“You have to be on your toes when you’re working with little Derek [the Pekingese], because nobody’s looking at you.”
Photo: Ed Miller/Playground Television UK Ltd & all3media international
It’s easy to see why All Creatures Great and Small charmed critics this winter as it followed the gentle adventures of newly graduated Scottish veterinarian James Herriot, who lands a job with tough-but-tender animal surgeon Siegfried Farnon, and low-stakes drama ensues in 1930s Yorkshire, England. The rookie vet, played by Nicholas Ralph,
treats sick bovines (Mr. Rudd’s breach cow), equines (Mr. Shaw’s horse with an abscess), canines (Mrs. Pumphrey’s overindulged Pekinese), and felines (Mrs. Dinsdale’s nearly castrated cat) in the farm community of Darrowby.
Ralph himself is also new to the fold — the series is the recent Scottish theater grad’s first TV role. Talking to Vulture about the first season, which ends its U.S. run on PBS Masterpiece tonight with a Christmas special that aired in the U.K. back in December, he says the semi-autobiographical books by James Alfred “Alf” Wight (pen name James Herriot) on which the show is based were his “gospel” while filming. Chatting from London, where he has been quarantining ahead of returning to Yorkshire to film in March, Ralph revealed the lengths to which the production went — vet boot camp, filming live births — to accurately portray “the stars of the show,” the animals. He also explains how the series diverges from the first book when it comes to James’s promotion, and Helen leaving Hugh at the altar.
Note: Extremely low-key spoilers for season one of All Creatures Great and Small lie ahead.
I read the cast did vet boot camp with the series’s veterinary consultant before filming?
Yeah, we did — me, Callum [Woodhouse], and Rachel [Shenton]. Sam [West] couldn’t make it, and did it another day. Straight off the bat with our on-set vet adviser Andy Barrett, we were up close and personal with horses, sheep, kind of going through the procedures and things that we would be doing. Learning how to approach the animal and everything like that. Using the stethoscope on the cow’s heart, then lungs, then stomach: You do this kind of triangle as an initial examination.
For the horse [abscess] in episode one … we went out to these stables and this massive racehorse is standing there. [Andy explained] that the guy who owns the horse and runs the stables used to be a farrier. But he doesn’t do that anymore because one time when he was working on one of the horse’s hooves, the horse actually came down on him and broke his back. This is before we were going in to go through the same exact thing with the horse — lifting up its hoof between our legs. So I was like, “Andy, pick your time when to tell me your stories.” [Laughs.]
Rachel looks so convincing with the huge bull that played Clive.
When we were filming that scene [in episode two], I was up on the wall — and I was very happy to be [there]. The bull kind of did a 180-degree turn and was walking away. I was shocked and almost got down off the wall because I thought, Well, there’s no way he’s going to be coming back. And sure enough, Rachel led him by the halter, and [brought] him back. And that’s the take we ended up using. She handled it so well. You would never know that she just met that bull not many hours before.
What was the trickiest thing to do? You talked about the scene where James gets kicked twice by the horse with the abscess. I’m assuming that was a stunt double?
That was probably one of the trickiest ones, to be honest. Because the animals are so well trained, the kickout was just a similar distance every time, so my stunt double did it. And then I said to the guys in production [that] I thought I could do it: “Let me go in and I’ll give it a shot.” And I managed to get the timing really well, and that’s what they used. So I was really chuffed with that, actually.
That’s really you? The safety and insurance people let that happen?
That’s me, yeah. The director actually thought I got kicked in the face, so that was a good sign. I think there’s a little bit of camera trickery as well, in that it was a really useful angle. So the distance isn’t as close as one might expect.
There are a bunch of scenes in which James sticks a bare arm up inside cows, horses, and dogs. You’re even shirtless when James diagnoses Hugh’s racehorse, Andante. Was that standard procedure?
Yeah, you’re right in there. Now [vets have] a long sleeve that covers their whole arm, going all the way up to the shoulder. Alf Wight as James Herriot says in the book that it’s funny that when birthing a calf, the distance [to it] is just an inch longer than your arm. So you’re right in there really reaching. But yeah, back in the 1930s, it was sleeveless and bare-chested.
It was your first time filming, and you worked with the legendary Diana Rigg, in what turned out to be one of her final roles. Were you nervous or intimidated?
It was an absolute treat. Any nerves that you may have had before meeting were just completely washed away when you did because she was so lovely to chat to, and easy to get along with. She still had a twinkle in her eye, you know, a real wicked sense of humor. But she also kept everybody on their toes. I remember one scene — so we’re in the manor house shooting, and me and Callum are walking in. And she’s all the way off in the distance because these rooms are so grand. [Laughs.] And she said [imitates Rigg], “Oh, come on, come on. Can we not make this entrance a little shorter? My soul is on the floor. [Laughs heartily.] So I think me and Callum jogged in. [Laughs.] Any moments like that, any lulls in a scene, she was right on.
How did she do with Derek, the Pekingese? And will Mrs. Pumphrey be recast?
She got on so well with little Derek. I think it’s hard not to because he’s just so placid. Basically a scene-stealer as well. You have to be on your toes when you’re working with little Derek because nobody’s looking at you.
I don’t know [about recasting]. Mrs. Pumphrey is such a brilliant character, and is there throughout the books. There are some great stories, especially in the second book [when] she gets a pig called Nugent that causes all sorts of havoc.
A large part of the show’s charm is the cast’s chemistry. Were there surprising or particularly memorable moments when filming? Maybe during all those meal scenes at Skeldale house?
We were doing a breakfast scene, and it was around breakfast time. Sam loves black pudding — black pudding is his favorite. So he asked for a good helping. I think he was quite hungry, so he had quite a lot. But then of course we have to do take after take after take. I think by the end, he was sick to the back teeth of black pudding.
When you’re filming in the Yorkshire Dales during autumn and winter, you can get some long, cold, dark days. [Laughs.] So we really kept each other’s spirits up. The five main crew there all the time — Sam, Anna [Madeley], Rachel, Callum, and myself [would] go out for dinners and hang out at the weekends.
You didn’t really drive the vintage cars, right?
I got to drive [both] the big blue one and the Rover soft top. There were only a couple of times when we used the loader. I remember driving the blue car the first time because the only time I’ve seen a gear stick like [that was] the old school bus that used to take me and my brother to school when we were kids. It [has] a long, thin pull with a little knob on the top. When it was in neutral or you were in gear, it swung about side to side as much either way, so you never really knew when you were in gear or not. Just finding a gear … you would just throw it in every general direction and hope something would stick. And the brakes, the pads are made of wood. So you’d slam the brakes on and you would stop eventually at some point along the way. [Laughs.] So it took a bit of getting used to. But then once you were used to it, it was just such a joy driving it, and you couldn’t get me out of it even when we were resetting the cars.
In the final episode, the Chapman dog Suzy’s newborn puppies look real. What were you holding when James is trying to breathe life into the first one?
It was actually a prosthetic puppy that one. I had to hold him in a quite awkward way because my pinky had to flick his tail as I manipulated the upper body to make him kind of squirm and look alive. [Laughs.] But they were real puppies in there with Suzy. That was shot separately and then green-screened in. They found a dog that was pregnant and filmed her giving birth documentary-style. When me and Rachel read the script, we were like, “Oh, brilliant — we’re going to spend the day with puppies.” And then we got there, and there was just one prosthetic. [Laughs.]
That also happened with the birthing of the calf. There was a documentary team with a pregnant cow, and they got the whole birth. And we used that interlaced with me and a prosthetic. Once again, I never got to see the cute young baby animal. [Laughs.]
When James and Helen are stuck together, he begins to tell her how he feels but stops. Instead of going home for Christmas, he turns the Rover around … to do what? Was he going to try and stop the wedding?
I think he’s in this constant battle of heart and mind. He has got these profound feelings for Helen kind of bursting out of him. But he’s keeping a lid on it because he wants to be the good guy as well. He wants to do the right thing. Hugh’s not a bad guy. How would that look if he was to tell Helen [he loves her] the night before her wedding? It’s kind of as he says when he finally reaches the church, “Something inside said I should be here.” Maybe he just had this burning hope that she didn’t go through with it.
Siegfried promotes James to senior vet after he successfully performs surgery on Mr. Rudd’s cow Strawberry in episode six. So maybe he’ll ease up on him next season?
[Laughs.] Siegfried being Siegfried, I don’t see him taking a backseat in any way shape or form. But yeah, he’s got more responsibility now. So hopefully he’ll be trusted a little more … Of course, James and Helen get married at the end of the first book. But with our adaptation, obviously things have slightly changed.
Really, all of the good things happened at once?
Yeah, I think he was almost promoted because Siegfried kind of made a slight joke of, “Well you’re married now. You’re going to have to take in more money than I’m paying you on your current salary, so I’ll promote you.” It’s his way of looking out for James as well as having a lot of respect for [him] and his work ethic.