All Creatures Great and Small: Samuel West on his Yorkshire heritage, meeting his fellow cast members and finding Siegfried

All Creatures Great and Small actor Samuel West talks to Stephanie Smith about his Yorkshire heritage, first meeting his fellow cast members – and finding Siegfried Farnon.

If there is a magic formula for making a hit TV drama series in the 21st century, All Creatures Great and Small has bottled and then gift-wrapped it. Values are key and, says Samuel West, the upcoming Christmas Special spreads a much-needed message of decency and kindness.

“It’s about people coming together in difficulty, to support each other, at a time when so many terrible things are happening in the world,” he says. “It’s got absent friends, people who are missing, people who won’t ever come back, just like life.”

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Samuel plays Siegfried Farnon, the Yorkshire Dales vet with a short fuse and a huge heart. It is a role that he has more than made his own, even for those who remember Robert Hardy in the original BBC series that ran from 1978 to 1990.

Samuel West and Peter Wright in All Creatures Great and Small Meets The Yorkshire Vet. Photo: Channel 5Samuel West and Peter Wright in All Creatures Great and Small Meets The Yorkshire Vet. Photo: Channel 5
Samuel West and Peter Wright in All Creatures Great and Small Meets The Yorkshire Vet. Photo: Channel 5

The “new” Channel 5 adaptation launched amid a pandemic-crippled UK back in September 2020, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the publication of If Only They Could Talk, the first of the James Herriot bestsellers penned by Thirsk vet James Alfred “Alf” Wight. There have now been four TV series made (and we are talking to mark the release of a DVD box set of them).

All Creatures has been a great success for Channel 5, with viewing figures for the fourth season peaking at 3.7million. Samuel saw the show’s potential from the off. “I was already thinking about Channel 5 as a good place, because they had given up Big Brother and so they had to fill about 250 hours a year of schedule, and they started filling it with drama, which was delightful.”

When approached to play Siegfried, he was already a respected actor, with a rich and varied career mingling theatre, TV and film, radio and voiceover work. Nominated in 1993 for a BAFTA for Howards End, his film credits also include Jane Eyre, Van Helsing and Notting Hill, while his TV work includes the BBC’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (filmed in York in 2015), Waking the Dead, Any Human Heart, Slow Horses, The Crown, Small Axe and four series of Mr Selfridge. He was artistic director of Sheffield Theatres from 2005 to 2007.

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He learned that Golden Globe and BAFTA award-winning production company Playground was making the new All Creatures. “I had just finished watching Playground’s Wolf Hall, which I had adored, and that period stuff is hard to get right, and expensive to do well,” he says.

The treatment he was sent included a back story about Siegfried, written by lead writer, Ben Vanstone. “It was beautiful,” says Samuel. “Almost sort of Chekhovian in its detail and the cables that ran through the man. They had set a lot of things in this past that had made him layered, and I realised, just from thinking about the man, and looking at the books and remembering Robert Hardy’s performance in the 1970s, that he was going to need a lot of playing. It was going to need vocal and physical size. But I thought, if I am on the right track and I know where I am coming from, I think I’m quite good casting.”

He met Nicholas Ralph (James Herriot), Rachel Shenton (Helen) and Callum Woodhouse (Tristan) on the train from Leeds to Skipton for a couple of days’ rehearsal. Samuel says: “At the end of the journey, I thought, what lovely people, and at the end of the rehearsal, I thought, this ensemble really works, and then they cast Anna Madeley and she was the icing on the cake that was already rising.”

Siegfried is often spotted reading The Yorkshire Post. “Quite right, too,” says Samuel. “ I also love the paper. I think your editorials are sometimes some of the most sensible things I read all week.”

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In this series, Siegfried is a widower, a detail not in the Herriot novels but echoing the life of the real man who inspired the character, Donald Sinclair, whose first wife, Evelyn, died of tuberculosis. He was married to his second wife for 53 years. She was called Audrey, which just happens to be the lesser heard name of Anna Madeley’s character, Mrs Hall.

Samuel discovered more about Donald Sinclair when he teamed up with real-life vet Peter Wright while making the programme All Creatures Great and Small Meets The Yorkshire Vet, which airs on Channel 5 just before the All Creatures Christmas Special on December 21. He also visited The World of James Herriot with Alf Wight’s children, Jim Wight and Rosie Page, and has incorporated into Siegfried’s portrayal some of the details they passed on. “My father says, do as much research as you can because, even if only 10 per cent is useful, the more you do, the bigger the 10 per cent is. Except he says I say that.”

Samuel’s father, actor Timothy West, is Bradford-born. Family legend has it that Timothy’s father (actor Lockwood West, known as Harry) was on tour there at the time. “It's not true,” says Samuel. What actually happened was, in pre-NHS days, he and his wife, Olive, also an actor, had been told of an inexpensive maternity home up in Yorkshire. Samuel says: “They were playing in Eastbourne at the time. She went by train to Bradford, had the baby, and Harry continued to do eight shows a week.”

Samuel - who has two daughters, aged nine and six, with his partner, the playwright Laura Wade - plans to save the All Creatures Christmas special to watch with his father and mother, fellow actor Prunella Scales. “My father, in particular, is quite cross that he’s not in it, but he can’t be in everything,” he says. “And we would have to be related - we look increasingly like each other.”

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The All Creatures Great and Christmas 2023 episode will be broadcast on December 21, at 9pm in the UK on Channel 5 and My5.

All Creatures Great & Small Series Four (including the 2022 Christmas Special), £24.99, and the Complete Series One–Four Box Set, £74.99, are released on DVD on December 11, by Acorn Media International. Special features include a picture gallery.

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