Samuel West Interview: All Tempers Quirky & Kind of Siegfried Farnon
Actor Samuel West discusses his All Creatures Great and Small character, Siegfried Farnon, sharing his insights on the eccentric vet’s backstory, relationships, and good heart. Discover his thoughts on his Season 1 castmates and characters, as well as on rats (smart) and romance (potentially in the cards)!
What do you like the most about Siegfried Farnon, and what do you like most about playing him?
I like that he marches to the beat of his own drum—there aren’t a lot of checks and balances on his behavior. He comes from a long line of what we call “British eccentrics.” (Other countries go, “No, he’s just mad.”) I don’t know that other countries do eccentrics as well as the British do…People love them, but they don’t produce them quite the same way in America, or France, or Germany.
Playing him is a great pleasure because he’s been written with quite a lot of depth…People say, “Look for the generosity in a selfish man, or look for the kindness in a despot,” and Siegfried is somebody who’s quite fierce and quite short tempered, but actually underneath it all, is deeply loving, like a lot of vets. They go into it because they want to reduce suffering, and they have to be quite empathetic to do that, because their patients can’t talk to them. They can’t talk to them using words. Sometimes you see brilliant surgeons who are a bit untouchable, but I don’t think there are really brilliant, untouchable vets—they’re basically a bit more down to earth, and a bit more human, and a bit more warm. Siegfried has a furious temper, and is very forgetful, but he’s also got a good heart. He’s quite funny, and that’s one of the pleasures of playing him. I don’t get to be funny very often—I don’t have a great reputation for comedy; in fact, I would go so far as to say that this is the first thing that I’ve done for about 25 years that’s meant to have quite a lot of laughs with the words. It’s great fun.
I like his energy, I like his speed, and I like the way he thinks quickly. I like that he wants to be a good vet—that moves me. I like that he has a great capacity for love, which is mostly frustrated by his appallingly annoying brother, and by his deeply loved, and only recently dead, wife. There’s a lot of depth and contradiction in there, and that’s always fun to play.
What do you make of his relationship with Tristan? While it’s funny and delightful, it’s also complicated, because Siegfried has been put in this role as a father figure, and because Tristan really just wants Siegfried’s approval.
…And his money! To be honest, I think he’d settle for the money without the approval, some of the time. Well, the first thing we did was approach the fact that we’re cast as brothers—and, I think, quite well cast as brothers—but Callum’s extremely young, and I’m very old. He’s in his late 20s, and I’m in my nearly mid 50s. We eventually worked out that if I played Siegfried slightly younger, and he played Tristan a couple of years older, there could be 19 years between us, and we could still be brothers of the same parents, with him as very much an afterthought. There’s a little bit of backstory here that was important to us, because we wanted to believe it ourselves. We’re the only two people in the family, in Skeldale House, who are actually related, even though it feels like a slightly dysfunctional family of four, so it was important to us to understand that relationship. I think that our father died when Tris was quite small, and he didn’t know him very well. I [Siegfried] was in my early 20s, so I became, basically, a young father to Tris, which is absolutely not what you want when you’re in your 20s. I was same age as Tris is now, really, but I had this extra responsibility, which he doesn’t have, so I slightly resent that, because he’s getting to have a better time at college than I did—he’s doing less work and having more sex, and caring much less about his exam results. I, basically, was under the eye, and probably the thumb, of my father as well, having to work very hard. And as an elder child, I went into my family business—I think my father was a doctor rather than a vet, but basically it’s the family business. Tris has managed to avoid all of that.
But annoyingly, when he puts his nose down, he’s rather good at it. He knows his stuff and he’s got talent. So when I think about making the business bigger, he’s somebody I really want to recruit. I want him on side because he’s family, and I want him on side because I think he can do well. I also want him on side because I’ve got this enormous sword of Damocles hanging over me, which is my father saying, “Look after Tristan for me,” a huge weight.
Most of the time, he’s just incredibly annoying. And also, he lies about things. He lies about having passed exams. I have two young children, and one of the things that I’ve learned to say is not, “You must never lie,” but “Try to tell the truth. Try not to lie.” Because if you say to them, “You must never lie,” then the times when they do lie—because everybody does—they’ll be so ashamed that they’ll never come to you when they need to tell you the truth. In fact, I have that problem slightly with Tris, that I realize that I’m playing the disciplinarian too much, but I can’t stop myself. It’s like I’ve turned into my dad. A couple of times, in conversations with Mrs. Hall, you see how Siegfried is kind of mocking himself, judging himself as a parent to Tris, who is a child he never chose to have; whereas James is a child he did choose to have, who treats him much better, with much more respect, and indulges his forgetfulness—and occasionally talks back to him, which secretly Siegfried rather likes. Of course, James is the son I never really did have. I think that’s a lovely thing to play, especially with somebody as warm and giving as Nick. And I haven’t thought about this before, but there must be a slight jealously of James and Tris’s friendship, as well. I don’t always want to be the grumpy older one. I’d like to be the boy in the pub. But of course, I’m not the boy anymore. It’s a bit of a thing creeping up on you, that you turn around and suddenly you’re 10 years older, and people aren’t looking at you in the same way.
Did Siegfried’s backstory include his relationship with his late wife?
In the original books, Siegfried is a bachelor, but I was very pleased that they decided to go with what happened to the real Donald Sinclair, which was that his wife had died. I thought that was a proper piece of homework that made it much more interesting, for Siegfried to have that history, that backstory. It’s much more interesting to play somebody who was quite a beau in his youth, but had a deeply loving, and I think sexually very happy, relationship with his wife, which then ended without children. He’s felt a bit blocked ever since. He’s still in love with his wife, and she’s only four years dead. None of that really appears in the series—I’m talking about two things that happened four years, or 19 years, before the series begins—but it is all underneath. It’s not a Chekov play, but actually it becomes important; it’s got to be believable. It’s got to be textured on the same level. It’s got to matter.
The drama is very small scale, the peril is very mild—as they say, it “contains mild peril.” But when you do a drama about a farming couple whose farm has been there for possibly 350 years, and they have one cow, and the cow may die in labor, that’s a tragedy. Stalin said, “The death of one is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic.” People have 5000 cows now; these guys had one cow. So in order to make the drama work, it has to work on the small scale. And all the little micro aggressions of a family have to be there truthfully. I was really pleased, when I first got offered the job, that it came with quite a lot of backstory that Ben Vanstone, our brilliant writer, had obviously thought about. Because when it’s there, you can forget about it—it’s like they say, it’s like standing on the shoulders of something, standing something properly underneath you.
How do you think Siegfried’s experience in the war affected his character?
You have to ask the question, in 1937, of somebody who’s in their 40s: What did they do in the war? Siegfried was a vet, and he went to France, and as he says, he saw thousands of horses shot. And this is an absolutely true story, there were, I think, certainly tens of thousands of horses shot in France, because they just didn’t bother getting them home. Like all the men who died were buried where they fell, because there were too many of them to get them home. After the extraordinary service of these beasts—because we’re talking the very early days of motorized transport, so most of the horses were on the front lines, pulling guns and pulling supplies, and being gassed and being shelled—and then having survived all that, just being killed. I think it’s quite easy to imagine that you might well come back from that experience preferring animals to people. I think that’s what happened to him. As he says to James in the first episode, “The animals are fine, it’s the people cause the bother.” And that’s true, of course, people are much more complicated than animals, on the whole, and infuriating. But that’s what’s really interesting about doing a story about a small community: that you have to get on. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t lots of little niggles, but ultimately, the drama is about how you get through the difficulties.
Has anyone in your real life asked you to come take a look at a sick animal?
I’m a very keen bird watcher, so quite a lot of people tweet when they find baby birds, and say, “What do I do?” Unfortunately, the advice is always the same, which is, if it really is incapacitated, and there isn’t a parent nearby, you can take it in, but it’s much more likely to survive if you leave it alone. Which is not a very helpful thing to say, but you have to say it.
I like small animals. I kept mice when I was small, and then rats. We are, sadly, without a cat at the moment, and my older daughter was saying only just now that she thought she wanted a rat. They’ve very smart—in fact, she said, “What do rats do? Do they go in wheels?” I said, “Well, no, they don’t go in wheels, partly because they’ve got tails, so the tails get into the wheels, and partly because they’re too clever.” A hamster will happily go around on a wheel, but a rat goes around the wheel and goes, “No, I’m still here. This is stupid. I won’t do it anymore.” It’s just too smart.
I’m quite good on rat illnesses, of which, I’m afraid, there are rather a lot. But in fact, in my case, it’s more about saying to Andy [Barrett], our vet on set, “Where do my hands go to check that this bone is broken or not? How do I check that this horse is not concussed?” I want my hands to do the right thing quickly, confidently, and in a way that most vets would go, “Yeah, I kind of believe that.” It’s interesting that nowadays, you don’t have vet practices that do both farm animals and small animals. So for the Farnon practice to want to do both is quite daring, at the time. They’re getting all sorts of new stuff in, cats and dogs. And it may not happen, but [the producers] have said they will use their best endeavors to have a rat in the next season.
Many a viewer is hoping for a Siegfried/Mrs. Hall romance. Could that ever be in the cards?
I couldn’t possibly comment! I think the first thing to say is that working with those two extraordinary actors [Maimie McCoy as Dorothy and Anna Madeley as Mrs. Hall], anything’s possible. Playing those scenes with Mamie, where Dorothy talked about looking forward with optimism, I found truly moving. She’s so truthful and strong. I just found myself completely lost in the scene, or found in the scene, really. I felt Siegfried coming back, when she talked about it. It was beautiful. I really love that relationship.
The next thing to say is that I don’t know. It would raise some eyebrows if Siegfried and Mrs. Hall ended up together. There is a class distinction, which nowadays doesn’t matter, but at the time probably did a bit more. And she’s an employee. I think for Siegfried, it would be a process of seeing beyond what he thinks is a professional relationship, into something that is clearly more important to him than he realizes, and to somebody who is, and who I think he already knows is, wise and strong.
The other thing to say is that working with Anna, I just couldn’t be happier, really. We first worked together 21 years ago at the Royal Shakespeare Company. I’ve known her all that time and admired her all that time. It is lovely to be working with her on this. So the quick answer is that you would have no complaints from me.
What do you think has made All Creatures Great and Small a particularly just-right story for viewers at this moment in time?
On the surface of it, it’s a very nice, warm, not terribly dangerous story about people trying to get on, in not particularly rich circumstances, in a not particularly complicated time. And perhaps that’s good—we need to reset our drama, our peril meters, a bit. I had this problem after I became a father. I could watch almost no television drama for a long time, because it was all about terrible things happening to children, or just terrible things happening to other people, and I didn’t want to watch that. My horizons were being slightly reborn by walking around with small people and wanting to show them bits. And I really didn’t want to show them the horrible bits.
So I don’t think All Creatures is escapist, quite, because there is unhappiness, and there are people that let you down, and there is need, and there is a bit of hunger. But I think it’s done in a sort of analog way. It’s like how, if your car goes wrong in 1937, you can sort of fix it. You can look under the bonnet and you can work out what bits are what, and which bits might have become disconnected from which. When you’re driving it, you’re in it, you’re there. You’re thinking, “Okay, well I hope this gets me there,” or “Do I need to start it now?” James actually has to start it with a handle at one point. I’m just using car as an example—so nowadays, I drive a rather boring family BMW, and if I want to know what’s wrong with it, I drop the key into a port, and it scans the key, and then tells the computer what’s wrong with the car. I know to fill the oil and keep the tires pumped up, but I’m not really at one with the car anymore. When I’m driving it, I’ve got a sat nav on, and I’m not looking at a map and trying to work out where I am—I know where I am, and everything else can rearrange itself around me. The whole process of living is much less involved. So I think that maybe telling a story that’s just a bit simpler, that’s got its fingers in the roots of the Yorkshire Dales, maybe it makes things a bit more dealable with.