Rachel Shenton Interview: The Strength and Beauty of Helen Alderson
All Creatures Great and Small actor Rachel Shenton shares insights into her character, Helen Alderson, who’s more than just James Herriot’s love interest—she’s a strong, principled, and sometimes cheeky character in her own right. Find out all about the woman behind the tractor’s wheel and the actor who plays her in our exclusive interview.
What do you like most about playing Helen, and what do you like personally most about her character?
Well, aside from her wardrobe, which is completely fabulous, I like her resilience. She’s a young woman who’s been through a lot. She lost her mum very young, she looks after her younger sister, and she looks after the farm. But I like that she does it all with a smile, really, and it’s not a burden. She does it because she wants to, and she’s very simply a get-on-with-it kind of girl, and I like that about her.
There are multiple occasions where Helen helps James by inspiring him or sharing her perspective, and he really respects her for it. What are some of the qualities that she brings to James that he doesn’t find in others or in himself?
I think Helen has a really unique ability of doing what’s right and not what’s easy. She’s a very principled young woman and wears her heart on her sleeve, but really does the right thing all the time, even when that’s very difficult. So I think James admires that—it’s an admirable quality and I think he really admires it. I think that perhaps he wishes he was a little bit more like that at times, because with Siegfried as his boss, he’s so grateful to have the job that at times he kind of thinks, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t challenge him,” or “maybe his voice is louder or better than mine at these moments.” And I guess it’s that self-doubt, isn’t it? So I think she just reinforces that actually, if you’ve got that little quiet inner voice telling you to do something, you should probably listen to it.
Is there any Helen in you?
Yeah, because I’ve only got me to work with, so I guess I have to bring me to it. I’d like to think I’m principled, and I’d like to think that I do the right thing as much as I can, things like that. She likes simplicity I guess, and there’s similarities there—I like to keep things quite simple in my life or in my wants. So I guess that we’re similar in that way. And we both love animals as well, and we’ve both got great wardrobes, although hers is better than mine.
What’s your favorite wardrobe piece, and have you brought it into your own life?
She wears dungarees with this cute little waist belt and headband. I’m like, “Oh, that’s so good.” So more dungarees for me, definitely.
Do you have a pet?
I do—she’s sitting on my lap right now. I have a little Maltese Dog, Rosie. She was a regular in the makeup trailer while we were filming.
Do you think she’ll get along with Callum’s puppy?
Oh, yeah, and they’re going to be the same size. In fact, Callum and I only communicate with dog pictures. We sort of rarely speak to each other—it’s like, “Morning”…picture of the dog…then, “Morning,” picture, like the dogs are saying good morning. We don’t interact, it’s just through pictures of the dog.
Can you describe the Yorkshire Dales, and what your experience filming there was like?
I’d never spent a lengthy amount of time in the Dales before we started shooting, though I’ve visited York and had the odd day there. It’s absolutely breathtaking, just miles and miles of unspoiled, undulating countryside, which became a character itself within in the series. Sometimes I’d be on set and I’d look around at these amazing animals doing their thing, and then there’s the whole beautiful countryside, and I’d just think, “This is one of those moments where I’m certain no one’s looking at what I’m doing. I’m certain I could mess this entire scene up, and nobody would notice.” It really is breathtaking.
Something that I loved and I got really into when I was living up there, and I probably will again, was buying my produce from local farms shops. I knew where it was coming from, and it’s so nice to be able to do that. I got quite into, “Oh, where’s this milk from?” or “Oh, this butter was made at this farm,” and “this granola” (which was the cereal that I was eating every day there) “was just made at a farm” where we’d been filming that day. It all felt so independent and gorgeous. Those the bits that I really, really enjoyed. And you can’t really beat a country walk, and there are so many.
Helen’s relationship with Hugh is an interesting one. As viewers, we really want to dislike Hugh, but we can’t—he’s a good guy. And you see what Helen likes about him, but it doesn’t seem like she’s in love with him.
Good! Thank you. I think that’s a fair observation, and I think you’re absolutely right, and it’s always so nice to hear these kind of things. Again, Ben [Vanstone] just did such a cracking job of on paper—I guess everybody is supposed to dislike him, but you just can’t, because he’s such a good guy. I think that they never really had a romantic courtship, because they got together so young, and then their lives got very serious very quickly. He lost his dad, she lost her mum, he inherited the estate, and they carried on being there for each other, but they never really had a romantic exploration, really. It was just more assumed that they would always carry on, and then one day get married, and that’s just the way it was.
I honestly don’t think that Helen really thought about it any more than that, really. This was 1937, and Hugh owned the estate; she knew she’d have a very good life. He’s a very eligible bachelor, he’s a lovely man and a lovely lad, he loves her very much, and why not, right? I think it’s the arrival of James, really, that illuminates a different path that really makes her question what that is, and maybe what she feels or what she doesn’t feel, more to the point. But I think you’re right. I think they’re friends, I think they love each other, I think they’re very fond of each other, but I don’t think it’s ever been particularly romantic.
What was it like working with Matthew Lewis?
Oh, I love Matthew, we had such a good time filming. He’s great, so easy to work with. And it sounds so cheesy—I know all of us will have said this—but we are so incredibly lucky with the cast that we’ve got because we all just got on so well. It was so easy all the time. And I had loads of good chats with him, mainly about dogs again, obviously. But he’s got two lovely dogs. He lives in Florida—it’s ridiculous, he got to commute back to Florida when the filming stopped, and we were going back to rainy London. But he’s great, such a pleasure to work with, absolute professional, knows exactly what he’s doing. He brought so much life to Hugh. It was lovely.
I’ve heard from your castmates that you’re all so close that you would have dinners together after a day on set. Who would be the last person to leave dinner or the pub?
Nick. Always! And no one will tell you any different on that answer, either. I feel like maybe it’s something about being Scottish, it’s just in him, that’s just what you get. He’s great. He does love it, he loves to party and to chat. We were really lucky, and we did, we used to have family dinners and all hang out. We even have a family WhatsApp group.
Our viewers may not know that you won an Oscar for a short film that you wrote and produced. Can you describe the project and the experience?
For sure. I wrote a short film called The Silent Child, which is about a profoundly deaf little girl who learns to sign. She experiences some reluctance from her mum and dad, who don’t want her to sign. They want her to learn to speak and be like them. It’s a subject that’s very close to my heart, because my dad lost his hearing really suddenly when I was 12, through cancer treatment, and lived the last two years of his life profoundly deaf. I saw then what huge impacts deafness has on a person and the family, and I guess that really gave me the impetus to learn sign language, and then I got involved in the deaf community. And I’ve been advocating ever since, really, so this was something I felt very passionately about. Particularly, access to education, which is what the film’s about, because the little girl starts school and struggles to access education because of the language barrier. To be honest, it was just such a labor of love, I never in a million years thought it was even possible to win an Oscar. I just didn’t know how that would ever work. So I wrote it, my husband directed it, and we entered it into film festivals. Then we won Rhode Island [film festival], then we could apply for the Oscars, and then that happened. So it was the strangest experience really, but one that I’m incredibly grateful for. The Oscars experience is like the most bonkers experience of my life, I think.
A really big UK fan base has been following you for years, but you may be a newer face to a number of our US viewers. Aside from your Oscar-winning short film, are there any other facts or surprises that our viewers should know about you?
I don’t think so, that’s pretty much it. I love animals. That’s the top and bottom of it for me, really.
And you love dungarees.
Dungarees and animals, that’s what it’s all about.