All Memories Great and Small
Oliver Crocker chats with the cast of one of Yorkshire’s most successful television series (March 2017)
While researching my new book All Memories Great and Small, published as part of the James Herriot centenary year, I carried out sixty new interviews with the cast and crew of the long-running BBC series All Creatures Great and Small.
What follows are edited extracts from my interviews with the three main stars of the Yorkshire-based drama – Robert Hardy, Peter Davison and Christopher Timothy – who share anecdotes from their time making the programme.
Peter Davison, Christopher Timothy and Robert Hardy on set with “Tricki Woo”
Robert Hardy (Siegfried Farnon)
At first there was a lot of argument, because I felt the BBC would make a mess of it – I didn’t think anyone there understood the country, or what country life and vets were about – I was a countryman myself and knew all about vets, because they used to be in constant demand where I was brought up.
There was an early meeting before we started, when Bill Sellars said we were going to do it in Derbyshire, in the Peak District, to save money on travel. And I said, “In that case, you can count on me not being there. It’s either Yorkshire, or nothing”, and I went for the door and left, thinking that was the end of that. Unless we were where Alf had written about, in the countryside he loved so much and understood so well, it wouldn’t have worked. The Peak District is lovely, but it is very different and it is small, whereas Yorkshire is vast. But they changed their minds and of course we filmed in Yorkshire, which is a stunning part of the world and those marvellous Dales we worked in: Swaledale, Coverdale, Arkengarthdale and so on.
We all had a meeting together in London and Bill said, “Now these characters are all based on real people, none of you are to meet these real 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! So I was absolutely fascinated with how to play him. 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.” I mean the real man was very odd, one never knew whether he was really aware of himself making mistakes, which he then put on other people, or not. I think he had a sublime sort of innocence, but I think very often he did think it was the fault of other people.
Peter Davison (Tristan Farnon)
I think the first thing we did was a filming block on location in North Yorkshire for several weeks. I just remember driving up and seeing this beautiful countryside that I’d never seen before, it was untouched. It was centuries apart from the accursed television aerials, which caused us a great deal of pain on a period series.
Initially we stayed in a little place called West Witton in Wensleydale, in between Leyburn and Askrigg, the village we used as Darrowby. Robert Hardy always stayed over near Reeth, where he’d found this rather grand little bed and breakfast place – he wasn’t stand-offish in terms of not staying with us, he just wanted to have his own creature comforts. Gradually over the course of filming, because I didn’t have that much to begin with, I used to go off and wander around the countryside and drive into Richmond and places like that. At that time, people knew what we were doing, but they weren’t interested at all. We would take over Askrigg and drive the very few motorists crazy by stopping the traffic. I just loved it.
Robert Hardy has his make-up applied by designer Carol Churchill under the watchful eye of Peter Davison. Picture © Carol Churchill
On one level I’m not like Tristan at all – I was very, very, very shy growing up. I was very shy in company, I was shy at drama school, I was never one of the outgoing ones there. I was pretty terrible in auditions. That was another reason I thought there was no way I was ever going to play Tristan – this devil-may-care guy, drunk all the time, arms around girls, and I was nothing like that! I remember meeting the real Tristan, Brian Sinclair, he came over to the set and that was a great help.
I think I have grown more like Tristan – and I wasn’t aware of it – but when we came to do the second series, I was asked to open a fete in Hawes and I remember asking Robert Hardy if I should do it and he said, “Oh yes, you must do it!” I said I didn’t know what to do and he said, “Just be Tristan!” And that’s basically what I did: “Hi everybody, there’s going to be a dog show in the centre – I’m going to be in the beer tent…” I didn’t even drink beer then, I hated beer! I ended up advertising beer! And downing the pint in Out of Practice – that was real beer! I don’t think coloured water would have worked for some reason. I remember we did another scene where Chris and I both had to drink several pints and he actually threw up in a bucket in the studio!
Christopher Timothy (James Herriot)
I suppose it is a lot to ask of an actor, to stick their arm up a cow’s bum, but that’s the job. If you played a test pilot, you wouldn’t have to do that because it would be lethally dangerous. If you were playing a brain surgeon, you wouldn’t actually have to cut open anybody’s head because that would be unthinkable. But none of us ever did anything that could harm an animal. The injections were all faked and arms up a cow’s bum is not difficult to do – and the cows don’t mind too much… in fact, some cows quite like it! Jack Watkinson [veterinary advisor] wouldn’t tolerate anything that he deemed as unethical. The directors at one point sent out a note about how animals should be treated in the furtherance of entertainment, but it was always left to the attending vet’s discretion. Once or twice I asked Jack if he was happy about what we were doing and he said “Absolutely, I’m using my discretion…” He wasn’t joking, he meant it. If it had gone against any of his ethical code he would have refused us to do it.
Christopher Timothy and Carol Churchill. Picture © Carol Churchill
Robert Hardy (Siegfried Farnon)
In Tricks of the Trade Christopher was inside a loose box with quite a difficult horse, a stallion. He was a thoroughbred and temperamental and the owner who had lent him for the filming had a little electric pig prod with him. The director wanted much more action from the horse and asked the owner to get him excited. I heard some shouting going on and I went down to the loose box to find Christopher in there alone with the horse and the owner, who had tickled up the horse so that he kicked really hard and he only just missed Christopher’s head, he just went through his hair, with a hoof that could have killed him! At that moment I read the riot act and said, “You cannot do that to an animal and you cannot risk an actor’s life.” This same horse had to break out of the loose box at a later moment and drag Siegfried across the yard. I said I wasn’t going to do it and that I needed a stuntman who was trained.
On another episode I did get injured, again because of what the director wanted.
He wanted a wonderful shot of me with the Yorkshire moors behind me and he was more intrigued by the moors than he was with what I was doing, which was injecting a young stirk and there were others standing around. Jack Watkinson said that I should only attempt it in a confined indoor space, but that the animal shouldn’t feel anything, just bang him on the rump and let the needle go in – there was nothing in the needle and I didn’t depress it… I was injecting the stirk with my right hand and I was holding him in with rope in my left hand. I injected him and that alarmed the stirk and it took off. I was dragged over grass and rocks and I broke a couple of ribs! I had to go to the army hospital out at Catterick and I couldn’t do any shooting for days.”
Donald Sinclair and I had become great friends and saw a lot of each other, but he couldn’t bear what I did. I joined him for lunch one day, he lived in some style, you know, in a big house. He had a lot of Americans sitting around the table and he said, “They can’t understand having met me and knowing how quiet and polite I am, why I am acted as such a madman in the series?” I explained that Siegfried is loved across the world, people adore the character, but he couldn’t understand it. I asked him, considering he’d already been played in a film by Tony Hopkins, which actor he would like to have played him? And he said “Well I just think someone with courtesy and calm, attractive… I tell you who, Rex Harrison!” I knew then from the very beginning I’d been on the losing ticket.
Peter Davison, as Tristan, downs a pint in the episode Out of Practice
Christopher Timothy (James Herriot)
We were filming in Askrigg and there must have been 300 people watching. Coachloads of tourists and visitors and they were behaving impeccably. Our assistant director in charge would ask them for absolute quiet and they all dutifully did as they were asked. We did a couple of rehearsals first and showed off a bit and made them laugh and then time to get to the job in hand and do the first take. We were in the house and we heard “Action!” So we stepped out of the house and began the scene… and an elderly woman walks right across in front of camera, holding a white carrier bag. Now the clothes she was wearing, we could have got away with, but the carrier bag spoiled it, so the assistant director said “Cut”. He went over to her and explained and she looked at the crowd and then he looked at us and she said “I’ve got my bloody life to lead, you know!” Well you can’t argue with that, can you? She lived in Askrigg and was going to get some potatoes for her husband’s lunch and no film crew was going to muck that up – and quite right too!
I remember another occasion when a whole lot of us had been out for a meal and we were driving back to where we were staying and we found a load of cows loose in the road, right up in the Dales. Carol [Drinkwater] and I looked around and there was a farm up the road and we knocked on the door. The farmer was in bed and he came down and saw that he was talking to Mr and Mrs James Herriot!
In 1995 I made a film, James Herriot’s Yorkshire. We asked Alf [Wight aka James Herriot] if he would appear. When we came to do it, he was seriously ill. I met him at the Golden Fleece in Thirsk. I hadn’t seen him for nine months and he looked really frail and we walked very slowly around to the surgery.
We filmed him in the garden, but he didn’t want to speak – his voice had become a little bit weedy, you could hardly notice, but he was a little self-conscious about it. We sat facing each other and the camera just went round and round as we talked, though it was mute.
Afterwards a car was going to pick him up, so we walked back through the garden, I helped him because he was frail. And as we opened the famous front door, round the corner came the archetypal American tourist, with a carrier bag full of books and camera around his neck. He looked and when he saw me he said, “Oh My God!” and then he saw Alf and he said “Oh My God!” even louder… Immediately, Alf grew about four inches. On the bonnet of the car, Alf signed all the books and then passed them to me to sign. He was gracious and charming and the American just couldn’t believe what had happened. As he walked away, Alf then shrank again. That was the last time I saw him.
An expanded edition of Oliver Crocker’s book has since been released. Featuring new interviews, previously unpublished photographs and in-depth production notes detailing locations, filming dates and more! See devonfirebooks.com/product/allmemories-expanded for more details.