Back in the days when the whole family gathered around the television on a Saturday evening, the BBC’s All Creatures Great and Small was required viewing, and its stars – especially Christopher Timothy, Robert Hardy and Peter Davison – were among the most famous faces in the land. Alison Lewis and Paul Lyon grew up watching the programme, so it felt more than a little strange to step right into it, joining the cast as the Herriot children, Rosie and Jimmy, for the final series, which aired in 1990.
For Ali, who was 13 at the time, what was even more bizarre was that she knew the family of Alf Wight – Thirsk vet and author of the James Herriot books – very well, and still does. “I grew up in the same village as Emma, the daughter of Rosie, so I ended up playing my friend’s mum on All Creatures Great and Small, and Rosie was our family doctor,” she says.
She even saw Mr Wight in action when she looked after Emma’s hamster while the family was on holiday, going into their house to feed her. “One morning she wasn’t very well, and I was really scared,” she says. She ran next door to find Emma’s granddad. “He got his bag and still had his slippers on, and he had to put her to sleep. I was so worried about it all, happening on my watch, and I knew Emma would be devastated, and he was so gentle, such a good vet, and so good with people as well.”
The Wights knew nothing about Ali playing Rosie until she got the part. She and other promising drama pupils were rounded up by drama teacher Mrs Percival. She was later stunned to find that she had been chosen.
Paul was 14 when the BBC scouts came to his school, just outside Richmond, looking for an older version of Jimmy Herriot. “I looked and sounded like the original lad,” he says.
They filmed on location in Yorkshire and in Birmingham, at Pebble Mill. Ali’s mother, Janet, and Paul’s mother, Diana, became their chaperones.
“We had to go down for costume fittings in London, which was quite exciting,” Ali says. “I remember the train journey, first class,” adds Paul.
Both insist neither has changed at all, as they reminisce about their All Creatures days, sitting at the dining table on a replica set of Skeldale House at the World of James Herriot museum in Thirsk, looking through an album of photographs, most taken by Ali’s mother. Last year, they met for the first time in 30 years at White Rose Books in Thirsk, for the launch of the second edition of All Memories Great and Small by Oliver Crocker, where they were joined by Alf Wight's daughter Rosie Page and former cast and crew members including Jessica Sewell (Mary Clarke), costume designer Janice Rider and make-up designer Vivian Oldham.
The outdoor location used for the Herriot family home was in Arkengarthdale. “We filmed the outdoor scenes before the indoor scenes,” says Paul. “It was freezing cold, and the scene is meant to be in the summer. Between shots we were wearing these heavy duffle coats we could whip off. Everybody was brilliant. Christopher Timothy was awesome and Lynda Bellingham, too.”
“They were so welcoming,” says Ali. “Chris gave us both a big picture book of Yorkshire that said inside ‘Welcome to the family’.”
Ali filmed several scenes alone with both Lynda Bellingham and Christopher Timothy for a storyline that involved James trying to discourage Rosie from becoming a vet by taking her on his rounds. She helped put a ring in the nose of a bull. Paul, meanwhile, remembers filming Coronation scenes in West Burton dressed as an archbishop and having to fall off some steps.
Neither continued as actors. Paul says: “I went straight from acting to concentrating on my education and sciences, and ended up being a geologist working on the oil rigs.” He was posted offshore in Africa, Russia and the US, and is now a management consultant.
But he has not been able to escape his All Creatures past. “I got outed about seven years ago. One of my colleagues found out and now, whenever there is a team quiz, it always comes up. I don’t mind, I think it’s funny.”
He and his wife, Annie, have recently moved back to the Thirsk area with their young children. Yorkshire Vet Julian Norton is a neighbour.
Ali, who lives south of York, studied communications at university, became a journalist and author, and now works in media and PR. She remembers hating seeing herself on screen.
“By the time it went out I was 14 and, being a teenager, you’re more self-conscious,” she says. “It’s not like nowadays where everyone has a phone and is a star in their own world.”
Paul says: “I lived in Richmond, so it made the local paper. When I was wandering round, there was, I wouldn’t say pointing, but a bit of recognition. There you are, a self-conscious 14-year-old in tank top and shorts – not a strong look, so I don’t think it helped my cool credentials.”
Neither has regrets. “I really enjoyed the experience,” says Paul. “It was fantastic, but I was always keen to study and do something a bit more practical.”
Ali says: “I would do it all again in a heartbeat. If I could turn back the clock and be there again, that would be wonderful because I have such happy memories of it.”
Both enjoy the new Channel 5 remake. “It’s a leap of faith when someone takes such a well-loved series. It has managed to keep the feel,” says Ali. “We need to get on as extras,” says Paul.
They kept in touch for a while with their famous cast colleagues, especially Christopher Timothy, who once called in for tea at Ali’s house while also seeing the Wights. “He actually went to help my dad who had some work to do in a field – that’s the kind of person Chris is,” Ali says.
She met him again at Alf Wight’s memorial service at York Minster in 1995. “He spotted me across the room at the reception after and shouted ‘Daughter!’ and gave me a big bear hug – he was lovely.”
Ali broke her back in a sledging accident when she was 16, and was sent a huge bunch of flowers by Chris Timothy, Lynda Bellingham and Robert Hardy. “They were the A-listers but they didn’t act like they were – they just hung out with us.” She also remembers the late Bellingham sitting with the mothers “just chatting about mum stuff”, while Paul remembers downtime off-set sitting in a Jacuzzi with Bellingham and her son.
Both were sad to finish filming. Ali says: “It was that sense of, I don’t want this to end, I’ve had such a brilliant time, that sadness that I knew I wasn’t going to see that cast and crew again,because it was the final series.”
Paul and Ali’s memories of their time making All Creatures join hundreds of others in Oliver Crocker’s book, for which he has interviewed 60 cast and crew members.
“When I speak to everyone from this era on TV, they had such a great time,” Oliver says. “There was such a family feel. If you were at Pebble Mill, you would get rotated onto different programmes, All Creatures for six weeks and then Doctor Who, and Juliet Bravo.
“My wife and I were on a walking holiday and we stayed in Skeldale house in Askrigg and came to the World of James Herriot museum and I was like a kid in a candy store. I thought I wonder if there is a book about the making of the series, and there wasn’t one.
“I didn’t know anyone who had been in All Creatures, but a friend knew Madeline Smith, who had been in all the Hammer moves and Live and Let Die, and she had played two guest parts, so my friend asked her for me, and she was a great first person to interview.”
Oliver emailed Peter Davison’s agent for a phone interview but he wanted to do it in person, and they met for lunch. “At the time he was doing Gypsy at The Savoy. They said he’ll give you an hour and he gave me three hours. He’s my hero because I’m a Doctor Who fan as well. He was just delightful, a darling man. And they all were.
“Of the original cast, the late great Robert Hardy was the last I spoke to. I was aware obviously that he had had an amazing career and I was advised make sure you do your homework. He had been taught at Oxford by JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.
“We spoke on the phone for an hour and a half. I met him at a gala dinner for the centenary of James Herriot and I said ‘thank you for your support of the book’, and he said, ‘It’s a pleasure, did I behave myself?’
“Christopher was doing a play in Richmond with Joanna McCallum, who was also in All Creatures. He’s a very generous man, with no ego at all.”
Oliver interviewed as many crew members as he could, even ones who had never been credited. “There was a lovely gentleman called Les Podraza who had worked on 70 episodes and never got a credit so it was nice to be able to tell his story, how he wanted to work in TV. He sat in reception for three days at Pebble Mill. How people got into TV was very different. They would train you on the job. When I speak to everyone from this era on TV, they had such a great time. There was such a family feel. If you were at Pebble Mill, you would get rotated onto different programmes, All Creatures for six weeks and then Doctor Who, and Juliet Bravo.
Oliver studied Theatre, Film and Television at York St John, and the director Mervyn Cumming was his mentor. He has worked as a researcher on This Morning and Sunday Brunch. “But what I really love is my favourite programmes and not just the making of them but the makers of them,” he says.
“It’s an enormous privilege to be able to tell these people’s stories. They should be proud of the work they did. The programmes they made 40 years ago are still being enjoyed all over the world.”
*All Memories Great & Small is published by Devonfire. Author signed copies available from devonfirebooks.com.
*Visit the World of James Herriot at Thirsk and at worldofjamesherriot.com
The new series of All Creatures Great and Small is expected to air on Channel 5 in October.