Nicholas Ralph Interview: Being James Herriot
All Creatures Great and Small’s leading man, Nicholas Ralph, shares some fascinating insights about playing James Herriot, working with his castmates, how he thinks football (soccer) is like acting, and more! Get to know the humble and delightful actor at the helm of All Creatures Great and Small.
What do you most like about the character James Herriot?
When the audition came through, I instantly fell in love with the character James. He’s just got such compassion for the animals, such a sharp intelligence and patience, but he also stands up for himself as well, which I love about him. I think those are some of his great traits.
What I loved about James was that, I think, he’s a very deep thinker, he feels things emotionally very deeply, and it’s not always on the surface, like some of the other characters who maybe wear their hearts on their sleeves a little bit more. But James is only human, he can only hide things so much. And it’s great that he’s got Tristan there, because Tristan can see through it, when he’s perhaps hurting a little bit, pining over Helen or whatever. He notices it and goes, “Right, James, let’s go to the pub and have a beer and I’m going to set you up on a date.” So they really balance each other out well that way, and that was one of the things I loved about the character, as well. I love all the subtext and things going on beneath the surface, and I think that’s a lot of fun to play with.
What do you like most about playing him?
When I spoke to Alf White’s son and daughter, Jim and Rosie, they said I had one of the harder jobs in the show, because James was the neutral character to these bigger, more eccentric characters in the house and in the village. But for James, it’s an emotional rollercoaster ride from start to finish for him, there’s so much going on.
As an actor, what I love is, because it’s based on real people, these characters are so three dimensional and the relationships are so strong, that it’s so much fun to play. I get to play James in a multitude of scenarios, varying emotions—it’s never just two dimensional. He’s never just “the funny guy” or “this guy.” It’s a wonderful scope and a range, so it’s brilliant because it’s such a challenge, and every day is different.
I feel it’s steeped in truth and in reality, because it’s based on real people and real stories. And you see the highs and you see the lows—he doesn’t get it right every time. He is new on the scene, and although he has a wealth of knowledge from school, he’s lacking a bit of experience, and that shows at times. So yeah, it’s brilliant getting to play his character in such euphoric moments, and then other times it’s quite melancholic. It’s really fun.
Were you having as much fun making the show as it is for us to watch it?
Yeah, thankfully we were! We were really lucky—I mean, cast and crew across the board, what a team. It was just an absolute joy from start to finish. I remember being on set with the more experienced actors, and them saying, “Don’t get used to this. It’s not always like this on set, so enjoy this while it lasts.” Because it really was. And we were in Yorkshire during winter and autumn, and it was freezing, with long, cold, dark days and rainy days, sometimes, so if you had people that were downers, it could really bring everyone down. But we were very fortunate—we had a great group that really pushed each other on and kept each other’s spirits high.
We would go out for family dinners in the evenings—the main cast: me, Rach [Rachel Shenton], Callum [Woodhouse], Sam [West], and Anna [Madeley]—which was just a lovely way to chill after a long day. I think that’s a great marker as well, when you spend 50, 60 hours a week with these people on set, to then still want to go out for dinners in the evenings and hang out at the weekends! Me and Cal, we’d go for a few beers and whatnot, and I think that’s a really good sign, and it was. It was a really good bunch.
Who would be the last to leave the family dinner, or go to the pub after?
Probably me and Cal!
Callum Woodhouse has said that when he’s laughing in a shot, it’s genuine. What was that dynamic is like?
I think, because we generally enjoy each other’s company, and we know each other quite well, we know each other’s eccentricities, so when they crop up on set or in a scene, you notice them, and it makes you laugh. Cal reads a line in a way that I would never think to read it, things that I would not see any comedy in, he makes it so funny. He’s an absolute genius with that sort of stuff. He’s always got me laughing on the set and he loves Ricky Gervais, so he’s got little Ricky Gervais-isms. It’s not even that funny, but it makes us laugh so much.
You’ve talked about the chemistry read with you and Rachel Shenton, and how she was the clear pick right away. What was it like working with her?
In the audition, she was so lovely and down to earth and easy to chat to, out of the room as much as in the room, working on the scenes together. She was absolutely brilliant, and that’s what we’ve carried through to the series. We have so much fun. Before a take, if it’s something fun and James and Helen are having a laugh or really enjoying being in one another’s company, we always try and make each other laugh, either do a silly voice, or Rach sometimes will pull faces.
You grew up in the Scottish Highlands with farm animals or livestock not too far from your home…
Yeah, it was in my back garden and then a fence and there’s a field. So, it was always full of cows and sheep and things.
Did you ever have any run-ins with the farm animals that made you keep a distance, or was there one in particular that you really bonded with?
Oh, all the time! When we were little kids, the farmer would lift us onto the back of one cow and take us the length of the garden. We named her Friendly because she wasn’t scared of us, which is quite sweet. But run-ins with the animals? All the time. Because it’s a short cut, basically, from our house to get into town, you have to do a big U-bend around the field, or you can cut straight across the field. So you’d try to gauge how far away the cattle were from you. We would run across the field, and then the cows would start coming! And then you have to run back because you’ve misjudged it.
Other times, again when we were kids in the field, we would be playing football, and the cows, they just periodically would come up and down. And then when they see you, then that’s it, boof, they’d go for you! So you had to grab the ball and run as fast as you could to get out of there. And then there were also cows that actually broke out and they’d be in your garden, munching the flowers.
You didn’t know to say “Kush!” back then.
No, I never used “Kush!” It was just scream and run.
Has anyone back home asked you to come and take a look at a sick animal or deliver a calf?
Not yet, thankfully, no. I remember Christopher Timothy, who played James Herriot [in the original series], said that people would come up to him in the street and be, “Oh Chris, my dog’s got a gammy leg, can you take a look at it?” And he said, “I’m an actor, I’m not a vet!” So no, thankfully, not yet. But I can imagine that maybe happening.
I understand that you’ve played a lot of football. Is there anything about football that’s like acting?
Purely, the one thing that I loved and which I really missed when I stopped playing competitive football—because it’s a team sport—was the comradery, and every one bringing something to the party, as it were, and that feeling of the togetherness. More often than not, I was captain of the football team, as well, growing up, and I loved that and it’s something I really missed.
And as soon as I was on set, I found something very similar. At the end of a show or a film, you see these lists of names of the people that go into making the thing, but you don’t truly appreciate it until you’re actually on set and you see the huge operation and the amount of people that it takes to make something like All Creatures or a film. Instantly, you see all these people who are all so professional and so brilliant at what they do, so you can’t help but get inspired by one and two. And you’ve got this wonderful camaraderie in this team, all pulling together to make this thing, and I just absolutely loved it. And then being one of the main characters, I really felt that bit of responsibility again, like the captaincy role. I loved that, and trying to bringing everyone together, and I found something that I thought I’d never find again, since playing football.
You’ve described being kayaking off Marseille when you got the news about landing the role of James Herriot. So as a traveler, what’s a place that you would love to go to when the world opens up again?
I was actually born in Cape Town, and I love Cape Town, soI’d love to get out there. It’s just wonderful, beautiful. You get to see Table Mountain from every angle, wonderful golf courses, wonderful wine, the vineyards. So, I like it there. But also, I’m really excited to get over to the States. I was really fortunate—when I was a kid, I had family in Georgia and Texas, so I’ve been over a couple of times. But I haven’t been over since I was 14, 15 years old. So I just can’t wait to get out to the States.