All Creatures Great and Small: On the Yorkshire Dales set of Channel 5 reboot aimed at a new generation
‘You’ve come on the wettest day,” quips producer Richard Burrell as he acknowledges the grey belly of cloud that hangs low over Grassington.
The town’s cobbled square has been taken over by stalls, fairground rides, a shooting gallery and animal pens for Darrowby Show, circa 1937. Actors and extras clad in period garb mix with muffled, gloved and parka-ed members of the crew of a resurrected All Creatures Great and Small on a miserable and drizzly day in November.
Glimpsed amid the throng are a bearded Samuel West as Siegfried Farnon, Callum Woodhouse as brother Tristan, Anna Madeley as housekeeper Mrs Hall and newcomer Nicholas Ralph as James Herriot.
Half a century has passed since Yorkshire vet Alf Wight, as James Herriot, put 30 years of experiences into books that captured the collective imagination of millions. Those books became a feature film, a TV movie and an iconic television show that, beginning in 1978, ran to 90 episodes over a dozen years.
Returning it to the small screen after almost three decades was, says Burrell, a “no-brainer”. To do so meant harnessing the talents of an entirely new cast – including giving young Herriot, who grew up in Glasgow, a Scottish accent.
Other changes include swapping one part of Yorkshire for another, with Grassington and Summerbridge becoming the fictional Darrowby of the books rather than Askrigg. And with Alf Wight, who died in 1995, no longer around to offer a guiding hand the production turned to his son, Jim, and daughter Rosie. Screen Yorkshire also provided support.
Anyone expecting links to the iconic TV triumvirate of Robert Hardy, Peter Davison and Christopher Timothy might be disappointed. Burrell, having gone back to the original books, hopes for an open mind.
“Alf Wight created fictional characters based on real people,” he says. “We’re then making our version of fictional characters based on that. This is a new confident production – with a new James Herriot, a new Tristan and a new Siegfried – that can stand on its own two feet. It’s for a new generation.”
Samuel West, scion of theatrical treasures Timothy West and Prunella Scales, admits he “can’t help thinking” about Robert Hardy and says his are big boots to fill. But alongside his co-stars he places distance between the source material – Herriot’s books – and the television show that followed.
Thus his Siegfried is taken from the stories, which themselves were a toned-down reminiscence of a character named Donald Sinclair. In real life Sinclair was tall, thin and sported a pencil moustache. West says his beard “hides a multitude of chins”.
He comments: “Siegfried takes some playing. He was an extreme man. Donald, who Siegfried is based on, was eccentric. Very short-tempered. He was completely changeable – sort of absent-minded but in a pathological way, with a small ‘p’.
“He is part of a great English tradition of eccentrics. We’re quite good at them, but we have to stay on the right side of that [when making the new show].”
If 54-year-old West had read the Herriot books as a youngster, his co-stars had not. Ralph says he’d “never come across” the long-running TV show or the books that spawned it. Moreover he chose to avoid watching it, focusing instead on the scripts that had him laughing out loud from the first page.
He calls James Herriot “an absolute dream role” – an apposite term since he walked into it as a first job on leaving drama school.
He reveals: “Graduating from drama school I didn’t think I’d be doing this. I said, ‘I’d love to dip my toe in and get a nice part in film or TV – a wee part’ and then this came along. I thought, ‘Well, that’s all right. I’ll take a bit of that.’
“The sheer size of TV [came as a surprise]: the amount of people behind the scenes that it takes to make something. Some things are so über real – the costumes, you’re out in the Dales, you’re in the vehicles – then in the next turn they’re replacing a cow with a night stand, so you’re playing to absolutely nothing.”
Filmmaking and its requirements have changed in the 40-odd years since the books were first televised. Thus there is no requirement for an actor to slide a rubber-clad arm into the rectum of a cow. Ralph and the other actors were faced with strict guidelines around their interaction with animals.
Woodhouse, who featured in TV’s The Durrells, said All Creatures… set out to be a benchmark for how to treat animals in television shows: “If you’re not trained to do the procedure, and it’s not necessary or they don’t need it, then you can’t do it.” West adds: “Does this cow need a rectal examination? No. Then we can’t do it. And that seems to be absolutely right. We have to do it in other ways. It will be completely believable.”
Anna Madeley, playing the widowed Mrs Hall, refers to her character as “housekeeper, receptionist, cleaner, cook and the person who answers the door to the farmers when they knock on the door [of Skeldale House] in the middle of the night.”
She has been dodging the raindrops to shoot a scene on the Darrowby Show set in Grassington village square, which is surrounded by real-life shops that have been given a Thirties make-over and a pub – The Devonshire – renamed The Drovers Arms. “I’m sorry you’ve come today. This has been the worst of the rain!” she laughs. “I’m quite lucky because I’m mostly in the house, so I get an easy ride. The weather can be so beautiful but it can change every five minutes. You start a scene in the sun and then you’re in-and-out, in-and-out. It’s supposed to be nice tomorrow!”
Rachel Shenton plays the trouser-wearing Helen Alderson who, in steel toe-capped boots gets up close and personal with animals and, eventually, with James Herriot. A practical lass described by Shenton as “a coper”, Helen is as comfortable picking up chickens and handling a prize bull (named Clive) as she is driving tractors and pick-up trucks.
“These were real people. You see that clearly through the books. But it was really nice to hear it from Jim and Rosie’s perspective, because it was their mum. They told me about her general disposition, being very cheery and always looking on the bright side.”
Woodhouse says the Wight family’s involvement was crucial.
“Jim gave each of us a copy of his book [The Real James Herriot] and for each member of the cast he’d marked out exactly where their character was mentioned. I heard him say to every single person, ‘It’s a plum part you’ve got.’ That was really sweet.”
Samuel West reveals that he was handed a curved and very sharp hoof knife that had belonged to the real-life Siegfried, and that he used it in a scene on the first day of filming.
“It was a good start. I’m not really superstitious, but it helped. Whenever you’re playing a part you get your touchstones when you can.
“People have such connections to these stories. As new tellers of them we want to show that we’re doing our bit to connect to the reality.”
There’s a genuine shared sense of doing something special. Shenton says: “The stories are loved. My mum’s read all the books. She’s so excited. There’s that general sense of, ‘Wow, it’s going to be so good. You better do a good job.’ Pressure!
“I care so much about the books and stories. It’s so lovely: it’s animals, it’s Yorkshire and everyone’s so nice. It sounds really cheesy but it’s an absolute pleasure to be a part of it.”
The last word goes to producer Richard Burrell: “It’s quite clear that the books and the world of James Herriot are massively loved. There were two reactions immediately. One was, ‘It’s about time.’ The second was, ‘Don’t muck it up.’”
All Creatures Great and Small begins on Tuesday at 9pm on Channel 5.
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