Oh poor James Herriot! All Creatures Great and Small‘s earnest young vet was having an excellent night at the Drover’s Arms celebrating his birthday and his surprise promotion… until he found out that the woman he loves is now engaged to be married.
Yes, Helen Alderson (Rachel Shenton) has agreed to tie the knot with wealthy landowner Hugh Hulton (Matthew Lewis). Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) is, of course, utterly heartbroken.
The series finale ends with an emotional Herriot leaving the pub alone. But he’s soon joined by his boss Siefried Farnon (Samuel West), as well as Tristan Farnon (Callum Woodhouse) and Mrs Hall (Anna Madeley), and together they head home to Skeldale House.
Addressing the heart-breaking storyline, Samuel West tells RadioTimes.com: “It’s absolutely right that James should be – James is a passionate young man who feels deeply and the object of his affections is engaged to somebody else. He does his best to deal with it, but I think it would be wrong to minimise that.
“But I mean – it’s got to have some structure, so even if you’re hoping for a happy ending you can’t get there too quickly.”
Over the first six episodes, Glaswegian James Herriot has settled into life in Yorkshire as a country vet. It hasn’t always been smooth, especially after he had to euthanise Hugh’s prized racehorse – but the community has come to accept and respect him.
He’s also earned the approval of Mr Farnon, who has just promoted him to Senior Vet.
Anna Madeley says: “I think it’s really lovely to have that sense of, he feels nice and established now – and you have gone on a journey from the beginning of the series where he turned up and this was his dream, to be a vet, and he’s managed to settle into the small community and be accepted and get to know everybody, so that’s been a really lovely journey and I think that’s rounded off on a really happy note.”
And there’s still more to come. This Christmas, All Creatures Great and Small will return for a Christmas special – and Madeley hints that this isn’t the end for Helen and James.
“I don’t know how much we’re allowed to say but I think there’s going to be quite an exciting storyline on the broken hearts front,” the actress tells us.
(*Historical spoiler alert*: the real-life James Herriot, who was called Alf Wight, did marry his love interest Helen Alderson – aka Joan. It remains to be seen how closely the drama will follow that love story, and what complications might arise on the way.)
The series finale also features an intense medical storyline, as James Herriot fights to save Strawberry the cow from a fast-growing abscess that is blocking her throat and will soon stop her breathing altogether.
As for how they filmed these scenes, West explains: “There’s a real cow for some of it, and there is a prosthetic back end of a cow for another bit, and there’s a prosthetic neck… it’s all animatronic. It’s done with hydraulics.”
Madeley adds: “The incredible guys have been building prosthetic parts of animals for us, which is absolutely amazing. The actual huge cow came into the barn and filmed with us for what we needed, and then when they went in to do the operation it’s all prosthetics.
“So it’s quite fun to film because you’ve got various different people around operating breathing muscles and steam coming out of noses and all sorts of details that make it look great.”
When the abscess bursts, the pus itself is pretty gruesome. “I don’t know what they used,” West says. “What would you use? Condensed milk with a bit of food colouring, or something? I don’t know. It’s quite convincing I seem to remember.”
But one sadness for the All Creatures Great and Small team is the loss of Dame Diana Rigg, who played Pekingese Tricki Woo’s rich (and eccentric) owner Mrs Pumphrey in the show. It was one of her final acting roles before her death in September 2020 at the age of 82.
At the time, executive producer Colin Callender said in a statement: “All of us at All Creatures Great and Small are heartbroken by the passing of Dame Diana Rigg, one of the greats of British acting royalty. From day one we wanted Dame Diana to play James Herriot’s iconic character Mrs Pumphrey and we were thriller when she said yes. She embraced the role with reckless abandon and brought to the screen enormous glamour, dignity and self-deprecating wit. We were deeply privileged to have worked with her. She will be deeply missed.”
“She was extraordinary, actually,” West says. “It’s quite hard to think of her not being with us any more, because she was so full of life. She had an extraordinary energy and an extraordinary playfulness and an unerring ability to head towards the most attractive men on the set and spend her time with them! And I was never one of them.
“But she was terrific – and what a wonderful performance… We were very lucky to have her while we did. And I don’t know – she knew she was ill for quite a long time, and I don’t know if she did while she was with us, but if she did she certainly didn’t mention it.”
Dame Diana’s death leaves a question-mark over the future of Mrs Pumphrey: if All Creatures gets a second series, will the role be re-cast or written out?
“I don’t know,” West tells us. “I mean – in the books there are a lot of delightful stories about Mrs Pumphrey that we haven’t touched on yet. I haven’t spoken to the producers about it, I imagine they would want to include those because they’re such good stories. And she gets a pig at one point, which is rather nice – and turns out to be just as wearing about the pig as she is about Tricki Woo!
“And I suppose they will recast. But that’s a difficult job, because she is – in a very real sense of the word – irreplaceable.”
All Creatures Great and Small will be out on DVD and available to stream on Acorn TV from 23 November. While you’re waiting visit our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight, or check out our guide to new TV shows 2020 to find out what’s airing this autumn and beyond.