Before playing veterinarian James Herriot in the remake of “All Creatures Great and Small,” actor Nicholas Ralph read all of his books, visited the university archives in Glasgow and absorbed a biography his son wrote.
But Ralph steered clear of the first series, which aired in the 1970s. “I watched one episode but I didn’t want to watch anymore because, even subconsciously, you could end up copying things and (they could) come into your own form.”
The 30-year-old newcomer instead dug into that biography and realized Herriot was ill during his years at Glasgow Veterinary College. “He had one of the highest absentees but he was always within the top three of all the classes,” Ralph says. “It just showed me straight away not only the intelligence of the man but more the hard work and the passion he had for that to happen. That gives you so much to work with an actor.”
Growing up in Scotland, Ralph didn’t have a lot of pets but he was just as passionate about his choice of careers as Herriot.
“When I wanted to be an actor…I never looked back from that moment onwards. As far as being studious in general, when it came to acting, I absolutely was.”
To approximate what veterinary medicine was like in 1930s Scotland, Ralph worked with advisors who walked him through the moves of all sorts of procedures.
For the birth of a calf, they used a prosthetic animal. “It doesn’t have much life in it, as it were,” Ralph says during a Zoom conference. “So we had one of the art department guys lying under this clump of hay and he’s got both the legs and the tail of the calf.”
The veterinarian on duty advised them not to move the legs and the tail at the same time. “If you move a leg and then the tail is kind of a swishing motion, so it’s a swish, leg, right leg, swish, swish, leg, swish right leg,” Ralph remembers him saying. “We had like five minutes of this master class of how to manipulate the back end of a cow.” The result was highly believable.
When the miniseries did employ real animals, they were well trained.
“When we started, we really didn’t know how difficult or easy working with the animals would be,” says Samuel West, who plays Siegfried Farnon. “The only days we finished early were the days we were working with the animals. They were much more reliable than the humans on the whole.”
Ralph, who had spent much of his career in the theater, was wowed by everything the miniseries had to offer.
When he asked actor Callum Woodhouse where he might go for breakfast, Woodhouse had to point out food was always available on set – for free. “All this and free food,” Ralph says with a smile.
West says he was impressed with Ralph’s ability to make the medical scenes look so believable. He was able to “give an incredible impression of the physical difficulty of the job of being a vet. We don’t want to pretend that this is an easy job. It is mostly lying on cold floors in the middle of the night, getting exhausted and failing at things.”
While the first version of “All Creatures” wasn’t a part of the “Masterpiece” franchise, the remake seemed a good fit for the series and for PBS’ 50th anniversary.
“We felt there was a way to make it work for a contemporary audience, even though it was set in (the 1930s),” Executive Producer Colin Callendar says. “The psychological underpinning of the characters could be explored more fully. We clearly had the opportunity to shoot on glorious high-definition technology that would bring the world of the Dales back to life.”
During the first series’ run, families sat together and watched the show. “My feeling was that audiences want that,” Callendar says. “And that’s exactly what happened during the lockdown.”
In addition to giving female roles more prominence, the new series emphasizes the humor in Herriot’s book.
“The two shows,” Callendar says, “can live comfortably and respectfully side by side.”