All Creatures Great and Small actress Patricia Hodge on its return, Calendar Girls and why she has a soft spot for Grimsby

Whatever role she plays, Patricia Hodge carries it off with aplomb.

Patricia Hodge plays the part of Mrs Pumphrey in the new series of All Creatures Great and Small. (Picture: Tim Anderson).
Patricia Hodge plays the part of Mrs Pumphrey in the new series of All Creatures Great and Small. (Picture: Tim Anderson).

Think of Miranda, where she played Penny, the mother who was constantly preparing to go out for lunch and even had her own catchphrase, “Such fun!”.

She returns to TV screens this month to join the cast of Channel 5’s hugely successful reboot of the All Creatures Great and Small franchise.

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She takes over the role of the patrician Mrs Pumphrey, the owner of Tricki Woo, a capricious Pekinese who constantly seems to require the need of the nearby Darrowby veterinary practice.

Patricia Hodge with fellow Miranda stars - Miranda Hart and Sarah Hadland, in 2012. (PA wire).

This rather intimidating woman was apparently based on a real-life client of Alf Wight, the vet and writer who delighted millions worldwide by putting his experiences and observations in his string bestselling books under his pen-name of James Herriot. In the first of the new series, Diana Rigg was cast as the cricket-loving Mrs P, but she sadly died just after the shooting finished.

Producers agonised about re-casting the role – and apparently at one point even considered omitting her altogether – but in the end, they called on Hodge to step in and, as viewers are about to find out, she makes it completely her own. “Who wouldn’t want to play this wonderful woman?” she says. “I was delighted to be asked. I had a lot of talks with the writers about her and her background.”

As well as re-visiting the Herriot books, Hodge also thought long and hard about Mrs Pumphrey’s background. “I didn’t think that she was from minor nobility, or anything like that, but I rather fancy that her late husband was probably someone quite big in (and who made a lot of brass out of) the business world – maybe someone who made a considerable fortune in textiles? Worsted mills in Halifax, perhaps? Or a major independent brewer? So, when he died, she could live in agreeable comfort for the rest of her life, and while her little dog is her beloved companion, with the cricket match she can demonstrate her dominance and pre-eminent standing in the Darrowby pecking order.”

Hodge appears in three episodes and also features in the forthcoming Christmas special. “That was, I admit it, rather weird, in that we filmed it in that late spring heatwave that we had, and we were all in winter coats and furs and hats, and everything was dressed up to look very seasonal. It was more than a little surreal, I can tell you.”

It’s not only TV where Hodge has impressed. She was in the original stage cast of the West End production of Calendar Girls, playing Annie Clarke, one of the Women’s Institute ladies who ultimately raised millions for cancer charities by daring to bare all for a calendar. “I still keep in touch with Annie,” says Hodge, “and my admiration for her and her friends, who achieved so much, knows no bounds. I admire their grit, their determination and their self-effacing no-nonsense approach, beyond words.”

Hodge was due to return to the theatre just as the pandemic started and the first lockdown pulled the plug on live performance everywhere in the UK. Thankfully, that tour, of Noel Coward’s classic comedy-drama Private Lives, is about to be revived and one of the dates, as it travels around the nation, will be the Lyceum at Sheffield. Her co-star will be Nigel Havers and she will be playing the socialite ex-wife, Amanda.

During her long career (Hodge is 75 next week), she has played everything from a female detective in the hugely popular Jemima Shore Investigates, to Margaret Thatcher. She’s also appeared in Poirot, Downton Abbey, Inspector Morse and Waking the Dead.

So where did it all start? “I’m really not that sure because I was brought up in what seemed to be a very untheatrical environment,” she says. “My mother and father ran the Royal Hotel in Grimsby, and I was born in Cleethorpes. But it’s rather difficult to know where the two towns start – and end. You find yourself on the Grimsby Road when you are in Cleethorpes, and then on the Cleethorpes Road when you are in Grimsby.

“Anyway, I had a very happy childhood, and the Royal was the best hotel in the area so that all the big names of the day came to stay there when they came to open something or make a personal appearance.”

She says she took full advantage of the hotel’s rather grand ballroom. “I was always putting on entertainment there and asking my father’s staff to come along and to see the show. There was more than one occasion where he realised that there were certain people who should have been on duty on – let’s say – the front desk, and they were absent from their places. Of course they were – they were in the ballroom, watching me.”

Through her parents’ hotel she met some big names. “I remember Violet Carson, who played the formidable Ena Sharples in Coronation Street for so many years, taking the time to chat to me and to confide that (this was back in the days of black and white TV) she had to wear no less than three hairnets for the camera, so that they could just be noticed. The bandleader Billy Cotton came to stay, and so did the lovely Katie Boyle, the actress.

“I remember plucking up the courage to go and knock on Katie’s door, to ask for her autograph, and being totally tongue-tied when she opened it, wearing a beautiful dressing gown. You couldn’t have blamed her for being terribly cross at this intrusion, but I told her that I was a devoted fan, and she was utterly gracious, and gave me her signature.

"Many years later, when she had married the theatrical impresario Sir Peter Saunders, I had an opening night in the Vaudeville in the West End, and there was a knock at my door, and I opened it, and there was Katie, now Lady Saunders, and she gave me a beautiful little basket of violets, and said: ‘And now, Patricia, it is my turn to be the devoted fan.’ How sweet and kind was that?”

Travelling up the country by train to the All Creatures set triggered another memory for Patricia. “Going through Doncaster reminded me of how many times I’d waited at that station for my dad to pick me up after that idiotic man Dr Beeching axed the direct rail service to Grimsby. Today, when I go through on the train I think of all the amazing people that that town has contributed to our performing world.”

Including Dame Diana Rigg. Patricia looks totally amazed. “Was she really born there?” she says, shaking her head slightly. “What an incredible connection that is. Just to think... Wow, I didn’t know that.”

All Creatures Great and Small is on Channel 5 on Thursdays at 9pm.