Life Imitates Art for All Creatures Great and Small’s Nicholas Ralph
What changed for leading man Nicholas Ralph in making All Creatures Great and Small Season 2? In a conversation with MASTERPIECE, Nicholas Ralph revealed how his own experience leaving home paralleled James Herriot’s, how his relationship with the iconic vet has deepened…and what it’s like being at the wrong end of all those large farm animals! This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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The idea of “home” holds a prominent place in Season 2 of All Creatures Great and Small, and I couldn’t help wondering if, growing up in Scotland and living in London now, you channeled any of your own experience of leaving home in your portrayal of James?
Yes, absolutely. James is an only child, and it’s funny you say it, because and I have a younger brother, and I do really feel like, fortunately for me, he’s quite a home bird. He’s got a house in the little town that I’m from in the north of Scotland, he’s stayed there, so it does actually take a little bit of the pressure off being the oldest child and not staying around.
It was quite similar [to James]—I left to go down to Glasgow to drama school, and it was a little bit like art imitating life in that I graduated from drama school and my first big job, first TV job, was James Herriot. I was off on a train to the Yorkshire Dales much like James Herriot, and much like Alf Wight, and he graduated from vet school in Glasgow and then his first big job was in the Yorkshire Dales, so it’s funny, the similarities. But because of leaving home and living in Glasgow for seven years, and now in London, I definitely have that [sense of making a new home away from home]. And the further I get, the stronger it becomes. So I really enjoy my time when I go back home, and when I go, I like to go for at least a week, just to see everybody and spend that time. I do know from personal experience what James is going through.
I keep learning more and more, and getting a deeper understanding of the man, and an admiration for him as well.
James grew up in the city and you grew up in the Highlands. Could you ever imagine making a life in the countryside, the way James begins feeling that it’s right for him?
I flip between the two all the time. I grew up in a small town, 10,000 people. There was my back garden, and then a fence, and then a field, so I was always with cows and sheep. We’d be playing football in the field and then you’d just hear a little rumble as the cows started to stampede from the other end, and then you’d have to get out of there quickly.
But I always loved the city. I loved the energy of it and the hustle and bustle, and kind of thrived off that. So as soon as I could, I got out of there and I moved to Glasgow, and subsequently I’ve moved to London. I love the cities. But sometimes—even when we’re filming and we’re out in the back and beyond in the Yorkshire Dales, and you just have these little villages with 12 houses, or you see these standalone houses out in the Dales—sometimes that life does seem really appealing…Maybe somewhere a bit further south, a bit nearer the equator for the heat.
When you were out there filming, did you ever have one of those moments like James has, a transcendent sort of connection with the Dales?
There were those moments, kind of littered throughout. In the first series, a lot of the time I just spent pinching myself because I couldn’t believe I was here on this show, playing this part with these wonderful actors around me, working with our director Brian Percival, who was the lead director of Downton Abbey. I remember getting dropped off in one little croft in the middle of nowhere…it was me, Rachel, and Callum, and we just looked around each other—you could shoot in 360 degrees because it was absolutely stunning—that’s one of the first places that sticks in my memory, and I still love going up there.
It’s a little village called Arncliffe and with a house we use as the back of Skeldale House, when we run at the back of the cars. I absolutely love it up there, and because we’ve been up there quite a few times now, we know the locals. They always try and get me to go in for a drink after I’ve finished filming. I’ll stop off and have a little chat between takes, things like that, and they’re just out watching filming, having a gin and tonic. They’re just lovely. I do really love it up there.
What was it like to finally reconnect with the cast—were you able to have fun together (in spite of Covid-19?)
We were so fortunate even just to be going back and being able to film it, and it was lovely for me to be going from one other person in a flat to in a room with 15 other people. We were in this church doing rehearsals with all the windows open—it was absolutely freezing but it was still a joy to be with everyone.
And as we continued filming, restrictions loosened off and we managed to get back to going out once a week for a “family dinner,” as we called it, the five main cast, and socializing in general. I got to know a lot of the cast really well—Patricia Hodge [Mrs. Pumphrey] and Dorothy Atkinson [Diana] and Will Thorp [Gerald] as well. He’s just a top, top, top bloke! All really nice people. We had so much fun, and in general it was just so good to be back on this show with those people. It was such a joy doing Season 1, so to be back really did feel like a homecoming, almost.
Did you and Callum [Woodhouse, who plays Tristan] get up to any hijinks?
We’re always getting up to hijinks. We were in this block of flats and Rachel [Shenton, who plays Helen] was at the bottom, and me and Cal were in the top two. We were always nipping down to one another’s, and we’d cook each other dinner and things like that, which was lovely. And because you couldn’t go out, either me or Cal would host a night and I would run down to his or he’d run up to mine and we’d have a few drinks and we’d play some music, and eventually sometimes we’d start a bit of dancing, depending on what time it was. So it was lovely being in the same block. We just started right back into being pals and having a laugh.
For Season 2, did you have another “animal bootcamp,” where you were immersed in learning about the animals from on-set veterinarian Andy Barrett?
No, we didn’t. We covered most of it on Season 1, and after that, it’s more about being familiar with the different breeds of animals and knowing how to work around them, so that you don’t startle them or anything.
For Season 2, we had that already in the bank, so it was just about going through some of the procedures that we’d be using, and what we’d be doing as they came up on those shooting days. Our on-set vet, Andy Barrett, was there every time an animal was on set, and when those things came up, he would take you through all the procedures. I would ask these really specific questions, to the point where he was getting a bit tired of it. “Yes, you’ll be all right.” I was like, “What’s it feel like when you’re birthing a calf—out of 10, what’s the pain like?” and things like that. And then after a take, I’d always run up to him and ask, “Did you buy it? Was that all right?” And he’d be like, “Yeah, I think you milked it a wee bit, but yeah.” I was like, “It was for TV, Andy.” It was brilliant having him around.
Were there any especially funny or hair raising or remarkable moments with the animals this year?
It’s mostly just that I’m spending 90% of my time at the back end of these big animals…and it’s just not the end you want to be. It’s very pleasant at the front. They’re lovely, and I’m always at the back!
What was it like working with Derek [the dog who plays Tricki Woo] for Season 2?
He just gets better and better, Derek. We have a scene this year where he’s being anesthetized, so I’m going through doing the injection and things, and then at the end, the director said, “Quiet, quiet.” And then you just saw Derek’s eyes drop, drop…and he fell asleep! On cue! And then the director said, “Cut,” and he sprung back awake again and got up on his feet! Honestly, he’s incredible, and he takes all the pressure off you as well, because if you’re in a scene with Derek, nobody’s looking at you. He just gets better and better. He’s an absolute joy.
As you’ve now inhabited James Herriot for two full seasons, has your understanding of Alf Wight, the real veterinarian and author, changed? Is your relationship deepening, or do you feel it’s moving away into something new?
Researching for a job is something I love to do, so I went out to the Glasgow University archives and I found Alf Wight’s report cards and things from when he was at vet college. I’ve read the biography that his son, Jim, wrote and, of course, the first two books, and articles as well. And I know that he was a bit ill when he was younger but even though he was unwell, he was still in the top three for all of the classes in vet school. That just showed the passion he had for it, and the intelligence and the drive, really. And in an article by his son, he talks about how he went through stages of feeling real melancholy.
So it’s interesting. I keep learning more and more, and getting a deeper understanding of the man, and an admiration for him as well. I love the character, I really do—I love playing him, and I love finding more about the real man. There’s a sweet spot between the character of James Herriot and the real man, Alf Wight, a sweet spot right in the middle, because as you put it all together, you have to have your own interpretation of the character. So yeah, I have utter admiration for him, and I’m loving exploring and finding out more and more as we go on.