Rachel Shenton Interview: Making Season 2
All Creatures Great and Small‘s Rachel Shenton shares insights on Helen Alderson’s romance with James Herriot and discusses the changes afoot for her character. Plus, the self-professed animal lover takes us behind the scenes with some of the new animals of Season 2, and more!
This Interview contains Season 2, Episode 3 spoilers.
At the beginning of Season 2, what kind of headspace is Helen in? Her reunion with James, at first, is certainly not what he’d hoped for!
I think there’s probably a tsunami of things going on in her head at that time. There’s the obvious thing that she hasn’t seen James since “the wedding that wasn’t,” so it’s been a minute. There’s all that nervous energy around what he’s been doing—she’s heard that he’s been in Glasgow, but she doesn’t really know what’s happening, and so she’s nervous about seeing him. And when she does, poor James is on the back foot. The Aldersons have a new addition to the household, a gorgeous little dog, Scruff, who’s not too well behaved and needs some obedience lessons. James kindly obliges, against the advice of Richard Olson who says, “When there’s an animal that’s acting out and upsetting other people’s animals, it’s a one-way street, and that’s not how things are done around here.”
James goes against that advice, ultimately for the right reasons, and I think deep down, Helen knows that. However, I think she still feels a little bit undermined and questions why he’s done it. So it’s a little tense when they first meet each other, and there’s so much that isn’t being said. Then, at the end of their exchange, he just comes right out and says, “I’ve missed you, and it cuts through everything, all that stuff that isn’t said. And then, after a moment, she says it back. So although it isn’t ideal, I feel like we get there in the end.
They certainly do! At the end of Episode 3, we get that kiss we’ve been waiting for! It must have been a wonderful moment to get to play. What was their journey—and yours—leading up to that moment?
I just absolutely love Ben Vanstone’s writing on their journey. It’s so authentic, and I think it’s really indicative of these two people as characters, how they meet again, and there’s no assumptions, even though look how it was left—she didn’t marry Hugh, they walked out the church together, and yet they meet each other again with very few assumptions as to what might happen next. They very tentatively step toward each other, dancing around each other, not wanting to upset the other one, and caring very much about the other one’s feelings. And that is so indicative of the two of them and how they continue. They really are the caretaker for each other’s feelings. And I love that about them.
So as Nick [Nicholas Ralph, who plays James Herriot] and I were reading the script, I’d get text messages from him: “Have you read the end of Episode 3?” It was really exciting for us, as well, because we were so invested in their journey, and we loved that it was slow and how it should be. Hopefully, the fans will like the way that it happens. And the way it happens is really organic: she’s at home at Heston Grange, and she’s talking about her mom, and it’s actually quite a lovely, sweet moment. Earlier on, they’ve been out to dinner, and you might think that it would’ve happened there, but that didn’t quite go according to plan because they were, metaphorically, stepping on each other’s toes again. And so when it happened, we were all like, “Oh, it’s relief!” more than anything. “Thank goodness!”
A lovely new element this season is Helen’s changing relationship with her sister, Jenny, as Jenny is growing up a little bit. There’s a wonderful moment when they’re really talking like sisters about James, when they admit that he’s pretty cute. Can you talk about those changes?
I love the relationship with Jenny. I love the relationship that I have with Imogen [Clawson, the actress playing Jenny], as well, but I love the relationship between Helen and Jenny. Helen has played a maternal role in Jenny’s life for the longest time, since her mom passed away. And then in this season, what’s really interesting and really lovely is that, because she stepped away from Hugh, and she has started to tentatively step towards James, Jenny acknowledges that and knows what’s happening. Jenny almost slips into that role of, “I’m going to start to look after the house.” And so the dynamic between the two of them shifts from being that parental thing to siblings again, and friends even, at some points. Like you said, that lovely scene where she’s like, “He’s good looking, though.” They feel like they’re on the same team a little bit, rather than like the a parent saying, “I want you in at this time,” and “You have to do this,” which it’s been like for a long time, because she’s had to take on that role.
I feel as though family, to Helen, is everything. Can you talk about her sense of home at Heston Grange, and any challenges she might face as her role there changes?
You’re absolutely right, family is at the epicenter of Helen—I feel like it’s at her core. She loves the Dales. She loves being at Heston Grange. It’s part of her DNA. She talks about that—I remember in Episode 1, one of the first scenes that I had, she was talking about the different areas, and when James commented, “You talk about them like old friends,” she said, “Yeah, well, they are. I’ve known them all my life.” And so being on the farm with her dad and Jenny and the horses, as much as she rolls her eyes at times, she really wouldn’t have it any other way.
So I think that what happens when she does meet James and there’s that prospect of her life changing, and having to step away from it to become something else that she also wants—that’s a very real thing, isn’t it? It’s super relatable because I think every woman—maybe every person, actually—has been in that situation where you go, “Okay, I want that thing, but I’m not entirely sure I want this to change.” I won’t give too much away, We see throughout the series, some conversations about her role and where she’ll fit in. And I think it’s really big for her; I think it’ll take a bit of adjusting.
What can you tell us about Helen’s costumes? How did they come to be, and do they tell us anything about her character?
Yeah, I think they do—we pick things out very carefully for Helen. Ros Little, the costume designer, has an incredible eye for detail. She’s brilliant at her job and is really collaborative, which is great. We discussed everything, and what was super important for us when we first started to create Helen was that she’s practical. This is a girl who has to get up at 5am to do the chickens and muck out the horses and bring the bull in, or whatever. And we tip the cap as well to the real Joan Wight, who Helen’s based on, who was the first woman in her village to wear trousers, in the 1930s. That tells us a lot about her, and what it tells me is she’s practical, because I’ve filmed in the Yorkshire Dales in winter, and it’s freezing, and getting on a tractor in a dress just doesn’t do it! So, of course, she’d wear trousers, it makes sense. She does seem to have a keen eye for fashion, that’s kind of a bit of a thing, yet she’s also about practicality. We used this brilliant costume place in North London called Cos Prop, and though there are a couple of things that we’ve had made, almost all of the things are authentic and vintage, which was so lucky. So there’s little nicks in them. Helen sews things herself. She fixes things, that’s who she is. So yes, although, I love some of the pieces and they’re gorgeous, it was all rooted in a very real place, and we wanted it to feel practical and real.
Do you have a favorite this season?
Yeah, I actually do—you’ll see it later on in the season. James and Helen have a lovely day out, and she’s wearing this red skirt/shirt combo. I really liked that.
It’s interesting, because the production designer, Jacqueline Smith, talked about how in the landscape, she always includes a little pop of red. I wonder if maybe that’s a nod to Helen…
I love that! And Ros is brilliant, so when you carefully analyze the story and you follow it, the red always pops up at really significant moments. It’s always when she’s stepping out, when she’s being quite bold, that you see it. She’s going out for dinner with James, or she’s having to show up somewhere, and she wears red. Maybe it’s a thing about her that makes her feel great. I do that sometimes, too. If you’re not quite feeling it, you’re like, “I’m going to put on that really bright jumper, and that’ll do it today.”
Were there any new notable animal encounters you could share for our animal-loving fans?
Well, I get the animal-loving fans! I love it, I’m a massive animal fan, so this is the best job. I get to cuddle lovely animals all day, big and small. And Scruff is the new addition to our household this year, played by the lovely Bobbi with an “i”—she’s a girl. And she was only nine months when she joined the show. Nine months is very little to be doing things on cue, and she didn’t always do it on cue, but she was very sweet. So in all the scenes that we had, our pockets—mine and Imogen’s—were always full of little bits of bacon or little treats and things to try and entice Bobbi to do what we wanted her to do. And then there was a scene in the kitchen, which you’ll see in this series, when Jenny’s cooking breakfast. She’s busy and she’s doing those things, and Scruff had to come in and sit by the table. We did it once and didn’t quite go according to plans. We did it again; didn’t quite go according to plan. Because he could smell the bacon because she was cooking! And so in the end, he ended up coming up onto my plate and looking at what I was eating, and they kept that. So Bobbi ad-libs, as well. She does all her own stuff.
The production’s horse master, Mark Atkinson, has observed that you grew up around horses and you’re comfortable with them.
Yeah, I grew up in Staffordshire, which is quite rural, and I never had a horse myself, but I rode from a young age, so I’m very comfortable around them and I’d feel comfortable riding, not that I had to do any in this series. Aramis, the horse that plays Candy, is just beautiful and has got such a cheeky personality! When he was bored, he would be learning “Action!” so that when someone said “Action!” he would then play up a little bit, and do something. There was one scene where every time Andy Hay, the director, would call “Action!” Aramis would step forward and kick a bucket. So Mark Atkinson, our horse master, came over and whispered in our ears, “He’s learning “Action!” and he’s bored right now, so change the word.” I can’t remember what we said—maybe “Bananas!” or something—and he didn’t do it that time. They got the take.
That’s amazing. Aramis is so smart!
So smart and so bored. He was over it.
Now that you have two seasons of All Creatures Great and Small under your belt, what’s it been like to be a part of a show that’s been such a balm and a comfort to audiences?
I’m a big fan of shows like this, where there are no baddies or drugs or car chases or murders, or anything like that. There’s a place for all that, and I like watching that, but it’s just so nice to be part of something that feels quite wholesome, actually, and good for the spirit. It’s rare now that you can sit and watch a show with three generations, and I think that’s what’s really nice about this show.