With its promise of mistletoe and ale, festive food, a little flirting, a lot of carousing, plus an appearance by Father Christmas, the Skeldale House Christmas Eve party is an annual fixture eagerly anticipated by the fictional inhabitants of Darrowby, and the show’s millions of TV viewers.
All Creatures Great and Small returns for a Christmas special on Channel 5, with storylines celebrating community spirit and togetherness, themes sure to chime with a modern-day audience looking forward to gathering with friends, neighbours and loved ones this year.
Over the summer, Darrowby, for which the Yorkshire Dales village of Grassington is used, stepped back in time to be dressed for Christmas 1938, the market square filled with spruce trees and holly as Mrs Hall (Anna Madeley) steps out with her festive shopping list.
Series two ended with the engagement of young vet James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) and young farmer Helen Alderson (Rachel Shenton), so they will now attend the party as an official couple for the first time. And where will they spend Christmas Day - at Skeldale House or at Helen's farm, with her father and sisier Jenny, played by Harrogate student Imogen Clawson?
Creating the authentic look of a 1930s Christmas in the Dales is a responsibility that production designer Jackie Smith and the behind-the-scenes team take very seriously, starting with the Skeldale House set, which is in the village of Arncliffe, in Littondale. “We tried to bring the natural beauty of the Dales inside the house for Christmas,” she says. “The smell of spruce and pine was amazing.”
Jackie and the team pored over archive photography to determine how houses would have been decorated. “We found vintage gift tags and wrapping paper, then photocopied parts of them and made our own hanging card decorations. We searched for vintage baubles on the internet. We used oranges wrapped in fabric squares and tied with ribbon,” she says, adding that York florists Rose and Spade made natural, evergreen garlands decorated with simple ribbon bows.
“The mistletoe was plastic, as we shot the Christmas episode in June, but we did track down a grower who had some real mistletoe refrigerated, which we mixed in with the plastic,” adds Jackie. “Mrs Hall would have made an enormous effort to ensure the house was decorated beautifully.”
The housekeeper would also have wanted to make sure that the festive fayre on offer, both for the party and for dinner on Christmas Day for the vets – Siegfried Farnon, brother Tristan and Scottish incomer James – was delicious.
The food is real and actually made in Harrogate, in the kitchen of TV home economist Bethany Heald, who cooks everything seen and eaten in the series. Mrs Hall’s cooking, she says, would be traditional with nothing too extravagant, except perhaps at Christmas.
“Lots of baking, biscuits, sausage rolls, and she is quite partial to a devilled egg,” she says. “I seem to remember making an awful lot of devilled eggs for the Christmas episode.”
To make these 1930s canapés, Bethany hard boils the eggs, peels them, cuts them in half, scoops out the yolk and blitzes it with mayonnaise and tabasco, Worcestershire Sauce, perhaps cayenne pepper, and, crucially, a little hot water to loosen the mixture, then pipes it all back into the egg white halves.
“They are really delicious, but when you have been asked to make them for the fourth time in as many weeks, you think, no, not again,” she laughs. She also spends much time rubbing the use-by dates off fresh eggs (an episode in which Tristan looked after the Skeldale hens required a great deal of date removal).
“I tend to do a lot of historical dramas,” says Bethany. “I do Gentleman Jack and Victoria, so I have lots of historical cookery books. The Christmas dinner would have been more simple, but very recognisable. They had a huge goose and we did a ginormous pan with roast potatoes, roast parsnips, pigs in blankets, red cabbage, mince pies and a huge layered jelly in a big glass trifle dish.”
The set for Heston Grange, where the Aldersons live, is also in Arncliffe. “There were a lot of breakfasts,” says Bethany. Fortunately, Weatherheads Butchers of Pateley Bridge helped by supplying traditional black pudding in large trays to cut into slices, plus old-fashioned bacon with the back and the streaky parts still joined. The goose came from there and they do all the lovely pork pies.”
Food historian Annie Gray, whose new book At Christmas We Feast celebrates festive food down the ages, says: “Yorkshire generally inclined towards goose as the main roast, though, inevitably, by the 1930s bigger households – with bigger ovens – were turning to turkey.”
McDougall’s 1935 Christmas Cheer book contained recipes for Christmas cake, mincemeat, treacle toffee, trifle, brandy snaps, boiled tongue, ham and sausage rolls. In Yorkshire, there were also pepper cakes, a sort of gingerbread, served with cheese.
By the 1930s, Christmas would have looked familiar to a modern eye, she says. “While domestic service remained a huge employer, only around five per cent of households maintained a full-time live-in staff, meaning that the majority of people could be in their own homes for Christmas (or at least part of it). The extensive train network meant travelling to spend Christmas with family was relatively easy, and the family-focused, cosy Christmas so heavily promoted by the Victorians was now accepted as the norm.”
The decorations would have been Victorian-influenced too, with paper chains, trees and wreaths fairly standard across England in the 1930s. Dr Gray says: “The only thing you might have seen extra in Yorkshire was the survival in some rural areas of the yule log, burnt on Christmas Eve, but it was very rare by the 1930s.”
Making this year’s Christmas episode of All Creatures Great and Small in June brought its own challenges, says Jackie, who grew up in Ripon. “We spent some time filming at Broughton Hall, the location we use for Pumphrey Manor. Mrs Pumphrey features heavily and her take on Christmas was an important part of the design of this episode. We also managed to get a dusting of the white stuff for that extra Christmas magic. It turns out that even a hot June day can feel chilly when you have snow and frost covering the set.”
There were challenges when it came to shooting the festive food, too. Bethany says: “The Skeldale House Christmas party was filmed over several weeks. A tray might leave the kitchen and then two weeks later, we are filming that tray arriving in the sitting room.”
Bethany’s work as a TV home economist sees her travel all over the country, so she is delighted that All Creatures Great and Small is a local job. She will be watching the Christmas episode at home in Harrogate with her young children. “It reminds me of my childhood,” she says. “Lovely wholesome viewing.”
The All Creatures Great and Small Christmas episode will be shown on Channel 5 on Christmas Eve at 9pm.
At Christmas We Feast: Festive Food Through the Ages, by Annie Gray, is published by Profile Books, priced £12.99.