We hardly knew how much we needed a reboot of All Creatures Great and Small until it arrived on Channel 5 this autumn and provided some welcome comfort and calm during what’s been a difficult year for us all.
Happily, such was the channel’s confidence in the revival, a Christmas special was commissioned as part of series one. It promises to be a typically cockle-warming affair with a subplot – no spoilers here – that tackles an eternally relevant issue with sensitivity and grace.
“This story is about the togetherness of the village,” says Rachel Shenton, who plays farmer Helen Alderson, the love interest of Yorkshire vet James Herriot. “I think it feels very relevant at the moment. It’s nice to watch nice stories. There are no murders, stabbings or car chases. Well, not yet…”
Shenton and her co-star Nicholas Ralph, who plays Herriot, were fully aware of the legacy of the previous BBC adaptation of Alf Wight’s memoirs. These were big muddy boots to fill.
“When we were filming up in the Yorkshire Dales,” says Shenton, “word quickly got round that we were shooting All Creatures, so the locals would come over and say, ‘Oh, this is great!’ But it always came with the caveat, ‘Don’t mess it up!’ So we definitely felt the pressure.”
They needn’t have worried. Viewers, critics and even Christopher Timothy, who played Herriot in the original BBC version, have warmly embraced this revival. “Christopher sent a really sweet and lovely email to our production team saying he really enjoyed it,” says Ralph.
According to Ralph and Shenton, WC Fields’s oft-repeated warning to never work with children or animals didn’t apply here. “Funnily enough, they’re the scenes that always go smoothly,” says Shenton. “Maybe it’s because of the anticipation of things going wrong, but generally they’re great. I remember one scene where 15 animals were involved. And it was easy, we finished on time. They all knew their lines.”
Ralph concurs. “The animals are impeccably trained. Early on, I was working with a horse who had to kick me in the face, which was quite intimidating, but from day one, there’s been nothing else to worry about.”
Ralph particularly enjoyed working with Derek the pekinese, who plays Tricki Woo, the pampered pup belonging to Mrs Pumphrey, played by the late Dame Diana Rigg.
“Little Derek would grumble back at you every time you asked him a question,” he laughs. “‘Tricki, have you been eating too much?’ And he’d always go, ‘Grrrr.’ When making All Creatures, I certainly felt that all the right people were in all the right places. The actors, the animals and their handlers, the writers, producers, directors, the crew, we were just surrounded by quality on every front, which really inspired me every day.”
The imperious Mrs Pumphrey was the swansong for Dame Diana, who died in September, (she also appears in BBC One’s Christmas drama Black Narcissus). Ralph recalls a “wonderful” few days filming with Rigg at the Yorkshire Dales stately home Broughton Hall. “She was really lovely to chat to, and she kept everyone on their toes,” he says. “We had 30 extras and 30 crew, and whenever we’d finish a scene, Dame Diana would ask, ‘Are we going again?’ We had 60 people to reset! But she would just casually say, ‘OK. Well, when you’re ready, let me know.’ She was great.”
The good news is that there will be another series, although when exactly is up in the air at the moment for obvious reasons. “We’d love to do it, so fingers crossed we’ll eventually get the official green light,” says Ralph. “Hopefully, it will be around springtime. We filmed the first series in winter, so filming at a different time of year gives you various opportunities regarding things like the lambs being in spring, the sort of things people would love to see, and I’d love to act with.”
Shelton adds with a smile: “This sounds cheesy as hell, but the team are just so great. We were all genuinely excited about bringing this world that Alf Wight created to life, and capturing the essence of the characters, the people, the richness of those stories.”