Rachel Shenton talks 'All Creatures'
Tell us about what intrigued you to play Helen...
RS: When I first read the script, I was aware of All Creatures Great and Small because I'd actually read the books years before, but it wasn’t in order, it wasn’t the first book. And then when I read the first script, a scene with Helen which was an audition scene, her directness really jumped off the page and her kind of assertiveness and she was very ‘balsy’, gutsy, and that was so clear from the very first scene that I read and I just wanted to read more. It's refreshing to see in 1937.
We particularly enjoyed the scene where James was terrified of the bull and you strutted in completely calm and collected. The scene explores James’s modesty and contrasts it with Helen’s confidence. Are you yourself a believer of ‘opposites attract’?
RS: Ahh that’s a nice question! Yes, they are aren’t they in that scene, I know exactly what you mean. The dynamics are really interesting and actually when I said I read the first audition scene and her directness jumped off the page that’s what I was talking about, that scene. I loved that scene and I love Helen for that, I love her confidence and her ability to just get stuck in. I think she’s really amused and intrigued by James. I do think you’re right, I think that’s part of the intrigue and that’s part of his charm but he is so earnest and disarming, and probably quite different to a lot of the men that Helen interacts with in the village, because they’re real tough farmers, you know. Probably don’t show their vulnerability that often.
What did you enjoy most about Yorkshire?
RS: I loved all of it, I live in London, so Ioved being up north with all the animals and the fresh air. I hope I get this right there was a store I found that I loved called Keelham’s, I loved that shop. It sounds cheesy but all the cast got on well and we loved filming the show.
What were some of the difficulties you faced when filming?
RS: The biggest challenges were the elements. The animals were a piece of cake, but you know what it’s like, we started filming early October and we ran right through to January, and it’s kind of unforgiving up there in those times because it’s bleak, windy and rainy, but it is still beautiful in the rain. We [stayed] in and around Lipton when we first got there, and then of course Grassington. We were there [Grassington] at Christmas, so to see it all lit up, it was really quite magical. Anywhere [in Yorkshire] looks like a postcard!
Did you draw on any of your past roles while playing Helen?
RS: No, I didn’t draw on any of my past roles when playing Helen, but what’s really great about doing this show is that we had a wealth of resources to draw from because obviously it is based on books, so we’ve got this library, which is kind of like a blueprint of the whole thing, and then we’ve also got The Herriot Museum, and we were really lucky that we got to talk to Jim and Rosy, which were [James and Helen’s] children, and get those lovely anecdotes that you don’t get as the reader, telling us what mum and dad were really like. So I felt really spoilt and it made it much easier to create the character in that world, so I didn’t really need to draw anything up.
Rachel even told us a little something about working with the fantastic animals...
RS: I’m such an animal person, like I'm all about the animals. This is like an ideal show for me! And they say don’t work with children or animals and we had both because we had Jenny, who obviously played my little sister, and they were the easier days! I think it was my second day of shooting in the barn with a little calf, and James was coming to tend to the calf’s leg due to an injury and I was sort of having to comfort the calf who was obviously in distress, and then Brian our lovely director came up to me between takes and whispered in my ear and said “Do you mind not stroking her between takes because she’s falling asleep and we want her to look distressed!” [laughter] I didn’t stop stroking her...
Could you pick a favourite?
RS: It wouldn’t be right to pick a favorite because there are so many lovely ones, but I did have a really good relationship with Clive the bull, he was fantastic, and I think he’s got a better CV than me, he’d been in loads of really good work apparently! He was great, but really intimidating, like when I first heard that I got this scene with Clive the bull, obviously I've got to act or Helen’s got to be so comfortable because this is her world you know, she grew up on a farm so she’d been around animals since she was a toddler, so I really needed it to feel real, like it was normal for her, so I asked to see Clive beforehand and meet him [laughter] I'd never seen anything that big! I called my mum after and told her his head is like the [size of the] bonnet of my car. He always did what he was told, much better than some of the other actors!
What about the pressures of the pandemic? Are there plans for a second season?
RS: We were really lucky and got all the filming done before lockdown, just in the nick of time really. We’re [also] very hopeful of a second series, there’s been lots of books, so there’s plenty of material for one.
Funniest moment from set...
RS: I’m driving this vintage tractor and it’s a really long shot and I was driving across a field, and I had no idea when to stop because they were so far away from me, and I didn’t want to be responsible for [ruining] a beautiful ideallic shot, but I just kept driving, and I had Nick on the back telling me to keep going, and I'm sure we’re out of Yorkshire by this point! And then we had to get somebody to run down from behind saying stop [laughter]. There was one scene where I had to drive it out of shot, and it was inclined, and the director was saying “Rachel give it some wellie as you go round the corner”, and I think they thought that I'm not doing it or whatever because I wasn’t going any quicker, and then the owner of the car came and said “You’re not gonna get it to go over 15 mph unless you push it off a cliff” [laughter] so I felt better that I wasn’t a terrible driver, vintage cars don’t go that quick!
In a hypothetical gender-bending situation, how would you feel about playing James Herriot? And do you think Nick (Nicholas Ralph) would make a good Helen?
RS: [Laughter] That’s a brilliant question. He’d have to toughen up! He’d have to toughen up... I think with Helen, I don’t know if she’d make a good James, she’d get very emotional with the animals, and she’d have to emotionally detach at times, so it’s a really good question. I don’t think she’d be as good at the veterinary stuff as James is, who takes his emotional head out of it, which is what is needed for a vet so, don’t know – what a good question, that’s great.
Want to hear more from the cast of All Creatures Great and Small? We also interviewed newcomer Nicholas Ralph who stars as James Herriot in the series! Find out if he agreed with Rachel about toughening up to play Helen... All Creatures Great and Small starts on Tuesday 1st September at 9pm on Channel 5.