NICHOLAS Ralph is telling a story about a hairy moment while filming the new series of All Creatures Great and Small.
I was in the back of a car with one of the new dogs,” says the actor, who plays vet James Herriot. “Basically, it was a bit like in Scooby Doo when a character gets a fright, runs away and there is a puff of smoke left behind in their shape. When this dog left the car, it wasn’t smoke; it was hair. It was like, ‘pffff!’ and a whole dog’s worth of hair would land on me. At the end of that day’s filming, getting through the hair to reach the door and get out, I was absolutely covered from top to bottom. The poor costume designer was losing her mind a little.”
Unsurprisingly, playing a TV vet comes with the occasional occupational hazard, yet Ralph – the Scots star of Channel 5’s cosy, feel-good drama – takes it all in his stride when it comes to working alongside canine, feline, equine and bovine thespians. We did have a runaway cow this year who started galloping off with one of the animal handlers holding onto the reins and trying to calm her down,” he says. “They were moving from the area we were filming to another field. I don’t know if she got bored waiting around, but she went off. They were trying to calm her down and she was bucking around a bit. Those are the times when you just stand back and get as far away as possible.”
All Creatures Great and Small centres on a trio of veterinary surgeons working in the Yorkshire Dales. The eccentric Siegfried Farnon hires James Herriot to join his practice at Skeldale House, alongside Siegfried’s younger brother Tristan and matriarch housekeeper Mrs Hall. The TV show draws from the semi-autobiographical James Herriot books, penned by Glasgow Veterinary College graduate Alf Wight, based on his life and work in Thirsk, Yorkshire, with the stories set between the 1930s and 1950s.
Many viewers will fondly remember the original series, starring Christopher Timothy as Herriot, which ran on BBC One from 1978 to 1990. The Channel 5 reboot began airing in 2020 and has already garnered a loyal fan base. Ralph, 32, leads a cast that includes Samuel West, Anna Madeley, Rachel Shenton and Callum Woodhouse, with the late, great Dame Diana Rigg, Matthew Lewis and Nigel Havers all making appearances in previous episodes. West plays Siegfried with Woodhouse as his brother Tristan, Madeley as Mrs Hall and Shenton as Helen Alderson, a farmer’s daughter and love interest to James.
When we speak on a mid-August afternoon, Ralph is ensconced at the Ham Yard Hotel in London amid a busy media day for the latest series of All Creatures Great and Small. It is a couple of years since our last interview and I’m curious to know how he is settling into the role. I’m absolutely loving it,” says Ralph. “It’s my first TV job so, like James, I was a little wet behind the ears. It has been brilliant and such a learning curve in the best way because you are surrounded by these incredible people. We have wonderful directors – Brian Percival and Andy Hay who have returned for every series. You are surrounded by people like Samuel West and Anna Madeley, who are only too happy, especially in those earlier days, to help me out with any questions I have.
James now fills out his vet’s coat a little more and is coming into himself. Personally and professionally, I feel like I’m growing in confidence with him. The third series, which begins this week, sees big changes afoot: Tristan is now a qualified vet, while James is embarking upon a new stage of his life with Helen and in his work at the practice. What else awaits? “James becomes a married man, so there is a wedding,” smiles Ralph. “That is very exciting. Along with that we have Helen moving into Skeldale House and finding her place there.
Because James is a newly married man, he is looking for new ways to provide for them as a couple. He gets a little bit more responsibility from Siegfried. Well, he gets given more responsibility, but Siegfried can’t really relinquish that control. So, he gets it on paper, but we do see Siegfried struggle. They come to loggerheads. James is looking for other ways of making revenue and keeping up with modern techniques, which Siegfried sometimes has trouble with. There are a few things for them to clash and butt heads over.”
Then there is the spectre of the Second World War on the horizon. Will we see a sense of foreshadowing woven through the plotlines? “Certainly, as the series progresses,” says Ralph. “It is still quite early in spring 1939 and things don’t start heating up until towards the end of our series. Then it’s the whole ‘it will be over by Christmas’. We are seeing it through the characters’ eyes – they don’t have the hindsight that we do – but it is certainly there in the background.” Ralph is quick to stress, though, that it isn’t all doom and gloom. “This series, once again, is chock-full of warm, gentle, funny, touching and poignant moments,” he says. “There is a lot of heart with some romance and fun along the way.
But you will see the characters pressed and stretched and challenged in different ways during this series than we have in the previous two. It will be interesting to see how they react to those pressures. Ralph, who grew up in Nairn, was a promising footballer before going on to study acting at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. After graduating in 2017, he regularly trod the boards at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow and landed his first lead role in the National Theatre of Scotland trilogy Interference.
Was there ever a Sliding Doors moment where Ralph imagined what life might have been like if he’d opted for a sporting career instead? “No, because acting was always the thing I wanted to pursue I just didn’t know how to do it,” he says. “Drama wasn’t even on the curriculum at my school.” He recalls one teacher laughing when he revealed his acting aspirations, while another told him, “You don’t want to be an actor, you will end up living out of the back of your car. It is a terrible career choice …”
It didn’t put him off. “I saw an interview with an actor talking about their agent. I was about 15 or 16. I said to my mum, ‘I need an agent, actors have agents.’ I didn’t realise you could study and get a degree in acting. When I found that out it blew my mind. I didn’t look back from that moment. Ralph has a strong desire to do more theatre (“the instant response from a live audience – you can’t beat that rush of being on stage,” he says). Other upcoming projects include the supernatural horror Prey For The Devil, due for release next month, in which he stars alongside the late Ben Cross.
The pandemic saw the film face multiple delays. “I am so chuffed that it is finally seeing the light of day,” says Ralph. “I think this is the third or fourth time it has been scheduled to be released. Landing his part in All Creatures Great and Small was a dream role. Has Ralph fallen in love with Yorkshire, where the series is shot? “Absolutely. It is stunning,” he says. “I can see the appeal of why people end up living there. I come from Nairn, but I love the hustle and bustle of cities. I lived in Glasgow for seven years and I’m now in London. I get the best of both worlds because we go to Yorkshire and film for five months at a time.”
When he’s not working, Ralph is a keen golfer and loves spending time in the great outdoors. “I don’t enjoy many things more than getting out and doing a Munro when I am in Scotland,” he says. How many of the 282 Munros has he bagged so far? “I have done 12 now,” says Ralph. “One of our on-set vets is from Scotland too and often goes up to do Munros. I think he has bagged a few more than me. I’m in a bit of a competition with him. My mate has the [Munro-bagging guide] book and the car – I am a city dweller, so I don’t have a car. I tend to go, ‘Right, which one do you fancy this time?’, then we’ll get in his car and go. There are plenty left to do.”