"All Creatures Great and Small" star on animals, slow-burn romance & what makes a Scottish Christmas

Nicholas Ralph, who plays veterinarian James Herriot, spoke to Salon about the yuletide finale and what's next

By Hanh Nguyen

Senior Editor

Published February 21, 2022 3:31PM (EST)

Callum Woodhouse and Nicholas Ralph in "All Creatures Great and Small" (PBS)
Callum Woodhouse and Nicholas Ralph in "All Creatures Great and Small" (PBS)

The following contains spoilers from the season 2 finale of "All Creatures Great and Small." If you haven't watched yet, check out Salon's review.

As has becomes tradition for many British series, the big finale for the second season of "All Creatures Great and Small" includes a visit from Saint Nicholas

Or in this case, Nicholas Ralph.

The star of the good-hearted series – based on James Herriot's books about a 1930s British veterinary surgeon set in the Yorkshire Dales – had the honor of playing Father Christmas this time, since his employer Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West) is otherwise occupied. Although the finale centers on many issues of "gentle peril" – ranging from the possible death of a beloved pet to having too many social commitments – the children of Darrowby will not be denied Santa during a Christmas Eve party. Young veterinarian James Herriot (Ralph) steps up, while his fiancée Helen Alderson (Rachel Shenton) plays his elf.

Ralph, who's played Father Christmas before in a local production, found this to be a slightly different experience, especially since the episode was shot during the summer.

"I had never played it in the green and white outfit, the old Father Christmas outfit," Ralph told Salon in a Zoom interview. "Yeah, it was absolutely boiling. It was like, oh 28 degrees [celsius] and I had that big suit on with a pillows stuffed under for my belly. And so it was warm."

RELATED: A worthy return for "All Creatures Great and Small" celebrates the little things

The series has become a welcome respite from the current troubles in our world. With its rolling green hills, low-stakes emotional drama and animals aplenty,  "All Creatures Great and Small" has become a pandemic hit for its soothing storytelling. Paired with Masterpiece's produciton of "Around the World in 80 Days," it's become a destination for family viewing. Despite its gentleness, however, the series is also undercut with a wistful melancholy for people missing loved ones and the encroaching specter of World War II

One of the final scenes of the Christmas episode is of Mrs. Hall (Anna Madely) looking out the window and seeing the shadow of a bomber pass overhead. 

Check out the rest of Salon's interview with Ralph, who discusses the show's slow-burning romance, his scene-stealing canine co-star and hints of what to expect in season 3.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Nicholas Ralph and Rachel Shenton in "All Creatures Great and Small" (PBS)Last time I saw you at a press conference, writer Ben Vanstone said that he's pacing the show over several seasons. And last season, Helen had just left her fiancé Hugh (Matthew Lewis) at the altar. So I was actually surprised that your character James managed to get engaged to Helen this season. I thought Ben was going to make us wait.

The pacing has to do with the source material. They're engaged and married by the end of the first book. We knew once it started that it would move quite swiftly. But I think as well one of the main storylines of season 2 certainly is this slow-burning kind of romance. And I think it's just paced wonderfully well, from the initial very tentative stepping towards each other being reacquainted under these new circumstances, going to the ball to the kiss on the barn roof to saying "I love you" to a very spontaneous engagement, pushed along by Siegfried. 

Did I miss how exactly James and Helen resolved their living situation? As funny as I think it would be having Tristan (Callum Woodhouse) in their cupboard, I know that's not the most conducive to marital bliss. And Helen still has to work on her farm.

There's a bedsitter at the top of Skeldale house, and no one's in it. It's a little place up there for the bed, a couple of chairs and a cooker, a little kitchen basically. So they've decided that's where they'll be, but they're still trying to work out Helen's place within Skeldale House. And of course, she'll be going back to work on the farm as well day-to-day.

It's kind of thrilling to see since it's a very chaste romance for TV today. What's been the response to that?

Oh, hugely, hugely positive. Everyone had gone nuts for the kiss on the barn roof. I still still get messages now about it. Or the memes: "Find someone the way that Helen looks at James here," or "Find someone the way James looks at Helen here." It's a lot of fun. 

The show looks another way around; it's just as simple as two hands touching. Even in the Christmas episode in season 1, when they're looking after the puppies, urging them on to start breathing – they hold hands here, kind of unbeknownst to them, just like something that naturally happens. And there's little moments of that as well in season 2 after the dance when the she comes into the practice and says, "I would like to dance with you again." And then she said, "I've been out and about and I feel a lot more like myself. It's because of you," and they hold hands. It's little things like that. And we see it between Mrs. Hall and Siegfried as well. They hold hands. There's these little things that are just really lovely.

Patricia Hodge and Derek in "All Creatures Great and Small" (PBS)Sadly, Dame Diana Rigg died after the first season, so Patricia Hodge has stepped in to play the iconic Mrs. Pumphrey, who has quite a lot to do this season, between hosting the cricket match to having some very dramatic moments with her dog, Tricki-Woo. We'll get to him later. How was it working with her this season and what does she bring to Mrs. Pumphrey?

She's come in and just completely made the character her own. She's got her own twist on it, her own flavor, and it's brilliant. She's so good in general, but she's brilliant with comedy as well. One of the first scenes we had her do, Patricia's using Derek, who plays Tricki-Woo, almost like a ventriloquist's dummy. And it was so funny. I was struggling to keep it together. 

So she's just brought that and also just off set as well. She's really lovely to chat to, like Dame Diana was – heaps of stories from from being in the industry as long as she has. It's just a real treat to have her on set. I think her Mrs. Pumphrey is just wonderful. I can't wait to see more of her.

She plays such a big role this season. Could you discuss the finale, in which James invites both the Skeldale House folks and Helen's family over to Mrs. Pumphrey's for Christmas? Otherwise, she would've been all alone except for Tricki-Woo.

Because we have a surrogate family between Siegfried, Mrs. Hall and the boys – and Helen ever growing more a part of that as her in James's relationship develops – then Mrs. Pumphrey is almost like the grandmother of the family. Hopefully we'll see a lot more of her but certainly that's how I see her. She's the grandmother of this surrogate kind of mishmash family.

Now let's talk Trick-Woo, her little Pekingnese. Were you upset that "Uncle Herriot" wasn't the favored veterinarian this season? It turns out that Tricki has transferred his trust and affections to Siegfried. Although it's your character who has the breakthrough and administers the anesthetic to help Tricki rest and recover enough to get well.

Yeah, absolutely, I couldn't believe it when I read the scripts and I saw that someone else was taking care of Tricki. "That should be me!" [Laughs]

Little Derek who plays Tricki-Woo is a sterling professional. I remember we were doing the scene where I anesthetize him. And the director just said, "Alright everyone, quiet quiet." And then as I was doing the injection you saw Derek's eyes, Tricki's eyes just drop, drop. And he went to sleep. The director said, "Cut!" and [Derek] was up back up and around again. He just he gets better every season.

Also Sam says he knows that Derek reads the scripts as well because there was a scene where we were all sat in the kitchen. Sam comes through into the kitchen. He's supposed to go into the pantry, and Tricki follows him in. So we shoot it, and Sam came in, stopped before the pantry, but forgot to go in. Tricki followed him in and went straight to the pantry. Sam was like, "Oh, yes, that's what I meant to do." So [Derek] is even showing us how it's done. 

Samuel West and Derek in "All Creatures Great and Small" (PBS)One of the pivotal moments in the finale is Tricki-Woo becoming sick. It's actually touch and go there. But fortunately he recovers. It's a Christmas miracle! What was the response to that like?

There were a lot of tweets during the show. A lot of outpouring of concern: "Oh, my God, they can't!" and "No way, Not Tricki!" Just a long list of all that sort of stuff. He is the real star of the show. And I'm also glad that he pulled through.

But it's not just dogs. James is primarily a vet for farm animals. Other than getting splattered, what at the dangers of working with these animals?

We have a lot of big animals on this show, and I end up spending 80% of my time at the back end of these big animals. They're very pleasant from the front, but you know, I'm at the wrong end. We've got some big sequences of big procedures with horses and their steel feet. So you don't want to be getting in the way of those. And cows as well can kick and things like that. 

All Creatures Great and SmallNicholas Ralph as James Herriot in "All Creatures Great and Small" (PBS/Playground Television Ltd.)You're talking about the scene where you have to shift the foal inside the mare who's pregnant?

Yeah, we had to roll the horse. Thankfully, the horses are trained impeccably well, but you have a massive horse lying on its side and then being rolled over while I'm stretched out [like] Superman at the back of it. We use a mixture of real-life animals and prosthetics. Most of the wider shots, it's the real horse. And then it's a mix of myself and Andy Barrett, our vet, at the backend who fills in for me as James, Superman laying out in the back of the back of the horse. And there was one take where the horse went to get up. So obviously you're by its back legs, and it's like swinging its legs to get up. So you've just got to get out of the way because you don't want those steel feet coming anywhere near you. 

But I love getting my hands dirty. I love a challenge. And this show is wonderful for that. I'd read the scripts, and I'd make a beeline for Andy Barrett and ask him everything there is that I need to know about the procedure. And for example, when I was doing birthing the calf and season one I was like, where's the pain on the arm? And what is it out of 10? So then we did a take, and I was like, "Andy, what do you think? Any good?" Andy said, "Yeah you kind of milked it a little." 

You pulled a Tristan?
Yeah, exactly, but not quite as much as him. 

We see James whittling a log, a Cailleach, this season that he says is tradition for his family to burn on Christmas night. Have you ever done this and do you whittle yourself?

No. My short answer is no. Ben, our writer, got in touch with me and he said, "Is there any specifically Scottish Christmas traditions?" I was like, "Sorry, Ben. Not particularly." But I had a little look and I found this about the Cailleach, Old Woman Winter. That was pretty great news because I think there was a time in Scotland where there wasn't Christmas. There was something with it being a religious holiday, but basically, it wasn't celebrated as it is now. So there was even less scope for traditions to be made because people kind of just go on as if it was another day. But yes, I found that and so we use that. And I haven't done any whittling before, no. I'm glad you bought it.

We also see James recite a little bit of Robert Burns, "Auld Lang Syne," on Christmas. Although this isn't related to the show, Burns Night just passed recently. Do you usually celebrate that?

Yeah I did a night. We had friends around, and I addressed the haggis. And we'll do like a toast. Years before I would do "Address to a Haggis" and I've done a couple of poems, like "To a Mouse" and "My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose" and things like that. We have haggis, neeps and tatties and a glass of whiskey to toast everybody and the haggis. We do the full show.

Rachel Shenton, Callum Woodhouse and Nicholas Ralph in "All Creatures Great and Small" (PBS)One of the more intense episodes this season was the big cricket match, in which you join the Darrowby Eleven against Hugh's team. How was that to play, and how are you at cricket?

So, much like James, I am not very good at cricket so that was fine. I didn't have to pretend. I'm very sporty like James, like Alf Wight, but not cricket. Not one of my ones. That was the final week of filming and we had this beautiful weather, which is lovely. And it was great because we had so many extras in for the end and the way it had to be shot with kind of the montages as well. I take my hat off to Andy Hay, our director for that episode, because without him we would have just been lost. He pulled it off in spectacular fashion. 

I think it's a brilliant episode, a little bit of a change of pace for the series, you know, the style is slightly different. And, of course, there's the big matchup between James and Hugh. And we also see James a bit jealous as well, which is, which is good. He's human. It's nice to see these other, his very human qualities.

How do you feel about the way that that episode ended as far as James' choice to basically throw the match in the very last play?

Yeah, I think he realizes that he's got the girl. Him and Helen at this stage are getting on very well. And Hugh's of his own choices decided to kind of outcast himself and take himself away. And you've got to feel for someone under those circumstances, because James seems to know how horrible that was. Obviously, he's been with Helen now, so he would have got it from her perspective as well, I'm sure along the way. I think it was the right choice in the end to give [Hugh] a win knowing that James is the real winner.

I know the war is encroaching. And even though the Dales don't necessarily get that much action – obviously, it's not like you're on the front lines or anything like that – but has there been discussion about how much that will infiltrate a little bit of the storyline? It'll be 1939 next season.

Yes, that's right. Obviously, we can't ignore that there's a war going on or is about to begin. Definitely it will be a thing that's happening that will be commented on. But we will stay within the world of Darrowby and we'll be seeing this time period all through the eyes of these people, because although that's happening, the farmers are still there, the animals are still there, they still need tending to. The life as it were goes on. We will see bits of that throughout the third series, I imagine, even though I haven't seen all the scripts yet.

World War II has a different impact in Europe. The writer of "World on Fire" called it your "foundation myth." Do you know your family's history in relation to the war?

My grandfather on my mom's side, and his father and his family were farmers. So they were, what do you call it, they were in a protected profession. They'd stayed [to work] so that there was food for people. On my dad's side, my grandfather was in the merchant navy. He's on the ships but with supplies and things like that. He made it he made it through the second world war on those ships; he was he was doing his his bit that way. 

"All Creatures Great and Small" (PBS)Last summer at the press conference, Ben Vanstone was already writing scripts for season 3. What's the status on that? Are you about to shoot soon?

We're about to shoot start of March. We've got a couple of scripts in so far, but we don't know the whole story arc. We know block one, roughly. It's a real treat for us as well when we get scripts in because then we'll read through them and then we'll message each other on in the What's App group for the five of us, the main characters. "Did you see what happens there? Do you see what happens? Oh, that's gonna be really cool." So in a couple of weeks' time we'll be filming again.

We got lambs and chickens in season 2. What's coming for season 3?

I'd like to think we've come back bigger and better. We have another bull that comes along and horses and cows, sheep – all those bigger animals. But we also have littler animals as well. We have – what is he again? the little bird – a little budgie. We've got all sorts of animals big and small

What do you do during during COVID When you're not shooting? Have you picked up extra hobbies like some people are? Baking bread or whatnot?

I packed a bag and I ended up going home for the first lockdown; it was like two and a half months. It was lovely. We were back home in Nairn, in a little town north of Scotland. It's like a 10-15 minute walk to the beach. And it was stunning weather here. I was listening to podcasts and then I'd go for a walk or go for a run down the beach. 

And then once things opened up again, you're allowed to golf again, so I'd go golfing. I just had chilled out and read books. Then actually because of film and TV, we were very fortunate to be picked up quite quickly afterwards. And after that first lockdown, I went off a month afterwards in August to film "The Devil's Light" in Bulgaria. Then I went on to another job after that. Then we had a couple of lockdowns and then I started "All Creatures" season 2.

What is "The Devil's Light" and your role in it?

I play a priest who's in exorcism training. They have this kind of church university for priests and nuns. And one of the sisters in training, she wants to be an exorcist basically. Tradition dictates that priests are the exorcists, and the sisters look after people. So one of the lecturers take an interest in her and lets her come into his classes for that. It turns out she has a personal connection with one of the possessed who were held downstairs. So then that kind of kicks off. And as we are being trained, we are thrust in to take on this demon when we're not quite ready to yet.

So night and day from "All Creatures Great and Small," very different. But it should be really exciting. And apart from that, I may be back on stage, which would be amazing. We've got "The Devil's Light" coming out for Halloween. Fingers crossed, it'll come out this time.

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By Hanh Nguyen

Hanh Nguyen is the Senior Editor of Culture, which covers TV, movies, books, music, podcasts, art, and more. Her work has also appeared in IndieWire, and The Hollywood Reporter. She co-hosts the "Good Pop Culture Club" podcast, which examines the good pop that gets us through our days, from an Asian American perspective. Follow her at Hanhonymous.

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