All Creatures Great and Small returns to the TV screens
- Credit: Playground Television (UK) Ltd.
As the hit 1970s TV show All Creatures Great and Small is reincarnated for a new generation, we meet its stars
It’s an irrefutable fact that the brand new adaption of All Creatures Great and Small has big shoes to fill. The original series was an icon of Sunday night television throughout the 1970s and 80s, its beloved cast starring Robert Hardy, Christopher Timothy and Peter Davidson, bringing to life the heart-warming, often absurd stories of real-life veterinary surgeon Alf Wight, aka James Herriot.
Yet, with a roll call of top flight names, including theatre stalwart and star of Mr Selfridge, Sam West as Siegfried and Oscar winning actress and screenwriter Rachel Shenton as Helen, along with future heart throb, Nicholas Ralph as the new James Herriot, Channel 5 has surely struck gold. Add in the backdrop of the Yorkshire Dales and it’s hardly surprising there’s already talk of a Christmas special.
‘We thought the challenge would be finding 1937,’ explains Richard Burrell the show’s producer, ‘but then when you’re in the Dales, it’s there!’ An early decision to discount Thirsk, the spiritual home of James Herriot and Askrigg, the location of the original show because of their major A roads, made finding the new Darrowby a critical first task.
‘There were such a lot of potential Darrowbys to explore,’ says Richard, ‘but the moment we stood in Grassington and looked around we just said, ‘This is it’.’
Already famous for its timeless charm, Grassington’s transformation into a busy and bustling 1930s Darrowby is something to behold. The Devonshire inn has stepped back 90 years to become the Drovers Arms and the village’s bakery, the eponymous Darrowby Cycles. With Mrs Pumphrey’s (played by Dame Diana Rigg) pied-à-terre sited at the Grade I listed Broughton Hall near Skipton and further location filming of weddings and country shows taking place at Arncliffe and Burnsall, the Dales couldn’t wish for a better showcase. Indeed Tristan, played by the delightful Callum Woodhouse (well known as Leslie in The Durrells), adds, ‘I do find it very similar to Corfu in just how beautiful it is. Anywhere you look it’s stunning, just with added rain really.’
Underpinned by the support and involvement of Alf Wight’s children, this adaptation aims to not only bring their father’s beloved stories to a new generation – which it does, with virtually every episode lifted straight from the books, but to also ensure its animals are resolutely centre stage too. The adoration of the cast for the likes of Clive the bull, George the donkey and Derek who “punched through quite quickly” as Mrs Pumphrey’s pampered Pekinese, Tricky Woo, is palpable, as it is for Andy, ‘our brilliant vet’, who worked with the original Siegfried, Donald Sinclair, towards the end of his life. A connection all the more significant when one discovers that Donald’s profound attachment to animals was forged through his experiences in World War I where he’d witnessed first-hand the terrible atrocities inflicted on them.
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And, despite viewers of the original series no doubt remembering Christopher Timothy’s arm disappearing into the back end of a birthing cow, in keeping with its spiritual roots, this new adaptation resolutely aims to become the benchmark in how animals should be treated during filming. Sam West confirms that questions now have to be asked, such as, ‘Is this animal trained to do this? Or does it need this examination? If the answer is no, then it can’t be done.’ Adding, ‘so we’ve had to do it in other ways but it will still be completely believable, which is the way it should be.’
The other big revision for this modern production is the portrayal of women. We now see Helen Alderson, the future Mrs Herriot, as a fully rounded character in her own right. By Rachel Shenton’s own admission, she also has ‘the best wardrobe’, a befitting accolade for one of the first women in the area to wear trousers. Shenton also describes Helen as ‘a real coper’, running the home and family farm following the death of her mother. Siegfried’s housekeeper Mrs Hall played by Anna Madeley, previously of Patrick Melrose and The Crown, also becomes an influential presence at Skeldale House surgery, instrumental in encouraging the eccentric Siegfried to recruit James.
Satisfying our craving for nostalgia, Alf Wight’s heart-warming and humorous stories are sure to be a hit. Nevertheless, the simpler times they depict also brought their challenges, as Sam West warns, ‘there’s a terrible thing that happens to one of the animals in an earlier episode which absolutely wouldn’t happen now.’ A reminder that 1937 was a world on the cusp of the modern medicine and antibiotics we take for granted today.
In a strangely prescient way, the new series of All Creatures Great and Small might just offer us an intriguing parallel to our own world which waits with bated breath for the approval of a vaccine for Covid 19. ‘What’s at the heart of the books is community and the feeling that you’re greater than the sum of your parts,’ confirms West. ‘These are feelings that we need at the moment and they feel like things we’ve lost.’ A timely and edifying endorsement for the enduring appeal of James Herriot.
A vet’s life
Since their first publication in 1970, the beloved books of James Alfred Wight OBE published under the pen name James Herriot have held a special place in people’s hearts throughout the world. Never out of print, the books have sold 60 million copies internationally, becoming a global cultural phenomenon with devoted fans around the world.
Alf Wight graduated from Glasgow Veterinary College at the age of 23, before heading to Donald Sinclair’s veterinary practice in Thirsk. His debut novel as James Herriot was If Only They Could Talk – which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year – was followed up with It Shouldn’t Happen to Vet. Wight published eight books as part of his original James Herriot series, along with several books for children.
The multi award winning The World of James Herriot in Thirsk is celebrating the 50th anniversary of If Only They Could Talk with a series of special activities and online podcasts and videos featuring Alf Wight. Visit worldofjamesherriot.com for further details.