Young James Herriot ventured from Scotland to the Yorkshire Dales of England in 1937 to launch his veterinary career in the first season of All Creatures Great and Small. And Nicholas Ralph, the actor who brings charm, warmth, and humor to the role, can relate. He was only two years out of drama school when he landed his first TV role in this winning remake based on the books of real-life animal doctor Alf Wight, who wrote under the pen name James Herriot.
“I still could pinch myself thinking about it,” says Ralph, who grew up in the Scottish Highlands before studying at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. “From the start, all the right people were in the right places. And we had such a good time filming. The reception has just been fantastic.”
The Masterpiece series struck a chord with both audiences and critics when it premiered in the U.S. on PBS in January 2021. At a time when people were spending lots of hours at home, it took viewers on a leisurely trip to the lush green hills of northern England, when locals needed animals not just for companionship but for their livelihoods.
Newly promoted James is a more confident doctor as All Creatures returns January 9 for another seven episodes. But he’s pulled in opposing directions — by his parents, who want him to accept a job offer at a state-of-the-art practice back in Glasgow, and farmer’s daughter Helen (Rachel Shenton), the young woman he’s fallen for. In the last episode, she didn’t go through with her Christmas wedding. When Season 2 opens, James and Helen reconnect shortly after Easter.
Ralph spoke to TV Insider about his breakthrough role, filming the new season, and working with those amazing animals.
What was it like coming back to film the second season? Was there pressure to repeat the magic of the first?
Nicholas Ralph: I think you always have that pressure. What is it they say about bands? The curse of the second album. But I just couldn’t wait to get back up there and rejoin the gang. And we came out of lockdown, so the first time we were up there, we were in a room doing rehearsals and there were maybe 15 people. It was the first time I’d been in a room with more than one other person — my flatmate — for months.
This time you did most of the filming during the spring and summer instead of the fall and winter. Did that make a difference?
It was funny. The weather was a lot harsher in the spring than we ever encountered filming Season 1. It was like minus 4 [Celsius] when I would get up at five in the morning. And we had snow. We didn’t have any snow last time. There were a lot of challenges because of COVID as well. The marquees we would sit in when we were on location couldn’t have walls on them, so it was properly cold during some of that filming.
James and Helen’s relationship finally seems to be getting started as Season 2 begins.
They’re gently moving towards one another and testing the waters. That’s a huge thing for Helen not to have gone through with the wedding. Also, I think when you don’t see somebody for a period of time, somebody you’ve had a profound connection with, that’s quite painful as well. He’s quite shocked when he sees her at first, and from then on they’re just getting reacquainted with one another.
There’s also this pull from his parents and from a job offer back in Glasgow.
You see that kind of push-pull throughout the season. James loves his parents, they’ve put him through vet school. He feels responsible to help them out when they’re struggling. Then on the opposite side, he’s fallen in love with the Dales, he feels part of the community, and also there’s a girl he quite likes.
How were this season’s animal births handled? Did the crew once again film an actual birth and then edit it with footage of you with a prosthetic?
Yeah, it was a mix of real and prosthetic back end. When the [lamb] is born in Episode 1, the hands actually birthing the animal are [veterinary adviser] Andy Barrett’s. The rest is me.
How physically demanding is it to work with so many large farm animals?
It’s definitely physically demanding. Also, you gotta be on your toes. If you’re lying at the back end of a horse and it starts to move or kick, you need to get out of the way. These animals are very pleasant from the front, but 90 percent of the time I’m at the back end. [Laughs] But it’s just incredible the things that the trainers get the animals to do, so you do feel safe.
Even with cats? Did that white cat you work on in the first episode take direction?
The cat’s called Stuart. He played along sometimes and sometimes he didn’t. But you watch the scene and you wouldn’t know any different.
Do you have a favorite four-legged costar?
Little Scruff. He appears in Episode 1, played wonderfully by [cocker spaniel] Bobby. She was, I think, 8 months old when we were filming, so just adorable. Derek, who plays Tricki, is always up there, but little Scruff just stole my heart this season.
How has your world changed since being cast on the show? How is fame treating you?
Great. I went to Bulgaria to do a film called The Devil’s Light, a horror thriller for Lionsgate. That came off the back of being in All Creatures. Then I got a job playing a young C.S. Lewis [in the film The Most Reluctant Convert] because the director’s wife saw me in All Creatures. So it’s having a really positive effect on my career. And you get the odd person in the street that’ll stop you and say, “I’m really enjoying the show,” and that’s just lovely.
All Creatures Great and Small, Season 2 Premiere, Sunday, January 9, 9/8c, PBS (check local listings at pbs.org)