Dogs, cats, parrots, horses, cows, chickens, sheep, rabbits, parrots – Channel 5’s All Creatures Great and Small has them all. In the Christmas special alone, the vets of Skeldale House have to contend with a sickly donkey and a pregnant sheepdog called Suzy.
But how did they bring them to the small screen? Is the old adage “never work with children or animals” really true? And did Nicholas Ralph (James Herriot) really have to stick his arm up a cow’s behind?
Here are the answers to all those all-important questions.
How did they film the dog giving birth in the Christmas special?
In the 2020 Christmas special, James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) is called out to the Chapmans’ remote cottage when their pregnant collie dog Suzy gets into difficulty during labour. James tries to save an unresponsive puppy while Helen Alderson (Rachel Shenton), Anne Chapman (Cleo Sylvestre) and Bert Chapman (Dave Hill) look on anxiously.
“I mean, I couldn’t believe it when I read the script,” Nicholas Ralph told journalists ahead of the Christmas special. “I was like, this is amazing! For an actor doing a Christmas special and then giving the kiss of life to a puppy – this is going to be amazing… but me and Rachel, first off the bat we were just excited to be working with puppies, we thought we were going to spend three days up in this croft in the middle of nowhere, there’s going to be a bunch of puppies there and it’s going to be fantastic.
“But that wasn’t to be – the puppies were filmed separately.”
A real-life puppy birth was captured on camera and spliced into the episode, and Cleo Sylvestre says she also enjoyed working with the dog who played Suzy (“a real dog, a lovely lovely dog. She was brilliant.”).
However, James’s interactions with the newborn pups were actually filmed using very realistic props.
Do they use real cows for the medical examinations?
Firstly, the question of whether the actors had to get hands-in as well as hands-on: no, they didn’t, fortunately for them (and for the cows).
It’s now very much against the law to for a TV production to perform a medical procedure on an animal which it doesn’t need – and on top of that, animal welfare was top priority on set.
Executive producer Melissa Gallant explained: “We had a wonderful team, and worked with Jill and Dean who are registered animal handlers who selected the right animal and cared for them and looked after them; with a wonderful vet, Andy Barrett, and also with an independent animal welfare advisor. The three of them worked together and very, very meticulously planned everything from how an animal would get to set, preparing them for the conditions, the animal green rooms, what they were doing in between takes, what they needed to make sure that the animals were comfortable and prepared and cared for at any point.”
Instead, the actors made use of a very convincing prosthetic cow bum.
Gallant said: “I remember the production meeting very well where I suggested that perhaps we ought to buy a prosthetic cow’s backside, and so we did. Because, in discussion with Brian [Percival, the director], the important thing was that it always looked and felt real, but that we really respected these wonderful creatures.”
Percival added: “We tended to shoot wide shots or middle-wide shots with the animal, and then once we’d established that, the rest of it then was down to our cast and the prosthetics. So I hate to spoil it, but for 90 percent of those scenes with the animals, the animals actually weren’t there. It was just cleverly chosen and prosthetics and extremely well-trained, happy animals when we did see them. And the rest was down to the tricks of film-making.”
According to Callum Woodhouse, who plays Tristan Farnon, those prosthetics then had to be moved around a bit to look like they were alive: “There are some very well trained props-men as well, working out how to move their legs and tails to make it look perfect.”
But one thing is very real: the calf’s birth that features in episode one. After almost two weeks of waiting around, the crew was able to capture the birth late one Friday night; this was then spliced in seamlessly with footage of the main actors.
Filming with Tricki-Woo the dog
Tricki Woo, the beloved and overly-pampered Pekingese dog belonging to Mrs Pumphrey (Diana Rigg), was played by a canine actor called Derek. (This correspondent actually met Derek on a Zoom call, and can confirm he is a very good-natured and patient chap.)
The drama includes a whole pack of dogs, including Frankums the dachshund, a Golden Retriever, an Alsatian and many more.
How did they film the bull?
The animal actor who plays the Aldersons’ bull caused quite a stir on set – partly because he was so friendly and happy, partly because he had his own ideas about what he wanted to do, and partly because of his blow-dried hair.
“He went wherever he wanted to go,” explained director Brian Percival. “And we had probably the most loveliest friendliest ton-and-a-half of bull, but then the problem is you’re trying to make that look angry and it doesn’t really want to. So the sound department had to do a bit of work on that, I think.
“I was surprised that by the end of that scene, Rachel was leading this bull around and I was thinking, ‘Oh, my lord’. It really was the size of a small house. But lovely with it!”
Rachel Shenton, who stars as Helen Alderson, explained how she decided to step in and lead the bull herself: “We’d gone again and again with it, and then the bull would sort of wander off and do his own thing. It must have happened four or five times, and I just thought, ‘I’m just going to do it’ … [animal handler] Dean said, ‘don’t show the bull that you’re fearful because they can sense it’. So I just faked it and [walked] him around the yard and managed to tie him up.”
And when it rained, the bull had to be given a good blow-dry – for welfare reasons.
“Within that main sequence it was absolutely chucking it down,” executive producer Melissa Gallant recalled. “And we had to make sure, with Jill and Dean’s advice and the vet’s, that the animals weren’t too wet or cold or uncomfortable. And Dean had – it looked like something you’d get from B&Q but a rather industrial hairdryer just to dry him off a bit and keep him warm.”
How did they film the horses?
Essentially, the production team hired a variety of very well-trained horses who could rear and kick on command.
“On day one with the animals we saw how well they were trained and looked after, and you just felt completely comfortable around them,” said Nicholas Ralph.
He found this out first-hand early on in filming, while preparing for a scene with a horse. “It had to kind of kick out and things,” Ralph said. “And I went up to meet the horse previous to shooting the scene, with Mark who trains them, and he said: ‘So the director and the producer would like to see a little bit of the action, but your stunt double can’t be here – do you mind just going in?’
“And this horse was massive, it was a big old horse. It’s rearing up and it’s kicking out, and I was like, ‘Mark, I really don’t think I’ll be anywhere near this horse, if you don’t mind.’
“He was like, ‘Oh no, I’ll go in and I’ll film, it’s cool.’ So I’m filming it, and it’s rearing up and kicking out, and he’s diving, rolling out of the way, and I’m just slowly edging back with the camera.”
And then, when it came to filming the scene for real, “the stunt double did it, and I was watching it, and I thought: ‘You know what, I could maybe give that a try.’ So I went in, and thankfully managed to time it quite well, and I think in the episode it’s actually me. I was really chuffed with that in the end. And that’s just down to how well trained the animals are, and so you feel so confident around them.”
All Creatures Great and Small airs on PBS Masterpiece in the US on Sundays at 9/8c.
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