Christmas for us may well be short on the spreading of good cheer, with large social gatherings banned this year, but in the fictional Yorkshire Dales village of Darrowby, the community spirit is alive and well – with a big party planned at Skeldale House.
The All Creatures Great and Small Christmas special airs on Channel 5 on December 22 (with a repeat on Boxing Day). Set in the 1930s, it continues from where the first series left us, with young vet James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) settled at Skeldale House with boss Siegfried (Samuel West) and his errant younger brother, Tristan (Callum Woodhouse) and, of course, housekeeper Mrs Hall (Anna Madeley). But James is downcast because Helen (Rachel Shenton), the farmer’s daughter he loves, is engaged to local landowner Hugh Hulton (Matthew Lewis).
There will be no plot spoilers here but what we can tell you is that the party takes place on Christmas Eve, the day before Helen and Hugh’s wedding. Channel 5 has released photographs of Darrowby square (actually Grassington) filled with villagers shopping and children running about dressed in Nativity costumes. There are party scenes, too, with all the characters and supporting artists dressed by costume designer Ros Little and her team, although the concept of a Christmas party outfit in the 1930s was not at all what it is now.
“People would be wearing their best winter clothes – perhaps a nice warm cardigan and skirt, with a brooch or a necklace,” says Ros.
“People in these communities had little money to spend on clothes. They had their working clothes and something for best. It was not at all like now, where people buy things especially for Christmas. It was actually a much more sustainable approach. The approach we have now is buy something, wear it, throw it away. Then it was wear it and wear it and patch it until it was worn out.”
No sequins then, but traditional tones add a warm, festive mood. Ros says: “We have gone for rich, wintery colours, and lots of the woollens, because it’s very cold in Yorkshire at Christmas.
“Christmas was more of a religious festival then, when people went to church they would dress in their Sunday Best.”
Print dresses were popular in the 1930s and many of the women are seen wearing them. “Mrs Hall is in her best dress, which we have seen once before. She is not wearing an apron, she is very much part of the family group.”
One character who has dressed to impress, however, is young nurse Connie, James’s new girlfriend, who wears an abstract leaf print in a synthetic crepe (which would have been available in the 1930s).
“Crepe fabrics were very popular at the time and it’s a lightweight dress, not a winter dress,” says Ros. “It’s a very typical, classic sort of 30s dress, a simple dress she could have made herself. People did a lot more home sewing and knitting then. In the middle of Yorkshire, you were not close to any centres of fashion. A lot of clothing would be home-made and dress patterns had become popular, and the way you could keep up with fashion.”
In contrast, farmer’s daughter Helen wears a Fair Isle knitted twinset, a choice that ties in both comfort and the trends of the time. Matching short-sleeved jumpers and cardigans, later known as a twin set, were first worn in the 1920s, popularised by Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli and in the 1930s by Otto Weisz of Pringle, who adapted the Scottish Argyle pattern for the twin set. They were adored by screen stars including Jean Simmons, Brigitte Bardot and Grace Kelly.
“Helen’s twin set is both pretty and practical,” says Ros. “Houses were cold and in the winter an extra layer under the cardigan, a jumper rather than a blouse, would be a practical solution.
“The Duke of Windsor popularised Fair Isle by wearing it on the golf course, and also Argyle patterns, and that would be adopted for home knitting.
“Almost everything you see has been made or knitted especially for costume houses or for us,” adds Ros. “It’s one of those periods that is a little bit difficult because the costume houses do have quite a lot of the originals but some are no longer in a condition to be worn.”
Hollywood stars were a huge influence in the 1930s and, especially in rural UK communities, would be one way in which women could lift their outfits for special occasions.
Mrs Hall’s friend Dorothy adds a rather exotic touch of glamour to the scene, wearing a striking deep red dress in a fine bouclé. “The gathers around the neckline and the sleeves are very typical of the period and it’s a bit more couture than the simple shirt dresses you see the others wearing,” says Ros. “It’s a stylish, fashionable shape of dress in a lovely strong colour. We wanted her to stand out. Dorothy is always incredibly glamorous.”
The men have also made an effort, with Siegfried sporting a festive green pocket square. Ros says: “It has become a theme that he always has a brightly coloured handkerchief but here he is quite relaxed, wearing a sports jacket and a waistcoat. Generally we see him wearing a suit, his everyday wear as a vet. In the square, Tristan wears a natty hat worn at a rakish angle. “Tristan is much more aware of how he looks, compared to James who just puts on comfortable clothes. Men always wore hats or caps when they went outside. Hats like this would be worn everyday from the early part of the century up until the 50s.”
But Tristan has a completely new look for the party, with rumours that he will appear dressed as an overgrown elf. Now that we simply have to see.
The All Creatures Great and Small Christmas special will air on Channel 5 on December 22 at 9pm, with a repeat on Boxing Day at 7.45pm.