Creating the costumes for All Creatures Great and Small (including that stunning blue dress)

All Creatures Great and Small costume designer Ros Little talks to Stephanie Smith about creating the perfect 1930s wardrobe for the cast of the hit new Channel 5 TV drama series.

It is already an iconic TV moment. Newly qualified vet James Herriot is at Mrs Pumphrey’s house party, holding pampered Pekingese pooch Tricki Woo, when in walks farmer’s daughter Helen Alderson, wearing That Dress. It’s a peacock blue silk velvet gown and it’s a total wow, not least because, until this point, neither James nor the viewers have seen Helen wearing anything other than mud-spattered trousers and dungarees.

Ros Little, costume designer for the new Channel 5 adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small, had the blue dress made especially for that party scene, and for actor Rachel Shenton. “We wanted to have an astonishing change of mood,” Ros says. “I designed the whole look around her dress.”

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No one else, cast or supporting artists, could wear the same shade. “There are a lot of reds, plums, browns, lovely rich colours of the period that work well with the house, Broughton Hall, where we filmed,” she says.

James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) and Helen Alderson (Rachel Shenton) wearing the blue silk velvet dress at Mrs Pumphrey's party. Photographs courtsey of Playground Television (UK)

For her first appearance, Helen wears a pair of green corduroys. “She’s running the farm,” says Ros. “Women started to wear trousers in the ’20s. This is a strong woman in a man’s world.”

It was Ros’s childhood love of history, art and sewing that set her on her career path. Born in Fife, she trained in Costume Design at Edinburgh College of Art, then worked in Scottish theatres before moving to London in the 1980s to work on BBC dramas, including The Chronicles of Narnia. The BBC had a huge costume department at the time, although it closed around 20 years ago.

To date, Ros, who lives in London with her husband, theatre photographer Robbie Jack, has worked across the world on a stellar list of screen productions including The Last Kingdom, Poldark, Horrible Histories, The Thick of It, Hetty Feather and Inspector George Gently. “It’s very exciting to set up a series because you’re creating the look and it’s always a huge challenge,” she says.

For James Herriot’s look, Ros had an expert adviser on-hand in her brother, vet Dr Christopher Little, who had been a lecturer at the University of Glasgow School of Veterinary Medicine where Alf Wight, author of the novels, trained. The school gave Ros access to 1930s photographs including one of students with their professor, all formally dressed.

Students in 1930 at the Glasgow veterinary school where Alf Wight trained with their professor. Credit: University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections, Glasgow Veterinary College collection, GB248 DC144/8/8.

She also contacted the Veterinary History Society which put her in touch with some older vets, including one who had known Alf Wight. He wrote her a letter about his own experiences as a young vet in Yorkshire, giving valuable insight.

The first episode sees James, played by Nicholas Ralph, wearing a grey wool suit. It proves to be entirely impractical for farmyards when James slips in the mud (four copies were needed to film the scene). “He gradually moves into a more tweedy look and wears mostly corduroy trousers, which wouldn’t be what a professional man would wear but what farmers wore, something practical and washable,” says Ros.

Many of the clothes are hired from costume companies in London, particularly Cosprop, which the actors visit to get fitted and kitted. A vintage blouse might be copied and indeed many of the clothes are reproductions although suits, gowns and knitwear, which endure, might be originals. “I much prefer something that’s seen some life,” Ros says.

The overall looks were created in collaboration with director Brian Percival and individual cast members.

Helen Alderson (Rachel Shenton) Photographs courtsey of Playground Television (UK).

“Siegfried (Samuel West) is a very strong character. He’ll wear a lovely maroon waistcoat and a flamboyant tie and always has a brightly coloured handkerchief. We wanted those flashes of colour and that bit of individuality, a little bit dapper without being impractical.”

Tristan (Callum Woodhouse) often wears a natty sleeveless Fair Isle sweater. “Fair Isle knitting was very fashionable at the time and Tristan is a dandy, sitting on a haystack while giving a few words of advice, so he doesn’t get his hands dirty,” says Ros.

“Mrs Hall (Anna Madeley) is a woman on her own. She needs a live-in housekeeper role where there would be no suspicion that she was anything other than a professional woman, so she is always very plain and her clothes are sensible and well-used. The cardigan we see her wearing a lot, it’s darned and a little bit frayed, but it’s a practical garment she puts on every day. Occasionally, we see her wearing a print apron. That is based on photographs of women in Yorkshire. They wore the same things day in day out and had a couple of different pinnies that cheered things up a bit. And she has a lovely coat and hat but it’s backdated. We don’t really see her shape. We don’t want to draw attention to the fact that she’s a young, beautiful woman.”

Ros also dressed Doncaster-born Dame Diana Rigg, who sadly died two days after the second episode, featuring the famous house party, aired. To create the look for Mrs Pumphrey, together they experimented with different dresses, coats, turbans and jewels. “We tried on a few things until she said, ‘Right, darling, this is it’,” says Ros. “It was terribly sad. She was amazing. In the trailer, she just looked so wicked, and that was Diana.”

James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph). Photographs courtsey of Playground Television (UK)

Filming started in Yorkshire last September and continued until January, with Ros and costume supervisor Joanna Beatty working on location with their costume team, staying in a cottage close to Grassington, which serves as Darrowby.

“I love the wild scenery,” Ros says. “If there is another series, which we hope there might be, it might film in warmer weather and we will see more original print dresses. It was a very good atmosphere. Everybody wanted to create something very special because the books are lovely, charming stories.”

All Creatures Great and Small continues on Tuesdays at 9pm on Channel 5.

Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West). Photographs courtsey of Playground Television (UK)
Top Left: Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West), Top Right: Tristan Farnon (Callum Woodhouse), Middle: James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph), Bottom: Mrs Hall (Anna Madeley) Photographs courtsey of Playground Television (UK)
Tristan Farnon (Callum Woodhouse) in tweedss and Fair Isle. Photographs courtsey of Playground Television (UK) .
All Creatures Great and Small series costume designer Ros Little
Mrs Pumphrey (the late Dame Diana Rigg) & Tricki-Woo (Derek). Episode 4 of All Creatures Great and Small was dedicated to Dame Diana. Photographs courtsey of Playground Television (UK)