Helen Alderson takes care of almost everyone in the farming village of Darrowby — but actor Rachel Shenton thinks the confirmed second season of All Creatures Great and Small should give Helen some time for herself. Shenton defends her character’s choices and praises her costumes in a new interview.
Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
Spoiler alert: she didn’t go through with it. Granted, few of us watching Helen Alderson and her just-not-quite right beau, Hugh, fumble towards marriage this season of All Creatures Great and Small actually wanted them to tie the knot.
Helen I used to sit for hours watching it fall past my window when I was a kid.
James Are you okay?
Helen Everybody wants to talk about the wedding. I just… I’d rather talk about anything but.
Jace All season, viewers have watched Helen and veterinarian James Herriot awkwardly avoid expressing how they might really feel about each other — and, to be sure they still haven’t quite yet.
Anne Does she know?
James Know what?
Anne It don’t come along very often – even when it makes life hard.
James She’s marrying Hugh tomorrow.
Anne Yet here she is the night before her wedding, up in the high Dales with your sorry looking face.
Jace But any real Herriot fan knows where this narrative is headed — and while we won’t spoil it here for you ahead of the upcoming second season of this series, we’ll just share some of our favorite Helen and James moments and hope you read between the lines.
Helen Alright there Triss, didn’t know you were back?
Tristan I assume you’ve missed me terribly.
Helen Oh I don’t know how I’ve coped. James, I barely recognize you with your clothes on.
Tristan Wait? What?
James I was swimming. It’s nothing.
Jace Rachel Shenton is only the third Academy Award winner we’ve had here on the podcast, and she joins us to talk farming, the Dales, and the power of accepting an Oscar in British Sign Language.
Jace And this week we are joined by All Creatures Great and Small star Rachel Shenton. Welcome.
Rachel Hello, thank you for having me.
Jace My pleasure. Helen Alderson is the first character James encounters in All Creatures Great and Small. And she’s a cracking character. She’s independent, confident, modern. She leads a two ton bull around on a lead. What did you make of Helen as a character when you first read the script?
Rachel When I first read the script, Helen’s directness was what initially jumped off the page and the scene that I that I got sent, first off was the scene in the first episode where she is wrangling the bull and she kind of you know, she’s got a chicken tucked under one arm and she hands the chicken to James and then moves the bull round, all while she’s having a conversation. I thought, ‘Wow, this girl is really capable.’ And so, yeah, that was probably my first impression, just her directness, really, and that kind of no nonsense attitude. But she’s in but not in the sort of obvious way either, because I cast her as being quite nuanced and sensitive as well. So and yeah, that, really.
Jace I do want to talk about that scene at the Alderson farm, which is sort of the true first interaction between Helen and James.
Helen Go on, get! Oh…hold this one for me. Thanks. Come here you! Come here! That’s it. Thanks. Just don’t look him in the eye. That’s them sorted. Sorry about Clive, he’s a miserable devil at the best of times.
James Who’s Clive?
Helen This one. Need a hand down?
James No, I can manage.
Jace How terrifying was it to take control of Clive the bull here? And can you talk about filming this sequence?
Rachel Oh, my goodness. So before we filmed that, I said to Dean, which is our brilliant animal handler, ‘Look, I need to, I need to meet Clive,’ Jester is his real name. Clive’s just his character name. ‘I need to I need to meet Clive,’ because what is most important for me is obviously Helen’s grown up on a farm, she’s grown up with these animals. I imagine she was kind of on a farm, on the tractor as a toddler. And this is all very normal to her. So it was really important that it felt like that. So I said, you know, ‘Can I can I just meet him before?’ ‘Yeah, of course, of course,’ so they drove me up to the field where he was and I just remember walking over to him and being like, ‘Dean — how much does he weigh just out of interest?’ And Dean went, ‘Oh, hard to say, but almost I’d say about two tons.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, my God!’ And then I remember calling my mom after just going, ‘Mom, his head is like the bonnet of my car,’ like, he was gigantic. But had a real gentleness about him because he was hand-reared. So he’s used to being around people. And so he really wasn’t, other than his size, which is very scary when you sort of looked at his eyes and, you know, tickled his nose. And it was actually a real gentle giant and was good. I mean, you know, he knew all his lines and hit his marks, he was far more professional than Nick a lot of the time.
Jace I asked Nicholas about this, but I’d love to get your read as well. The way that this sequence plays out, it subverts our expectations of how James and Helen should behave as romantic leads. Does this situation, James, being so skittish around Clive that he’s jumped up onto a wall, offer a reversal of gender expectations that that sets up their dynamic?
Rachel Yes. Yeah, I think I think it definitely does. And I actually think the way James is. In that scene is really refreshing for Helen, because she’s not used to being around that kind of man, because most of the men in her life are kind of big, burly farmers, her dad’s like that, all the men in the village are like that straight talking, you know, kind of sausage fingers, outdoorsy men. And James is and isn’t. And he’s disarming in that way. And so I actually think that their dynamic is is an interesting one in the way that he is is is what gets Helen to, I guess, show a different side of her really, and allow herself to be a different side. I think he really draws that out of her.
Jace I mean, those scenes between Helen and James play out with this sort of delicious awkwardness that’s really just a joy to behold. I mean, for all of Helen’s confidence. James is so sort of insecure and nervous around her. What is Nicholas Ralph like as a scene partner for all of these Helen-James scenes?
Rachel Oh, horrible. You know, I’m of course joking. Nick’s brilliant and there’s a real easiness to Nick as a person, I think, you know, and we get on very well, and we laugh all the time and we don’t I don’t think we probably take each other very seriously at all. In fact, I mean, I can recall like maybe on one hand the serious conversations we’ve had, but mostly it’s just sort of banter and laughter and things. And I think or I hope that that transcends on onto the screen. He’s great to work with. I still can’t believe it was his first TV job. I mean, I just it’s unbelievable.
Jace You got to meet Rosie and Jim, the real life children of Alf and Joan Wight, what was it like meeting them? And how did it help inform your performances, Helen?
Rachel Oh, it was such a treat to meet them, because doing the show, obviously, we did have a kind of wealth of of research and things that we could draw on, if you will, because we, of course, had the books which were written so brilliantly by Alf Wight and kind of acted as the bible all the way through it, really. And then there’s the Heriot Museum in Yorkshire and there’s there’s lots of things that were helping us, lots of even through sort of local villages in Yorkshire, had their own stories and stuff. And I know Andy, our vet, knew Siegfried’s character in real life. So we had all this and it was great. But then to speak to Jim and Rosie was just you almost felt like you’d peeked behind the curtain because they knew they knew Helen, of course, and James and all the characters from a totally different perspective. It was their mum. And they gave us some really lovely little nuggets of wisdom that we just couldn’t have found anywhere else. You know, like they they told us that with Helen, if anybody was to tell a kind of cheeky joke or something that was a bit near the mark, it would always be Helen. And that made me laugh. And it wouldn’t be James would always be her. And she was the kind of force behind a lot of his career and a lot of his career decisions. You know, she was the one that sort of pushed him and was a bit of a bit of a moral compass at times, which is interesting.
Jace You mentioned that Helen probably grew up sort of on a tractor. You receive tractor lessons, but I heard that filming on the tractor didn’t go so well. What happened?
Rachel Where did you hear that? Who’s told you that?
Jace I hear these things.
Rachel That’s not true. I yeah, I did have tractor lessons, which was great. But I mean, driving the tractor itself is quite difficult. But I’d go I’d got my head around it, I’d got the hang of it. But one one shot in particular was…I think it’s episode two. And there’s a gorgeous sort of drone shot of Helen driving the tractor with James and Tristan on the back. And then, you know, you’re driving through these massive fields and the camera was so far away that we had no idea where it was. And so we just said, just keep driving the tractor, keep driving the tractor, and let’s just keep driving then and then, you know, and it wasn’t until we were like in the next village. And then I was like, when somebody’s going to call cut, we just keep going. But yes, I pride myself on being alright on that tractor. In the end, I don’t know who’s told you any different, but don’t believe it.
Jace Helen is wearing trousers in 1937, which is a bold yet very practical fashion choice. Her wardrobe, in fact, is pretty outstanding throughout the first series, the green linen slacks, the jacket. What did you make of Helen’s clothes and how much discussion did you have with Roz Little, the costumer ahead of time?
Rachel Oh, I’m so glad we’re talking about this. I love it. I mean, I’ve said it before, but I think she’s got the best wardrobe just putting it out there. Sorry, but it’s so good and it’s so brilliant. And Roz has got such a keen eye for detail. Roz actually worked on the BBC adaptation back in the 70s as an assistant. And so she really, really understood the story. She’d re-read the books and she came to do this series again, as I did. And we both wanted to create something for Helen that was. You know of the time, of course, but practical, she was she was to be stylish and, you know, when the clothes were to look nice, of course, and because everything did then. But but I mean, practicality was absolutely the first thing on our minds, because then Helen, we found out, was one of the first women in her village to wear trousers, which was very telling of Helen and her kind of practical approach to everything, really, because when I was filming in the Dales in November, when it was freezing and I was jumping on and off tractors and wrangling bulls, I thought, of course she’s wearing trousers. I mean, it’s so cold, you know, it just wouldn’t work in a dress. So the practical element was something that we were keen to do and Roz is brilliant because she allowed me to sort of have my input and made sure that I felt comfortable in everything that I was wearing and things. So that collaboration was wonderful, really. And I hope to do more of it in the next series.
Jace Before this next question, let’s take a quick break to hear a word from our sponsors…
Jace The scene in episode two, where Helen introduces James and Hugh at Mrs. Pumphrey’s party is very tense.
James I was wondering, I hope you don’t mind me, but could I see you, some time? I mean, I know I can see you, you’re right in front of me…I’m sorry, I shouldn’t’ve-
Helen It’s not that, it’s just-
Hugh Oh this is where you’re hiding.
Helen I wasn’t hiding.
HughNo, I know. Who’s this?
Helenames Herriot. Siegfried’s new assistant.
Hugh Oh… Hugh Hulton, pleasure. Was I interrupting?
James No, not really.
Helen Well we were just catching up. Shall we dance?
James Why does Helen avoid mentioning Hugh to James until this point when the two men are now face to face?
Rachel I think there’s a couple of reasons. As always, I don’t think it’s ever black and white. Think things are usually quite nuanced where these kind of things are concerned. And I think if we’re honest, you know, she quite likes James and I think, even if it’s nothing, there’s no intention there at that point, what she quite likes him and she knows she quite likes being in this company and she probably knows that he likes her and it hasn’t come up. So why would she mention it? And, you know, I think it was it’s as innocent as that, really at that point, she didn’t feel like she was hiding anything because he’d never asked and she didn’t feel like she was sort of being deceitful or anything because nothing’s happening. It’s just a kind of I felt like just a bit of a mutual attraction that she wasn’t even sure of. So that’s probably why…I’m defending her aren’t I? But I think that she’s right.
Jace Helen and Hugh were brought together by grief. She lost her mother around the same time he lost his father when he inherited the estate. Is it that shared experience that keeps them together?
Rachel Yeah, I think that’s certainly one of them, I think. I think they got together really young, you know, they never they never got to sort of explore their relationship romantically, really, because they got together so young, and they were children, really that kind kinda grew up together. They had a lot in common. They were from the same place. Everybody knew everybody. So, you know, all the village knew them. And then of course, he lost his dad, inherited the estate and Helen lost her mom and started to look after Jenny and and look after the farm. So I think I think things got really serious really quickly for both of them and that calls for something else, you then require something else. So I think they then became friends, really then, you know, they were good buddies, they were there for each other. They were, you know, they loved each other without a doubt. But I don’t know if there was much room for romance when that happened, really.
Jace Helen says that James did the family a favor by telling the truth about Clive. Their name would have been tarnished forever. But does Clive’s death and the very paltry amount they get for selling him for meat reveal just how tenuously the Aldersons are holding on financially?
Rachel Yeah, yeah, it’s very sad, but yeah. Yeah, very much so. I mean, they were really relying on that. And that is really indicative of a lot of the farming families around that time, you know. They had very small, small holdings, you know, they would have only a handful of sort of cows and sheep or chickens or whatever was sort of bringing in the money. And so if one went down, you know, that can have a really serious impact on the financial state. And that’s where the Aldersons are at. And I think that I think that’s just, again, just testament to them as people and their characters, and when that happens, they sort of it would have been easy, I think, to stay quiet about that, maybe not say as much to Hugh sort of thing. and they didn’t, you know, they were holding their head high and that’s the way it was. And so I think that, again, it’s just testament to them, but it really is really exposing about where they are financially. And Richard Alderson doesn’t say much ever. And you can see a couple of times that he’s worried, too.
Jace It’s Helen who pushes James to be himself throughout the series. From standing up to Siegfried to doing everything for Strawberry.
Helen The Rudds are a lovely family. They don’t deserve it.
James No one does.
Helen Is there nothing you can do?
James There might have been. Siegfried put the kibosh on it.
Helen If you could have done something for Clive, even if there was just the slightest chance – I would’ve wanted you to try.
James But Siegfried-
Helen Will always be Siegfried. You need to be you. Follow your heart. It’s what got you here in the first place isn’t it?
Jace What does she see in James? And why at this point is she then marrying someone else?
Rachel I think that Helen says to James I think I think she really does wear her heart on his sleeve and and sort of say exactly how she feels. And I think at times in her own life, she’s probably got to say things and do things that she probably didn’t want to, but she knew she knew was the right thing to do. And so she’s urging James to do the same because he isn’t naturally as assertive, but she’s always sort of willing him to believe in himself and stick to his guns and things. And because that’s I guess ultimately that’s that’s who she is. She’s marrying, I mean, she’s marrying somebody else because I honestly think that until Christmas Eve, or at least close to the wedding after the proposal. We see that the proposal was a huge shock to Helen. I mean, when she breaks the news to James and you can see that it was I think it was it was very difficult for her to say that out loud. But I think actually wrapping her head around it was quite difficult. And dare I say, I think it’s it’s not until something actually happens that you go, oh, my goodness, I don’t know if I can do this because maybe one day, you know, maybe that that’s sort of one day we’ll get married in the distance. Maybe it’s very different to when it actually happens. And of course, we’re in the 30s. So when someone says, let’s get married, it’s normally let’s get married in a matter of weeks or months, not years like it is now. So when that happens, I think that’s when it all really starts hitting Helen like, wow, this is what I’m doing and this is what this means, this means my life with Hugh. And therefore, whatever this is with James, this sort of different path that’s being illuminated, this other side of me. That would have to be closed down. And so I think she’s just thinking, she’s just confused and thinking and. It’s not it’s not easy, and it’s not it’s never black and white, is it? You know, so when we talk about love and feelings, it’s just very nuanced.
Jace Despite it being the night before her wedding to Hugh, a clearly ill at ease Helen offers to accompany James up to the Chapman’s farm where he’s going to help Suzie deliver her litter of puppies. Why does she want to go with him on this night of all night?
Rachel Yeah, not the wisest choice, is it, the night before your wedding, really? I don’t think she can help it. I think it’s so overwhelming for her, like I’ve said, and I think at this time in her life, it is one of the only times she’s ever really thought about what she wants. You know like I said, the natural trajectory or the expected trajectory of Hugh and Helen’s relationship was that they’d they’d get married and they’d have children, because that’s what you do. You’ve been together for a long time. And actually, when it comes down to it, she’s going, ‘I don’t think this is for me with this person. I don’t think the life that he leads is quite for me.’ And then there’s James, because he’s so different. And I think when somebody comes on the scene that’s new and that doesn’t know your sort of background and stuff, you can be a different version of you. He doesn’t know all the rubbish, you know. He doesn’t necessarily know all the nonsense about it. And so she can just be herself rather than, you know, the version of herself that life sort of made her be. I think in her real life, she’s just a slap on a lot of armor and toughen up really, and I think James, naturally just allows her to be, I guess, softer and so the night before a wedding, it’s overwhelming because everybody’s talking about, oh, it’s a big Christmas Day wedding and everybody’s going to be out and, um, and it just gets too much. And he’s going off to the Chapmans. And I don’t think she really wants him to leave because whatever it is, she wants to be with him, and I think it’s as simple as that, and she just says, ‘Can I come with you?’ because she wants to spend more time with him. I think if you if you asked her honestly, I don’t even think she could explain that. I think she just knows that she wants to be with that person then. And that’s it. She wasn’t thinking any more about it.
Jace Up at the farm, she witnesses the incredible devotion that James performs as he literally breathes life into a newborn puppy. Is this the moment where, despite her resistance, she acknowledges her feelings for James?
Rachel I don’t think it’s just that moment. I think it’s a lot of moments. I think I think his devotion to the animals is something that she’s always loved and they share that they have that in common. Like you say, before, Helen, is the village, the people, the area, that the hills, the animals is very much in her blood and part of who she is. And she recognizes that within James. So that’s definitely something. His devotion to his work as well. It’s Christmas Eve and he’s going off to. And like you say, breathe life into puppies, and that’s wonderful and I think the way that he is with Bert and Anne. His compassion that he shows and they have a lot in common, they both of you know, they’re both very open emotionally, really? Well, she certainly can be with him, and I think I think all those things just just make for a very confusing evening for her.
Jace I thought that Helen would end up missing her own wedding, but she doesn’t. James gets her back to Skeldale to get ready. She heads off to marry Hugh, but she calls off the wedding at the altar and James finds her alone in the church. How difficult a decision was this for Helen and what ultimately prompts her to make it in that moment?
Rachel And. You know, I think I think if you if you asked her, she’d probably say it’s the most difficult decision she’s ever had to make, really. But at the same time, it was very straightforward. And I think that. Like I said before, she really principled girl, she does what’s right, not what’s easy. And I think that the easiest thing in the world would be to go through that wedding when everybody, including your family, were waiting for that to happen. The whole village is out. And but I think ultimately, the way that she feels about James, even though I don’t think she can quite put her finger on that, I’m not saying that I don’t think she’s acutely aware that she’s in love with him. I don’t think it’s very clear. I just think she knows that because she feels something towards James that makes that not right with Hugh and. I think, you know, she’s an intuitive girl, and that’s probably enough, and she knows that she can’t go through it, she can’t go through feeling like that, that that wouldn’t be fair on anyone. And then, of course, in the car on the way to the church, just the little acknowledgment from her dad, I think helps. And he says in the car, you know, you don’t have to do anything for me. And it’s not what he says. I think it’s just the fact that he’s that she knows that he knows me and just that as a dad, he’s he’s he spotted that something’s slightly off. And I think that might just have given her the last bit of push if she needed it.
Helen I thought you were going home.
James Something inside said I should be here.
Helen I told you I would make a fool of myself. Is anyone still outside?
James I’m sure Tristan led everyone to the Drovers.
Helen Of course, Hugh paid the tab in advance.
James He does have an uncanny ability to sniff out a free pint.
Helen Oh James – what have I done…Hugh didn’t deserve this…how am I going to face anyone?
James You didn’t do this because you’re cruel or unkind. You did it because you’re the opposite of those things.
Helen That’s not how it feels.
Jace Do you think she does see it as kind, calling off a wedding to a man that she knows she won’t be happy with ultimately?
Rachel I think she certainly knows it’s the right thing to do. I think she certainly knows that going through with a wedding when there’s any doubt in your mind isn’t right. But I don’t think that helps to feel any less cruel. And I think in that moment, she still feels like it’s terrible. You know, she would have seen Hugh’s face and had to tell him and know how disappointing that was. And I think that still will have sat incredibly. It would have been so heavy on her and it’s hard to know, it’s hard to think that you’re doing the right thing when you see that you’re hurting somebody, even though ultimately, you know, cognitively she will know that it’s the right thing to do. But I still don’t think it would have stopped her in any, you know, any way to feel any less terrible, really.
Jace I love how that scene in the church ends with Helen and James in front of the altar, hand in hand, and they walk down the aisle together. It’s such a beautifully understated, yet powerful moment. What was it like filming this pivotal and beautiful scene in the church?
Rachel Oh, it was written so well, it was so gorgeous when we read that, both Nick and I were like, oh, lovely. Perfect. It was cold on the day. It was Yorkshire and it was January, so it was very cold, but it was it felt right, actually. It was really nice. And Andy Hay, the director gave us time to sort of, you know, because it’s very emotional. We had to get to that. And we’re very fortunate that we had the time to do that. And then, you know, when he stood up and offered his hand, like, come on, let’s get you home. It just felt it felt right like the right way to end the series, it was lovely.
Jace I’m thrilled that there’s a second series on tap for All Creatures Great and Small. Congratulations.
Rachel Me too! Thanks.
Jace Where do you hope to find Helen Alderson next time we meet up with her?
Rachel I hope that the Helen gets to do a little bit more of what she wants. I hope we get to see her having a bit of fun as well. I think it’s been very heavy for her. You know, she had a lot on for a young girl. She’s always of looking after everybody else and stuff and doing it with a smile. But I’d like to see her thinking about what she wants a little bit and maybe not putting everybody else in front of her this series.
Jace Is there any chance we might get to see Helen using British Sign Language in series two?
Rachel Oh, that’s a really good question. I’ve no idea. You don’t ask Ben that. I would say probably not, but I don’t know. We’ll have to see.
Jace Your father lost his hearing when you were 12, an experience that led you to become involved with the deaf community. You won an Academy Award in 2018 for your short film, The Silent Child, which you starred in, wrote and produced with your husband, Chris Overton. What was the impetus for this film?
Rachel And yeah, and like you said, and being involved in the deaf community for many years in the support of of the deaf community and advocating particularly for access to education and and that’s what that’s really what our film was about. You know, it’s about a profoundly deaf little girl that starts school and doesn’t get support that’s needed. And it’s something that I feel particularly passionate about. At the moment in the UK 78% of deaf children attend mainstream school with no specialist support in place, and which obviously has huge ramifications when you the knock on effect with GCSE grades and A-levels and things like that. So, yeah, my impetus was really I want to make a film that can highlight this subject and this issue. And I thought maybe we might get something good enough to sort of take to primary schools and things like that. And then to win an Academy Award? Still bonkers, I never thought that would happen, it was ridiculous.
Jace You signed your Oscar acceptance speech for the film, a promise you had made to Maisie Sly, the six year-old lead in The Silent Child. What was it like then, ultimately winning an Oscar and being able to sign your acceptance speech?
Rachel Oh, do you know it was something that I said, I said to Maisie, I think we went to, um, oh, what’s the name of that food place in L.A. that we went to a big diner breakfast place in L.A. And I remember just talking to her and she was saying, I mean, it’s so funny, isn’t it? What comes out of the mouths of babes? She was absolutely convinced that we were going to win all the way through. I mean, she was so, so much cooler than we were at all times. And then I said, why do my speech you know, if I have to do a speech, you know, what would I say? And she was saying things that I should say, thank you. And I could do this. And then she said that I should sign. I was like, Really? And she said, Yeah, you have to. So I thought, right, well, if I do, then that’s that. But you don’t like to even think about it too much because it’s it’s soon as I started thinking about winning, I thought, oh, god, no, stop it, stop it. It’s weird. I’m jinxing it or whatever. So I’ll just leave it. And then I’ve obviously signed four years and so I didn’t give it too much thought. And then when I got up there I was overwhelmed by how difficult it became because my hands were shaking, everybody staring, you know, I looked down and to my right was like Meryl Streep. And I thought, oh my God, just get myself back in the room. This is crazy. So I felt very, very overwhelmed and like a bit of an out of body experience, really. I still sometimes can’t believe that’s happened. Very, very grateful that it did.
Jace Rachel Shenton, thank you so very much.
Rachel Oh, thank you so much. It’s been so nice. Thanks for chatting.
Jace We’re not quite done with All Creatures Great and Small — catch a special bonus episode of MASTERPIECE Studio on February 22 as All Creatures star Nicholas Ralph returns to break down the first season finale from James Herriot’s perspective.
And then we’ll say goodbye — just for now! — to the Yorkshire Dales as we turn inward for a very special 50th Anniversary documentary miniseries.
Alistair Cooke: Good evening, I’m Alistair Cooke. We open tonight a new television theatre which in the next year will show you plays adapted from the works of Balzac, Henry James, Dostoyevsky…Tonight we show you the first of 12 episodes about a great name in English history.
Jace Making MASTERPIECE, a three-part documentary podcast, appears here in this podcast feed on February 28, March 7, and March 14. Stay tuned, and don’t miss this comprehensive look at all 50 years of MASTERPIECE history — with exclusive interviews from the peerless personalities who have made MASTERPIECE — and Masterpiece Theatre — such a remarkable television feast.
MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob, and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Susanne Simpson.
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