I said to him ‘was he eccentric?’ and he said ‘no, he was mad.’ Speaking to Rosie and Jim, Alf Wight’s children, made me think there is a real person in there. They told me he got bored during a dinner party once and picked up a double barrelled shotgun and blasted it into the wall to make people go home. So I thought, ‘yeah, I like this man.’ There are also emotional blockages there, he has lost his wife and he is not over that, he has a war record which made him like animals more than people, a lot of people came back from the war not wanting to talk about it. He doesn’t have any children, but James quite quickly becomes the son he never had and his brother Tristan is much younger and he has a paternal relationship to him as well. I really liked the fact that Siegfried talks to the mother cow in the very first episode in a way that we wouldn’t have expected of him. We think he might have trouble saying something like that to a child or lover but to talk in that generous, loving, comforting way to a cow, I thought was a real window into his character.
As part of our research, we went to see some horses because Siegfried is a very good horse vet and I listened to a horse’s heartbeat which only beats between 30-40 times a minute which seems so slow. It was an incredible moment. We met a man who breeds racehorses (supermodels of the equine world) and I was absolutely dazzled by them all. I was shown how to check horses teeth, you open the horse’s mouth, grab the tongue which is pretty messy, and moved it out of the way to look at the teeth. I had to hold the tongue! I was really taken with all the horses on set. I ride very little and never kept the practice up. They are so much more civilised and beautiful than humans are. But the animal I asked for who we didn’t film with is a rat. I am a big fan of rats and they have promised there will be one next series if we go again.
The animals and the Dales are the real stars. This is about a very hard, quite remote community which is a collective and which has to work like one. It is suspicious about outsiders but when they prove themselves it welcomes them. And it is about a time in British history where there wasn’t a lot of money around, and people were more community based and I think we need that. There are many reasons why it shines with something deeper than just a lovely hour of TV which people can laugh at and enjoy, although of course it is that as well.
My first 24 hours with Nicholas Ralph (James) as he learned the ropes because it was his first screen job, I absolutely lauded it over him and pointed out everything I could about the filming process that he didn’t understand. And by the end of the 24 hours he was as happy as a clam and everything was second nature to him. I think it is a wonderful performance of a really true and likeable actor… he has great charisma and is a real star who I love working with.
I lived in Yorkshire when I was Artistic Director of The Crucible in Sheffield and my aunt still lives there. My dad (Timothy West) was born in Bradford and my mum’s (Prunella Scales) mum was too so I have quite strong family connections with Yorkshire. The Dales I knew less well than the moors for trainspotting and bird watching reasons but what an extraordinarily beautiful part of the country. I do feel that putting yourself in it and realising that some of these outposts have been here for centuries, well you start to develop roots not just feet.
No stranger to working with animals (The Durrells), actor Callum Woodhouse is at it again!
I absolutely love animals and I don’t think it is a coincidence that the two big TV jobs I have been on have both been animal centred. The Durrells was exotic, crazy animals, lemurs and pelicans, this time it’s cows and goats. Any scene you see me in with George, our Golden Retriever (who plays Jess), that is me asking to have him in the scene with me because I love him so much.
There were about five dogs I wanted to take home with me. George was one of them, of course. Ruby was a Labrador who you’d walk over to and straight away she’d be on her back wanting you to rub her belly, which was the sweetest thing in the world. Then there was also a sausage dog called Frankums who Siegfried and Tristan operate on and who was absolutely gorgeous. Finally, there was Sheila this Alsatian. The final shot in one of the episodes was probably my favourite scene I have ever shot in my life – it is literally a close up on my face being licked to pieces by this beautiful dog. It was heaven.
Tristan is a bit of a wild card. He fits nicely with the other characters because James is very straight-laced and Siegfried is very eccentric and serious about his work, whereas Tristan is all about having a good time. He would much rather quickly get through a veterinary case so he can get to the pub, have a few pints and chat up a barmaid.
After the first day on set Nick (James) and I went for a drink and we were both buzzing to be on the job. As it was his first TV role, I recalled my first day of The Durrells, small things like not knowing that all the catering was free. We really got on well on and off screen. Everyone on set kept saying they couldn’t believe this was his first role, he took to it like a duck to water.
As for the characters of Tristan and James, they take a little longer to warm to each other. At the start of episode two when Tristan returns to Skeldale House from Edinburgh he is a little put out by James because he is sleeping in his bed and Tristan has been relegated to what is essentially the broom closet. All of the moments though where Tristan is laughing at something James has done are completely real, that’s literally me just laughing at Nick. Luckily Tristan is allowed to laugh at people because I really couldn’t help it.
Some of the shots of Yorkshire are so beautiful and you have never seen England look more picturesque and since we have all been locked inside people will really love seeing that on screen. You will watch the first episode and want to visit The Dales. It is stunning. Every morning on the drive to work I was meant to be going over my lines but I could never take my eyes from the window.
Anna plays housekeeper extraordinaire Mrs Hall, teasingly described by Siegfried as the ‘patron saint of lost causes’.
I’ve filmed up in Yorkshire before along the coast, in Scarborough, but I didn’t know The Dales, so I was blown away when I saw the landscape. We were in shooting distance of Grassington and dotted about in little nooks, with lovely tea shops.
It took a while to find what costume we wanted for Mrs Hall because she wears many hats. She's not just doing the cooking and cleaning, she's also opening the door, she's answering the phone, she's giving people cups of tea in the waiting room. However, she’s also a woman who cares about being presentable and cares about everything being clean. It was important to have that balance between the fact that she’s quite practical, but also having something that is quite easy to pop on every day. The clothes of that era don’t have any elasticity and so they do affect how you move. Astonishing really thinking about what it would have been like in the 30s without waterproofs. Although I had it quite easy as Mrs Hall works in the house most of the time, so I was pretty cosy back at Skeldale house!
Am I an animal person? Personally, the most exciting animal I ever got was a pet gerbil and I think the school guinea pig visited for the weekend at one point. Being on set with so many animals was quite funny at times with geese being too noisy and chickens that wouldn’t stop laying eggs in the background.
I'd never driven into The Dales before. The journey from London up to Yorkshire is pretty epic, you find yourself in this vast landscape that's just absolutely stunning. It really took my breath away; so beautiful in all weathers. You can sit on a stone wall and gaze at the views and never get bored.
With drone technology we could capture the expansive landscape, its beauty and what that air might be like to breathe. When James is yelling in his car (in joy) at the end of episode one, you really can yell into that huge landscape and it can take you. It was strange going back to London after filming and into this crazy busy hubbub where I look out of my windows and there's someone else's window. I miss Yorkshire, that scale and the landscape.
All Creatures Great and Small, Tuesdays at 9PM on Channel 5 from 1st September.
This article was originally written for This Is Y magazine digital edition – Sept/Oct 2020. To view the full magazine, click here