Interview: Patricia Hodge
How did British actress Patricia Hodge arrive at that certain joie de vivre we see in All Creatures Great and Small‘s Mrs. Pumphrey? In a Season 2 interview with MASTERPIECE, she reveals thoughts on the character, her backstory, cricket, and naturally, the Pekingese pup playing Tricki Woo.
Did you have any prior experience with the books or either TV series of All Creatures Great and Small before joining this production?
Obviously, I was around for the series that went out in the 1970s, and I knew a lot of the people that were involved in it. Funnily enough, it’s the thing that made Peter Davidson, the guy that played Tristan, famous, and then in the wake of that, he and I did three seasons of a comedy series together. I knew them all, actually—Chris Timothy [James Herriot in the original series] and I worked with in the theater, and so on. And we all loved it, and it had its day.
And then I was in lockdown, as we all were, and I saw that it had been redone. I looked at Season 1 just purely because I know and love Sam West, and I knew one or two of the others, and Diana Rigg, and so on, and thought it was absolutely enchanting. So I was extremely taken aback when [the production] got in touch and said, “We’d like you to do Mrs. Pumphrey in the wake of Diana going.” It was an honor to take over from her.
When you joined the production, were there some things that you thought you might like to bring to the role?
Fortunately, I’d seen, I think, two episodes that Diana was in—I didn’t see more, and it was enough to distance myself from anything that she’d done. I just took it from the scripts that were in front of me. I did also reread some of the books, but Mrs. Pumphrey, though she’s very much featured, she’s not particularly described. You just have to take from her behavior and the stories of Tricki Woo. You have to take the kind of person that you think she is, and so I was led by that.
I usually have to have some sort of an image of a person, and it took a while for it to come to me. And then it sort of suddenly did. About a month before I was due to join them to film, I’d been taken up to Yorkshire for a day to do makeup and hair trials and costume fittings, and it was suddenly, while I was talking to the producer, that I said, “Actually, I think that this is it.” Then it fell into place.
What was it that made it click for you? I feel like there’s almost a new sort of energy and joie de vivre in the character.
Well, I know this is a fairly classic version of an English eccentric—it’s just something you innately know about these people, that they’re a sort of force of life, force of nature. And one shouldn’t detail the back story too much, but I rather think she’s a woman who had probably a wealthy industrialist husband, and she has all the spoils as a result of that, but she has never lost her sense of community, and of living in a community. And the Yorkshire Dales is just one massive, wonderful community. So there is this sense all the time of connecting to that community and being part of it, and as much as she may take the attention of the vets, she gives back as well. And she sees the very best things in life. She sees the best of life.
And I would say that the focus of her life is a pretty narrow focus, a pretty narrow spectrum, because the dog is everything. And her life runs on certain tracks, so in that respect, it’s uncomplicated. That’s where I see her joy comes from, because she doesn’t overcomplicate.
What was it like for you to join this tight-knit cast for Season 2?
Above all, I went in on day one, when they were one and a half series in, and from moment one, there was never a sense from them that I hadn’t been there all along. In a way, that’s the way I took it, as well—I thought it’s best to seize this with both hands, and just go in and play the story, just play the scenes. And they all just played along with me, and that’s the very most you can ask for. They’re a really delightful set of people, actually. Everybody working on that show is really special.
Another of the special actors you worked with is Derek [the dog who plays Tricki Woo]. Did Jill Clark, his owner and handler, have any special advice, or information…or even gossip that she shared with you about Derek?
No, no. No gossip at all. She’s an extraordinary woman. She has a magic touch with animals, and she’s very low profile. She just stands and looks after him, and then hands him over to you when we come to filming. But I really wanted to know a lot about him, because I don’t think I’ve ever met a dog like him, and the placidity of his nature is extraordinary. So I was fascinated. He’s actually a rescue dog that was just placed on her kitchen table one day by somebody who had him and said, “Jill, I think this is one for you.” And she sort of thought, “Oh, right.” She told me, “I was going out for lunch with a friend, and I thought, ‘Well, I better take him with me. And he just sat there on a chair all through lunch and never complained, just sort of as if he’d always been there.”
We’ve talked a lot about her life and her animals. She has this sense of responsibility to all the animals that she’s involved with. But she never interferes in trying to tell the actors what to do—she concentrates on the dog, and knows exactly how to calm him down, or if he’s showing signs of being uncomfortable, she’ll just take him away for a few minutes very quietly, and then pop him back. I can’t say much more because it was so easy for me.
What was your first experience like with Derek, and did your of relationship with him grow over the course of filming?
Well, I wouldn’t like to say that my relationship with him was any better than he shows to anybody else. I just know what I took from it. On the first day that I was filming, Jill wasn’t there but the person who works with her was there with Tricki, and he came up to me just as I was crossing to the trailer and said, “I understand that you’d like to meet Tricki—or Derek—before you start to work with him.” And I said, “Yes, absolutely.” Normally with dogs, you let them scent you first, so I put my hand out so Derek could get a sense of me before he was suddenly thrust into my arms. And unlike a lot of dogs that would sort of immediately start sniffing, he went [looks around casually], like as if to say, “What are you putting your hand out for?” He has no neurosis at all. So I leapt in at the deep end, and he just played. He’s an actor.
It was a delight to see Mrs. Pumphrey hosting the cricket match. Are you a cricket fan?
Yes. Well, the cricket match, of course, is a feature of the stories where Mrs. Pumphrey is concerned, because the house is big enough to have a cricket pitch and to host the annual match, and so I knew that episode was coming up. But the lead writer was put on the phone to me, I think before I even did the first episode, and he said, “Just wanted to talk through with you,” because they like to tailor things to a degree around what they sense from the actors, so that they can play to strengths and so on. And he said to me, “Now, we’ve got the cricket match coming up. Do you know anything about cricket?” And I said, “It’s my favorite game,” which it is. My older son introduced me to it—I thought it was the most boring game on earth until he started to play it at the age of eight, and fell in love with it. I used to go and stand on the sidelines for school cricket matches, and if you learn it from the ground up, you learn it along with a child, then you get to understand it. So it was just nectar for me. He said, “Brilliant, then we’ll write it up.” And that’s why Mrs. Pumphrey then starts to show an unusual interest in cricket.
What was it like filming at Broughton Hall, the location used for Mrs. Pumphrey’s home?
It’s beautiful. It’s really, really a lovely house, so it was pretty special. And actually,it happened completely by chance that I have met, in the past, the daughter of the household. She’s a very much admired cartoonist who does a cartoon strip for Country Life, which is a very, very English kind of publication. And so it was interesting to me that that’s where she was brought up. It’s the family home, and very much in the English tradition of—I won’t say “full nobility,” but it’s there are noble connections there.
And what was your experience of filming in the Yorkshire Dales?
Well, I had an acquaintanceship with it before. I was actually brought up in Lincolnshire, which is the county next door to Yorkshire. But having said that, Yorkshire is a very, very big county, and the Dales are only part of it, and a very beautiful part of it. So my acquaintance was probably a couple of times from childhood.
But then, I was in the first stage realization of the story of the “calendar girls,” which you may recall was a famous film about a group of Woman’s Institute ladies, and [the Dales is] where they all live. So when I was doing the play Calendar Girls, the real life calendar girls used to come and appear at various theaters and things—we would get them up on the stage at the end and so on. I mean, they are heroines in their own right, and they’re a lovely group of women. I became very friendly with the one that I was playing, Angela, who’s the one who lost her husband to leukemia, which is what the whole story was predicated on. In the past if I’d been, for example, driving up to Scotland, I would stop off [in the Dales] and see Angela on the way. So it was lovely to be filming in the Dales, because then I could see her. And another great friend of mine has actually moved from Hampshire up to the Dales and has a beautiful house there. So there’s never any bad reason to go to the Dales. It can only be good.