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It’s been hard to find a glimmer of light in the bleak world we’ve found ourselves inhabiting these past few years. But even an hour’s escape can feel like a much-needed respite. Just think of it: taking the winding roads of Yorkshire, passing the lush, green fields and lively flocks of sheep until you finally see it — Darrowby. You’re in the world of All Creatures Great and Small, and oh, are you lucky. For the past two seasons on PBS’ Masterpiece, American audiences have been treated to the guileless characters of this beloved British series, and the show’s stars, Rachel Shenton and Nicholas Ralph, tell SheKnows they know exactly what the series means for millions of viewers.
“We’ve had so many lovely letters from fans from all over the world saying that this was a real tonic,” Shenton, who plays Helen Alderson, shared exclusively with SheKnows. “I think the world felt very cruel and All Creatures was like a nice medicine. And it reminded us of community and togetherness.”
Indeed, both Shenton and Ralph, who spoke with us prior to the second season’s finale in America, have seen firsthand just how much the show has meant to audiences the world over. From gushing fan mail to generations of families gathering to watch the show and even locals waiting to see the cast and crew film on location, All Creatures Great and Small has proven it isn’t just a touching TV show, it’s medicine for the soul.
“I’ve heard more than one person describe the show as a big hug in a TV show. I think that sums it up,” Ralph, who portrays James Herriot, said of All Creatures. The second season sees James (a proxy for real-life author and veterinarian Alf Wight) travel back to Darrowby after his time working for a modern veterinary clinic in his hometown, Glasgow, in the late 1930s. James has a dilemma this season: go back to Glasgow where his family and the high-tech practice are, or stay in Darrowby along with the characters of Skeldale House and the woman he loves, Helen Alderson.
Both seasons of All Creatures Great and Small are finally able to stream on Amazon Prime Video — which offers a 7-day free trial for its PBS Masterpiece channel. Before you pour yourself a cup of tea and snuggle in for this warm series, read on for our candid conversation with Shenton and Ralph in which they discuss the impact of the show, what they like best about their All Creatures characters, and more.
SheKnows: It felt like the first series of All Creatures Great and Small premiered at a time when the world really needed it. Did you know that this show was going to be special as soon as you started working on it? Or did that feeling hit when you saw the reaction?
Rachel Shenton: I think we did. We obviously could never foresee what was going to happen. We could never foresee the pandemic, none of us could. And we certainly didn’t know it would air at the time. I think the world felt very cruel and All Creatures was like a nice medicine. And it reminded us of community and togetherness. But aside from that, when we first started shooting, I think we were all super excited to be involved in the project. The scripts are amazing. The world Alf Wight created — we felt that Ben Vanstone [series writer and executive producer] really brought that to life and I was so proud to be part of it. Every single department took that really seriously, so it felt like we were creating something [special]. But ultimately, you never know! You don’t know how it’s going to be received and especially that the first show was so loved that we knew we’d got kind of big boots to fill and it could have gone one way or another. So yes, we did, but you just never know, really.
Nicholas Ralph: Likewise, because it was my first job as well. I was just kind of a bit wide-eyed about the whole thing. I remember on day one, I got dropped off at the tech base, where the trailers are and catering is, and I was with one of the execs and I got off and I was like, “Oh, this is so cool!” But like Rachel said, all the right people seem to be in the right places. The chemistry was great on set. I think it was cast superbly well, so we definitely had a lot of fun doing it as well, such a joy making it. But you just never knew until it was out. I mean, the reception took a couple of days, certainly to get over after every episode, because it was just so, so warm. And thankfully it’s continued in that way.
Someone approached me saying that she really struggled with COVID in hospital and then came out. She lives on her own and All Creatures was her thing that she looked forward to every week.
SK: The show has been embraced in the U.K. and across the pond here in America. When you went back for series 2, did you feel a renewed sense of confidence after the warm reception?
NR: I think there’s always that thing about the curse of the second album with bands. And that was definitely on my mind, but that’s with anything you’re doing. Certainly, it was so well-received and so lovely. We wanted to live up to that, of course. And, if anything, keep moving forward and getting bigger and better, as it were. There was definitely bits of nerves. But we have such a good team — Ben Vanstone’s writing; our lead director’s brilliant. I think Sam [Samuel West] commented this is the first time he’d been on set that on the clapperboard, on day one of season two, we had the same director and the same DOP as we had for season one. And it was clapped by the same clapperboard guy with a lot of returning crew as well as cast. So I think that was a good marker for the series as well.
RS: I think the reassurance is always the script. They were just as beautiful and jam-packed with humility and love, all the things that I think makes the series so popular. So that was reassurance. But like Nick said, you still do definitely feel the pressure of going, “Oh God, I hope we can do it again really well.”
SK: I know a lot of fans and audiences have asked you both about what comes next. But have you had experiences of people telling you what the show means to them during this time? How it’s been a bright light in a very bleak world?
RS: Yes! And on more than one occasion, actually. I feel so spoiled with that, because as I said before it came out when the world didn’t really know what on Earth was going on. It was an unprecedented time — we were in the middle of a global pandemic, no one knew what was going on; no one knew when the end was at that point, either. We’ve had so many lovely letters from fans from all over the world saying that this was a real tonic. And they managed to watch the show with three generations of their family because they were locked down, sometimes with mom and dad and grandparents. Everybody was able to watch the show and enjoy it together, which I think is really unique about the show, as well.
And then, only a couple weeks ago, I was out with one of my friends and someone approached me saying that she really struggled with COVID in hospital and then came out. She lives on her own and All Creatures was her thing that she looked forward to every week. Those kinds of messages are lovely, really. I feel very lucky when people say those things.
The fact that generations can sit together and watch this show may add to its success. Even that in itself unites people.
NR: I’ve heard more than one person describe the show as a big hug in a TV show. I think that sums it up. Like with Rachel, it was either letters from fans or just bumping into people in the street and them saying just how much the program seemed to come at just the right time for them, for various reasons. I actually met this one young girl who’s studying to be an actress and she followed us with her family. So she had her mum and her dad and her aunt and uncle, they would follow us around and they were like, “Oh, we’re so glad to have caught you at this location because we were at the last two and we just missed you!”
They were all so lovely about it. They were like, “we’ve been watching season one in preparation to come up and see you guys filming season two.” They talked about just how wonderful it was, how it came at the right time. Things like that, it’s just incredible.
SK: One of my favorite elements of the show is how there’s no clear antagonist. It’s something writer and producer Ben Vanstone has spoken about. Do you think that’s one of the series’ greatest strengths?
RS: Yes, Ben [Vanstone] said really early on to us that there was going to be no baddies in the series and it’s so fresh, isn’t it? We’re used to seeing content that is kind of hard-hitting and gritty — probably what we see most of at the moment, anyway. It’s so refreshing that these scripts are steeped in community and togetherness and love and really highlights that it was tough. Farming was tough; money was tight. These families really struggled. It was kind of the community and the togetherness that kept everybody smiling. And that within itself is refreshing. And every time I read a script, that’s what jumps off the page: that real sense of warmth and togetherness.
NR: Like Rachel says, [the stories are] just steeped in love, kindness and compassion, not only for the animals, but for one another. We don’t have any pantomime baddie or anything coming in. But we do have, of course, a variety of characters and some have different qualities and idioms and different traits. What I mean is it’s not twee. It’s not all cutesy.
But the people who may be hard up on their luck or they’re a bit grumpy, there’s a reason for that. We still have people that are rubbed up the wrong way, can’t catch a break in life and things like that. But every script is full of that love and kindness.
RS: It’s truthful. It’s not twee. It might make it sound like it’s edging on the side of sweet. Yes, it’s sweet. Maybe it’s sickly sweet, but it’s not at all.
NR: Or this little town and its inhabitants where everybody’s just tickety-boo. Because it is very truthful and the life of a vet is very hard and the life of these farmers is very hard. One animal going down can be the end of their whole family. So there are no baddies, but they still get some grumpy old farmers in there.
SK: It’s also nearly devoid of cynicism. Are there other elements you feel set All Creatures Great and Small apart from other TV fare out there?
RS: I think certainly the characters have integrity. There’s an integrity to Darrowby, there’s a realness to Darrowby and to the lives of the people that live there. As we just spoke about before, you know it’s tough — times were hard. It doesn’t shy away from that. And it really is the community spirit that pulls everybody together. I guess that’s more rare now to see it in a TV show and, just from a practical sense, as I mentioned before, the fact that generations can sit together and watch this show may add to its success. Even that in itself unites people.
SK: This season in particular is all about new beginnings: blossoming relationships, love, babies are born, even Tricki Woo gets his own storyline about a neighborhood dog he falls for! Did either of you find that was the clear theme right from the off? Or did you start to pick up on it as the scripts for new episodes continued to come in?
RS: I certainly remember from the off thinking there was more romance all around, really. It was shot in spring as well. Obviously, the first one we shot in the winter months so that in itself felt quite light and hopeful and leant to the romance.
When we get scripts, we’re genuinely excited. Usually one of us is reading them before texting, “Have you got to this page yet?”
NR: Some of the first things I was doing was…there were lambs being born in the field. And then the next minute, we’re at the Daffodil Ball with Helen and James dancing. I think new beginnings and romance certainly even just from that first episode, you could see these two characters being re-introduced to one another, James and Helen, under these new circumstances, both being single, tentatively stepping towards one another. You could see love was in the air.
SK: What are some qualities you admire most about your characters? What piece of them do you hope to always hold on to?
NR: His kindness and compassion not only for the animals but for people. You can’t have enough of that. I also really like that he has so much patience and understanding. At the same time, he has a backbone and he’ll stand up for himself when pushed too far or when it’s the health and well-being of the animal that’s being put second. He will always put that first and he’s not scared to stand up to anybody. There’s a lot of strength there and dignity.
RS: [Helen] has a strong moral compass. I think both of the characters, James and Helen, are actually similar in that way. They’re both people who do what’s right and not what’s easy. We’ve seen that numerous times with Helen. She’s been in situations with Hugh [Matthew Lewis], and the bull, and the family — marrying Hugh, even. There were situations that would’ve made her life and the life of her family much easier, and she didn’t do it. That’s indicative of her [character]. I like that she tries to do the right thing and I’d like to think I do, I hope. She’s very kind, very thoughtful.
SK: The show has already been renewed for a third and fourth series. Are you nervous about the direction the show could be heading? Do you find yourselves going back to read Alf Wight’s original books for any reassurance? Or are you excited to see where this iteration of the show goes?
NR: I’m just reading books three and four now. I’ve been getting up to speed with it all. It’s so exciting! There’s so many brilliant stories in there. Of course, [World War II] is also looming. There’s all sorts of play and there’s various different stakes at different moments. But I’ve got complete faith in Ben Vanstone’s writing and that of the writing team and all the execs on the show. I’m as excited as any viewers to see what happens!
RS: When we get scripts, we’re genuinely excited. Usually one of us is reading them before texting, “Have you got to this page yet?” It’s really exciting for us to read them. And I’m doing the same: I’m reading the next couple of books at the moment and picking out moments going, “I hope that’s in,” and it’s great. We’ve got a lot of faith in Ben, we’ve got no reason not to.
SK: What’s been the most rewarding part thus far of being on All Creatures Great and Small?
RS: The most rewarding part…It sounds so cheesy but everybody gets on incredibly well. And we’re really a good team. And when we’re shooting up north we’re going out together, we socialize together. I know that’s not always the way on shows. I feel very, very proud to be part of a team that is so together and [there] for each other. Everybody’s out to make the show the best it can be. And I think that bleeds onto the screen. I hope so.
NR: I agree with that. Just like Rachel said, everybody’s so together it really was a joy to make the series. And I remember some of the more experienced actors saying to me, “Don’t get used to this on set, because it’s not always like this.” It is just such a treat. And that hand-in-hand with, as we talked about earlier, the show seeming to come at the right time for a lot of people and people saying it’s like a tonic — those two things probably hand-in-hand.
SK: If you could describe All Creatures Great and Small in one word, what would it be?
NR: I’m going to say joy.
RS: I’ll say love.
NR: That’s what I was going to say!
RS: He wasn’t! He wasn’t, he does this all the time.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
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