All Creatures Great and Small original TV Helen, Carol Drinkwater, on her new Channel 5 show, 'gut-aching' laughter on set and why she quit BBC series

Carol Drinkwater played Helen in the original TV series of All Creatures Great and Small. She tells John Blow about her life in France, leaving the show and wanting to be Mrs Pumphrey.

Carol Drinkwater on her farm in the South of France. Credit: Media Sud Productions.
Carol Drinkwater on her farm in the South of France. Credit: Media Sud Productions.

Carol Drinkwater’s status in British showbusiness after being cast as James Herriot’s love interest Helen in the original television series of All Creatures Great and Small was such that she recalls being the highest paid actress at the BBC.

But decades later, speaking to The Yorkshire Post from her home on the shores of southern France, the first thing the woman who played the self-assured farmer’s daughter says is how “frightened” she is about her new show airing.

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The six-part Channel 5 documentary series, which starts tomorrow night, invites viewers into the olive oil farm where, for 30 years, she and husband Michel have been living the Mediterranean life on a hillside above the bay of Cannes in Provence. Heading into the autumn but with borders opening, it’s just the sort show to get Brits rifling through their drawers in search of dusty passports.

Three of the original cast of 'All Creatures Great and Small' were reunited at the Herriot Museum in Thirsk in 2006. Christopher Timothy who played James Herriot, Carol Drinkwater who played Helen Herriot and Robert Hardy who played Siegfried. Picture: Gary Longbottom.

Drinkwater visits the places that have played an important part in her life and inspired her writing (she’s also a prolific novelist). From the glamour of the Riviera to the rich history of Marseille, and the wild beauty of the Camargue, viewers are given an insight into the area’s food, crafts and culture.

Despite her fears, she enjoyed being in front of the camera again for the first time in about a decade.

“People said to me, ‘Don’t be frightened, you know it’s like riding a bicycle’ –but I’ve always fallen off bicycles.

“But actually once I did get back in front of the camera I suddenly remembered how much I love that relationship between camera and actor and the immediacy and the fact that you can in some ways be so much more intimate with a camera than you can be on stage, and I’ve always preferred working with cameras than on stage. So that’s suddenly really triggered and I suddenly thought, oh, I’ve forgotten how much I loved this. So that was a great discovery this year that really kind of lit all my light bulbs up.”

What’s more, now in her 70s, Drinkwater is pleased to be part of a culture than offers more chances to older women on screen, though it was a complete surprise to be given the documentary when commissioning editor Emma Westcott got in touch.

“I’m sure it’s not coincidental because I think that Emma is actually pretty on the ball, so I think that she’s actually looking to offer voices and space for older women and I think that’s absolutely terrific. It was one of the reasons why I was so scared going back in front of the camera but I think all power to her for doing that, not just for me for other women too.” She adds:

“It’s very important to me that older women’s voices are heard, either on the page (or) on screen. I mean, Meryl Streep is (nearly) 73 now. So, you know, it’s fantastic that she’s still doing so much work. That wouldn’t have been the case two decades ago.”

It's more than four decades Drinkwater has to think back to speak about All Creatures..., the BBC show adapted 1978 from the books of Alf Wight, whose pen name was James Herriot. “It was one of those jobs where I would never wake up in the morning and think I don’t want to go to work. I always, always felt happy to get out of bed, and to be going to work with that group of people, that crew, the cast. We laughed a lot, I do have a memory of the fact that we were constantly, you know, that kind of gut-aching laughter, because we were having such a wonderful time doing the job and because we enjoyed each other’s company immensely. We tomfooled around quite a lot, the four of us –and Mary (Hignett), but Mary wasn’t with us quite so frequently – but I do remember that sometimes there were pranks played.

“Robert Hardy wasn’t feeling very well and he said ‘I can’t get through all this filming I’ve got to do’. Robert Hardy, to be under the weather and to be kind of quiet, is quite an extraordinary thing. So Jack Watkinson, who was our resident vet, gave him a horse pill,” she says, that gut-aching laughter visibly returning on the Zoom call.

“Seriously! He gave him some great horse pill to buck up horses and Robert Hardy was running through the studio like a kind of mad man and we were all giggling.”

On another occasion, she was on the receiving end of bovine-based physical comedy, with a cow called Badger. “There was a whole byre of cows behind us. I was standing in this very kind of deep, intimate scene with Chris Timothy (who played Herriot) and he was going off to war, that’s it, and I was feeling miserable about it.

“I suddenly noticed that all the crew were kind of looking like that and laughing and I thought what are they all laughing at? And suddenly, I felt this shot of warm water all down my back and I realised that this cow had peed all over me. This wasn’t Hollywood, we didn’t have the same costumes as back-up, so I had to spend the rest of the day in this costume covered in cow pee. There were lots of little occasions like that.”

Drinkwater was replaced by Lynda Bellingham when she decided to leave the role of Helen after 42 episodes and two TV films, once she had met Michel in Australia, and who had proposed almost immediately after a “love at first sight” encounter. “I was already thinking about leaving because I felt that there was no more stretch for Helen,” she says. “They wanted to stay very strictly to the books, because Alf was alive and at that stage he was quite adamant that they did. And I didn’t feel that there was anywhere else I could take Helen, I thought that

I’d reheated that tea bag – ‘Oh James, let me make you a cup of tea’ – enough times and unless there was new material for me I felt that it was time for me to move on. And I was getting lots and lots of offers, because the series was very successful.”

She adds: “Having said that, if I had my time over again, I wouldn’t have left it... I feel I could have achieved all the things that I have achieved and continued with the show, but you know, that’s life.”

France doesn’t air the new Channel 5 version of the show, so she hasn’t seen much of it. But then she’s only seen two or three episodes of the original series, when she had to watch them for work. Someone sent her scenes featuring Doncaster-born late Dame Diana Rigg as Mrs Pumphrey, though – a role Drinkwater would have liked to have played herself. She asked her agent to get in touch with Channel 5 to put herself forward for it.

“And they came back and said ‘How very thoughtful of you but...’ she breaks into a laugh. “Well they didn’t actually say no but they said ‘We’ll be in touch’ or something, the old nut. And then of course I read that Di had got it, Di Rigg, so there we are. And even after Di died they didn’t come back to me so they definitely didn’t want me for the role, that’s clear! Actually I think I would have been rather good in it.”

The All Creatures... faithful would surely agree.

A Year in Provence with Carol Drinkwater airs on Sundays at 9pm on Channel 5.