Since their first publication in 1970, the books of James Alfred Wight, published under the pen name James Herriot, have captivated readers around the world. Never out of print, the books have sold over 60 million copies. They chronicle the adventures of a young country veterinarian in 1930’s Yorkshire.
In 1978, the British series based on the novels, All Creatures Great and Small, premiered on the BBC. It starred Christopher Timothy as James Herriot and Robert Hardy as Siegfried Farnon (based on Wight’s friend and mentor Donald Sinclair).
On September 1, 2020, a new six-part miniseries adaptation will premiere in England on Channel 5. Unfortunately, America will have to wait a few months. There it will be shown from January 2021, when it will be presented by Masterpiece on PBS.
Newcomer Nicholas Ralph stars as James Herriot and Samuel West portrays his employer Sigfried Farnon. Along with Executive Producer, Colin Callender, the actors talked with the TV Critics Association about their new production of the classic collection of stories.
Mr Callender, why did you decide to set this in period rather than update it?
Colin Callender: We never for a second thought about setting it present day. The whole point of revisiting the series was that we felt that the audience (had) an appetite for harking back to days gone by. A time when family and community were the core values at the heart of British life.
My feeling was that we are living in such a difficult and problematic time, this series would be re-embraced because of that. That was before COVID-19, and I think those considerations are as relevant, if not more so, than ever. We felt there was a way to make it work for a contemporary audience, even though it was set in the period.
I was an enormous fan of the original series and hold it with great affection. We set out very clearly not to try to remake the original, but to create a new adaptation.
I would venture to say that if there’s anybody out there that was a great fan of the original series, I think they will embrace this with the same vigor. And I hope we are going to attract a whole new generation of audiences to the show.
First filmed role
Nicholas, as James Herriot, you play somebody who is good at what he does, but he’s suddenly overwhelmed because he’s in a brand-new situation. That’s got to seem like your real life, because this is your first filmed role. What was the experience like?
Nicholas Ralph: It’s been absolutely incredible from start to finish. On our first day, it felt a little bit surreal. I still have moments where I pinch myself. I can’t really believe it’s happening. It is a dream job. Everyone was so lovely.
My first day was with Sam, he was just magic from start to finish. Any questions I had, he was always helpful.
Samuel West: Yeah, I had about 24 hours to lord it over Nick, because I knew (it was) his first day on the set, by which point he was an absolute natural and happy as a clam. So I did my first day as well as I could.
Nicholas, did you read all the books and watch the ‘70s TV series?
Nicholas: Yes, I am a big believer in research, and I love to do it.
With regards to the first series that came out, during the audition process, to get a head start, I watched one episode. But I didn’t want to watch anything more because even subconsciously you could end up copying things. Christopher Timothy was James Herriot in the first series.
I read all the books, and I even went down to Glasgow at the university archive and I found James Herriot — or the man himself, James Alfred Wight’s scores and his absences from the days when he was in Glasgow Veterinary College.
In the biography his son wrote, he was a little bit ill during that period. Something you noticed is that of the people that passed, (he had) one of the highest absentees, but he was always within the top three of all the classes.
It just showed me straight away not only the intelligence of the man, but more the hard work and the passion he had for the (profession) for that to happen.
Were there any animals that were too difficult to deal with?
Samuel: I think when we started we didn’t really know how difficult or easy working with the animals would be. It is very difficult to timetable a shot with a bull if you don’t know how it is going to behave.
In fact, the only days we finished early were the days we were working with animals. They were much more reliable than the humans on the whole, apart from the cats.
Andy Barrett, our vet, had actually studied with Donald Sinclair, the original Siegfried. And on the very first day, the scene where James meets the horse for the very first time, he gave me something. He said, ‘You might want to use this,’ and he handed me a hoof knife. And written in faded Biro on it was ‘D. Sinclair.’ That is the original Siegfried’s hoof knife, which we use in that scene. That was our first day filming, wasn’t it, Nick? Andy had worked with him when he was very young. I said, ‘Was he eccentric?’ And he said, ‘No, he was mad.’
Siegfried is crustier than we saw in the last series.
Samuel: I agree. He is a bit crustier than Robert Hardy, whom I worked with and loved. It is interesting, if you look at the original series in the 1970s, it doesn’t quite know whether it is a sitcom or a comedy-drama.
Siegfried was a bachelor in the original series, but he’s a widower in this one with a war record and he’s emotionally blocked. So he does come across as crusty. What was lovely was to be approaching something which I hope is very funny, but from a psychologically true point-of-view in terms of its backstory.
Colin, is this something that could be a continuing series?
Colin: Absolutely, in fact we are in discussions with Channel 5 in England and Masterpiece (in the US) about developing Season 2 right now. So there’s every intention that this will be a returning series. Hopefully, everyone will fall in love with the characters and (will) want (it) to run and run. Certainly that was our ambition from the outset.