Why All Creatures Great and Small cast can’t wait to return to Yorkshire in 2021

Channel 5’s All Creatures Great and Small was a big hit this year and now it is back with a Christmas special. Phil Penfold reports.

The cast and crew of All Creatures Great and Small just “can’t wait to get back to Yorkshire”. The series, which took TV ratings by storm, began filming in and around Grassington back in the autumn of 2019, and finished just days before the first lockdown was imposed in March. Anticipating that they might well have a hit on their hands that would once again resonate with viewers on a big scale, the Channel 5 show’s producers decided to add to the planned run of six episodes with a “Christmas special”, which will be screened on Tuesday.

And there is more cause for celebration with the recent announcement that there is to be a new series.

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“It was all great fun to film,” says Samuel West, who plays Siegfried Farnon, the oldest of the vets in the Darrowby practice.

The vets and Mrs Hall relaxing on Christmas Day in front of the fire.

“And I can hear people groaning when they read that. But it was, believe me, it was. It all felt just ‘right’, from the very first day that we all met each other. Everything pulled together, instantly, and that’s nothing short of a miracle.

“We all get on so well, and the awful thing was – because of the year we’ve had – there was absolutely no possibility of getting back together to see the others in the cast and crew who have become real friends. We’re nothing special in that regard, everyone’s been through the mill in the last year.”

But he adds: “I am just so pleased that it seems that we have been able to cheer everyone up a little. That is an honour. Perhaps it shows that we all know now that empathy, and care and kindness, isn’t perhaps so far away if we look for it.”

Buoyed by weekly audiences of nearly six million viewers, the show will return once circumstances allow.

Dorothy and Siegfried in the new Christmas special.

“Speaking purely selfishly, Yorkshire is a wonderful place for me,” says West. “I can spend rare days off at Bempton Cliffs, which is sheer paradise for a birdwatcher like me, and when we were in Grassington I discovered the joys of the amazing local bookshop, the Stripey Badger – not to mention the bottles I used to discover at the wine merchant. I love Yorkshire with a passion, and there was an extra spring in my step when I learned that I’d been offered the role of Siegfried.

If we’re going to return, I’d better start thinking about growing his beard again early in the New Year.

“One of the nicest things is that we’ve learned from the lovely Grassington people that visitors – and there have been some, even in that brief respite from lockdown – are already starting to ask about where the Drover’s Arms is, where the surgery might be, and lots more about the locations. We can only hope that, in the better times to come, the local tourism trade is given a really healthy boost, and that the hard-hit local economy will bounce back. If I had a wish for New Year, trust me, that’s what it would be.”

Nicholas Ralph, who plays James Herriot, the new vet on the patch, reveals that one of his “greatest joys” was being able to drive some of the period cars – the drama opens in 1937 – and to get out and enjoy the stunning scenery of the Yorkshire Dales.

Tristan (Callum Woodhouse) meets Siegfried (Samuel West) and Mrs Hall (Anna Madeley) in the village square.

“Some days may have been wet, and others may have been perishingly cold – there were even some when there were a few flurries of snow, in November – but the scenery, the landscape is superb, and it became one of the characters in its own right. There were some days when you just couldn’t get me out of the cars – I loved them so much. I’d sit there thinking ‘Mate, you are so lucky, and you are getting paid for this.’”

Ralph has enjoyed getting to grips with the character, too. “He’s not one dimensional, he’s very much a complex man, with a constant battle inside him of heart and mind and moral dilemma. He has profound feelings, and desires.”

Anna Madeley, who plays Mrs Hall, says the scripts have also given heft to the female roles. “The women in our series are up there on a par with the men, they’re not just cardboard ‘in the background’ people. They have their own stories as well.”

Even while the show was being written and cast, Channel 5 insisted that its version of All Creatures Great and Small was emphatically not going to be a remake of the earlier BBC version.

There would be a completely new cast, and a new location for a lengthy filming schedule.

The good folk of Grassington and Summerbridge woke up one day in the autumn of 2019 to find that they, their homes, farms and businesses were going to be the “supporting background” of the new-look programme.

They and many local actors also learned that several of them would be asked if they wanted to appear as “extras”, playing Darrowby and district residents.

All of them have been asked to keep very quiet about the Christmas show. “They are such lovely people, every one of them,” says Colin Callendar, one of the show’s executive producers, “and we had to say ‘look, this is very hush-hush, please do not give any plot-spoilers, even to your nearest and dearest. It has to be a big surprise.’”

So what can we anticipate for the festive special? “Well, I can tell you about a party,” says Ralph, “and a donkey, and a few puppies, a lot of laughs, and a little bit of sadness as well…”

This was Ralph’s first part since leaving drama school and it was, he concedes, something of a baptism of fire.

“I had to learn everything from scratch. Sorry, no pun intended for someone playing a veterinary surgeon, but it was all ‘on the hoof’. I mean, I found myself sharing big scenes with Sam West, who is not only a very fine actor and director himself, but he also comes from genuine ‘acting royalty’ – his mum is Prunella Scales, and his dad is Timothy West, for Pete’s sake. But everyone was so kind, and patient, and encouraging, and I cannot wait to get back up there.”

The much-mourned Alf Wight, who wrote the eight books (on which the TV series is based) between 1970 and 1992 under the pen-name of James Herriot, died some 25 years back, and he had always been very much involved with the earlier BBC’s account. Today, it is his son Jim and daughter Rosie who keep an interested eye on the proceedings.

“They’ve told me that they were delighted with what we have done, and they had nothing but unqualified praise for the series, which is a huge compliment,” says Callendar.

The Christmas special is tinged with sadness following the death of Dame Diana Rigg, who played the autocratic Mrs Pumphrey. She was “a delight”, adds Callendar. “It was a beautiful final performance from her, and we were all so grateful to have met her and to have worked with her.”

The show’s popularity and its planned return is also good news for Grassington. Malcolm Newman who, with his partner Deb, owns Chocolace, a popular sweet shop in the town, says the programme captured the essence of this pocket of Yorkshire. “We are a very close community here and I think that is reflected beautifully in the TV series. In very dark times, All Creatures definitely raises the spirits.

“There hasn’t been the footfall that we all depend on in the last months, that’s for sure. But the news that Channel 5 are almost certain to return gives us a lot of hope and a lot of pleasure. There’s already a buzz, and the Chamber of Trade already has ideas about how we could contribute. And I can tell you that a couple of the main cast do indeed enjoy their sweets and chocolate – they were always popping in...”

The All Creatures Great and Small Christmas special will air on Channel 5 on Tuesday at 9pm, with a repeat on Boxing Day at 7.45pm.

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