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All Creatures Great and Small (TV series)
All Creatures Great and Small is a British television series based on the books of the British veterinary surgeon Alf Wight, who wrote under the pseudonym James Herriot. In 1977, the BBC tasked producer Bill Sellars with the creation of a television series from Herriot’s first two novels, If Only They Could Talk and It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet, using the title of the 1975 film adaptation.
The series had two runs: the original (1978 to 1980, based directly on Herriot’s books) was for three series; the second (1988 to 1990, filmed with original scripts) for four. Ninety episodes were broadcast in the six-year period.
The leading role is played by Christopher Timothy. Simon Ward (who had played the part in the 1975 film), John Alderton (who had replaced Ward in the sequel, It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet) and Richard Beckinsale all turned down the role. Bill Sellars had wanted to give the role to Timothy from the outset, but the powers that be wanted to cast the role. Sellars, therefore, asked Timothy if he would accept the role of Tristan Farnon. “I had a wife, I had children, I had a mortgage to pay, and I wasn’t working. So I said, ‘No. It’s Herriot or nothing.'” Timothy put everything on the line. “I got home one night, at about 9 o’clock. My wife was washing up in the kitchen. I walked into the kitchen and she said, without turning round, ‘You’ve got the Herriot part.'” Timothy also stated that, after all of the roles had been cast except that of Herriot, one of the directors said, “Why don’t we give [the Herriot part] to Christopher Timothy and make him a name?” In 2003, Timothy said that Alf Wight wrote him a letter after the series started, saying “You are the Herriot I wrote about”.
The cantankerous and eccentric Siegfried Farnon, based on Wight’s real life partner Donald Sinclair, is played by Robert Hardy. “We all had a meeting together in London,” recalls Hardy, “and Bill Sellars said, ‘Now, these characters are all based on real people. None of you are to meet these people until we have made at least three episodes.’ So I immediately got into my car and fled up to Yorkshire to meet my man, Donald Sinclair. I was intrigued beyond measure by him. He was a true eccentric and, like all true eccentrics, he had no idea himself how odd he was! He absolutely hated what I did, because he had no idea he was at all like that, but when we’d really got into it and were producing them at high speed, his friends used to come to me and say, ‘You’ve got him, that’s him.'”
A bachelor at the time, Siegfried took over Skeldale House from another vet, named Grant. “Some writers considered him an explosion, and all they needed to do was light the fuse and — bang — he would lose his temper, which was a great bore,” explained the actor. “So I ended up occasionally writing my own scenes. I did make a nuisance of myself, and I’m afraid I made enemies amongst some of the younger writers. But that’s necessary. Out of these battles come, if you’re lucky, quality. It needs steel and a stone to make a spark.” In the 1983 Christmas Special, Siegfried meets an old flame, Caroline Fisher, who has returned after living in America. They later marry and have children, as mentioned in the series 7 episode “Hampered”.
“He would simply say, ‘This is nonsense, I’m not doing it,'” laughed Peter Davison, who plays Siegfried’s boyish younger brother, Tristan (affectionately called “Mister Tristan” by housekeeper Mrs Hall), whose character was based on the younger brother of Donald Sinclair, Brian. Upon first meeting Davison, Christopher Timothy joked to Bill Sellars, “Too tall, re-cast!” “I thought, ‘What if they suddenly noticed I was quite a bit taller than Robert Hardy?'” explained Davison. “He thought I meant it,” said Timothy. “He was horrified that I was trying to get him re-cast. I was in no position to do that and I wouldn’t have done that joke for the world if I thought it would upset him. He’s a lovely bloke, Pete, an absolute gent. I’m very fond of him.”
“In the early episodes I smoked a pipe, because I knew that Donald did in the early days,” explained Hardy. “By the end I was very involved with my costumes and used to wear a lot of my own clothes, because at the beginning the designer put me into some of the most frightful stuff, which really made me unhappy because it just made me look like a block of really absurd tweeds.”
“I ended up in more of the series because Robert Hardy really liked the way the two brothers worked,” continued Davison. “It gave him more scope for what he wanted to do. I’ve never learned so much from anyone as I learned from Robert, because I’ve just never worked with anyone else like him. He is an extraordinary actor. He would never do the same thing twice. In two takes he would give an entirely different performance — he would bark where he had whispered before. I had to keep on my toes, but I managed to keep up with him, I think, though obviously I’m not on his level.”
Hardy’s demand for professionalism became plain to see. “If he thinks that someone is not doing the absolute best they can, he will tell them so,” said Davison
“On one level I’m not like Tristan at all,” said Davison. “I was very, very shy growing up. I was very shy in company. I was shy at drama school. I came over as quite affable in a way, which served me well, but I wasn’t confident.” “I think I lied about every aspect of playing the part. I said I smoked; I didn’t smoke. I said I drank; I didn’t drink. I said I knew a bit about animals; didn’t know anything about animals.”
Tristan likes nothing more than slipping out to the Drovers Arms for a pint or two of Best Yorkshire Bitter whenever the opportunity presents itself, one of several “intensely irritating habits” that annoy his brother. Others include his penchant for sleeping late, failing his exams, and spending too much time chasing women. In the episode “The Prodigal Returns”, when Siegfried mistakenly thinks “little brother” is impersonating a client on the other end of the telephone line, a few home truths come out: “Mr Biggins, if you’ve got it into your head that young Mr Farnon is a veterinary surgeon of any quality whatsoever, let me disabuse you of that idea immediately. He is nothing more than a slothful, drunken, incompetent lecher who will soon be seeking employment elsewhere.” Tristan’s party piece is a rendition of “The Mad Conductor” (Benito Mussolini conducting the Neurasthenic Strings), which he performs in “Out of Practice” and “…The Healing Touch”. In the former episode, he downs a pint of beer. “That was real beer!” Davison said. “I don’t think coloured water would have worked for some reason, and I don’t know if they had the alcohol-free beer then?” As for “The Mad Conductor”, Davison continued: “I have no idea what I was doing! I just went a bit nuts really.”
“Peter was so good. We worked well together, ” said Hardy of his on-screen sibling. “In the early filming days, I realised he was watching me. He watched and watched, and I said, ‘Why are you looking at me all the time?’ and he said, ‘Because we’re brothers, and I want to catch some sort of family thing that I can use so that it’s obvious we are of the same family.’ I was very impressed by that. He was very, very good.”
Helen Herriot (née Alderson) is played by Carol Drinkwater in the first three series and two specials, then by Lynda Bellingham in the final four series. Mary Hignett plays housekeeper Mrs Hall in the first three series, with Mrs Hubbard (Marjorie Suddell) (1983 Christmas Special), Mrs Greenlaw (Judy Wilson) (1985 special and series 4, episodes 1–5) and Mrs Alton (Jean Heywood) (series 7) inheriting the roles. (A housekeeper by the name of Mary preceded Mrs Hall, who is a widow after the death of her husband, Arthur.)
With the amount of screen time to fill, the series quickly became much more of an ensemble show, developing all the characters considerably. In particular, the role of Tristan was significantly increased. This was partly because Christopher Timothy was injured in a car accident on Boxing Day 1977 during a fortnight break between the recording of “Out of Practice” and “Nothing Like Experience” in the first series. As a result, the actor was largely restricted to studio scenes, which meant that all the scenes involving location filming be rewritten and include Davison. “I remember Christopher’s accident vividly,” recalled Robert Hardy. “It was a ghastly shock, and one thought, ‘Well, that’s the end of that. We shan’t be going on.'” Timothy remembers: “The news from the hierarchy was: ‘Tragic news about Christopher. Glad he’s okay. Send his wife some flowers and re-cast.'”
“One of the plans was to make me James Herriot,” said Peter Davison, “and then re-cast Tristan.” Bill Sellars refused this option: “I said, ‘I’m not doing that. It’s an awful waste. We’ll find another way around it.’ We took the rest of the series apart, scene by scene, and all the scenes that Christopher Timothy was involved in, I extracted and took them down to the hospital, threw them on the hospital bed, and said, ‘Learn those.'” This accounts for the three-week break in transmission dates between episodes 11 (“Bulldog Breed”) and 12 (“Practice Makes Perfect”) of the first series.
“I was plated and screwed instead of plastered,” recalled Timothy, “and I was back at work in nine weeks — which was insane, in retrospect: I could barely walk, I was terrified, I’d lost a lot of weight and everybody worked round me.”
“They would prop him up against a surgery table,” said Peter Davison. “Then he’d start having a conversation with me. And then, at some point in the scene, I would have to move my eyes slowly across the room while two people would come in and literally carry him across to the next position.”
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