Coping with Creatures
All Creatures Great & Small director Andy Hay offers an insight into the making of the period drama and reflects on working with a rambunctious goat in an episode from its fourth season.
For four seasons, All Creatures Great & Small (ACGAS) has transported viewers to the Yorkshire Dales in the return of this classic series that follows the original 1978 period drama of the same name.
First airing in 2020, it follows James Herriot, a newly qualified veterinary surgeon who takes up a job with Siegfried Farnon’s practice at Skeldale House.
In the recently concluded fourth season, the action moves to the spring of 1940, with change on the horizon. James and wife Helen wonder when the right time might be to start a family, while Skeldale House matriarch Mrs Hall and Helen’s friendship blossoms as they look to the future and new trainee veterinary student Richard Carmody arrives, causing complications in the house.
Nicholas Ralph (Prey for the Devil) reprises his role as young country vet James, with Rachel Shenton (White Gold) as Helen. Samuel West (Slow Horses) returns as James’s capricious and erratic mentor Siegfried, while Anna Madeley (Time) continues as Mrs Hall. Will Thorp (Doctor Who) returns as Gerald Hammond, Mrs Hall’s handsome suitor, and Patricia Hodge (Miranda) plays the eccentric Mrs Pumphrey, alongside her adored pampered Pekingese Tricki.
Based on the collection of stories written by Alf Wight under the pen name James Herriot, ACGAS is produced by Playground for Channel 5 and Masterpiece in the US. The full series is available on streamer My5, with the season four Christmas special coming soon. All3Media International handles global sales.
Here, S4 lead director Andy Hay tells DQ about working on the show and looks back on creating one memorable episode two scene with an errant goat (see video below).
How did you start working on All Creatures Great & Small?
I directed the final two episodes of the first season, plus the Christmas special, and was chuffed to be asked back for the following three seasons. From the outset, the stark beauty and evocative setting of the Yorkshire Dales was beckoning me, having been born in Yorkshire and spending my early childhood there. The chance to be back in touch with those roots, observing everything afresh, with our writers inspired by the keen-eyed lens of Alf Wight [aka James Herriot]’s extraordinary gift for characterful, warm, moving, bloody funny and all-embracing storytelling, has been a high.
How would you describe the show’s visual style and how is this achieved?
There is no prescriptive visual style except a shared aspiration to be true to the period. Tonality in Skeldale House is warm, inviting, cosy and lived-in. It’s the beating heart of the series. The landscape of the Dales – the rich green undulating patchwork quilt of fields giving way to bleak moorland and impressive limestone crags and outcrops – is a character itself, and placing the human scale of a character or a vehicle within that vast landscape in a wide-angle lens or drone shot reveals the physical world our characters inhabit – the distances travelled, the isolation of the farms, the visceral toll of life.
How do you approach working with animals on the show?
I had experience of working with animals on previous projects but not where they were front and centre, with their stories interwoven with the narrative of their human screen sharers. The first rule is animals don’t take direction! Some can be expertly trained to perform a specific task or move in a certain direction, but they have no concept of the camera or narrative requirements. Time and patience are needed in bucketloads. Good prep is essential, and much on- and off-camera trickery and waiting for ‘the moment’ is key.
Tell us about the goat scene in episode two.
The script called for Siegfried to barge into the examination room where James is with a client and her animal, a goat. The goat, spooked by Siegfried’s entrance, escapes and runs through the house, pursued by James, Helen and Mrs Hall, causing mayhem until it reaches the scullery, where it is finally caught.
It is an animal-led scene serving as a metaphor for the disorder in the human world of our Skeldale House ‘family.’ I estimated the sequence would be a couple of minutes duration on screen and would take the best part of a day, if not the whole day, to shoot, with two cameras and around 10 setups.
I spoke first with Dean, our animal trainer, early in the pre-production process to give him as much notice as possible what the ambition might be. Dean found two female goats to be our leading performers. Two because you never know how one might behave on the day or whether one might be under the weather, plus they’d be company for each other. The wellbeing of the animals is a primary concern on and off set.
Dean had to train the goats to jump off what on set would be the vet’s examination table, run through the house and end up in the scullery, where we thought – to make matters uber-chaotic – they would jump on the kitchen table before one then found its way into the pantry, with resultant carnage.
Initially, Dean rehearsed the animals outside in the yard of the holding farm. To begin with, the goats, encouraged by treats and prompted by a bleeper, stepped down from a straw bale towards another straw bale and climbed up on it. Carefully, the team built up the height. I asked Dean whether working as a twosome was helping and he said yes, they encouraged each other. So one goat became two in the script, turning the potential mayhem up to 11.
We broke the sequence down into sections based on how far Dean thought the goats would travel without getting distracted and whether, as we panned or tracked the cameras, the trainers could be seen. There were also corners for them to negotiate, meaning the trainers were often not seen by the goats, so they were only reacting to the bleeps and calls. Being alive to spontaneity and improvisation while maintaining patience and confidence was going to be key to pulling this off.
As with all best-laid plans, the set was being painted during prep and it meant Dean’s team were only able to have one rehearsal on set. We learnt much from that – where to place the trainers, what objects were in the way or distracting, and that goats evacuate their bowels and bladders with regularity.
How many takes did you do, and how many cameras did you use, to capture the full scene?
It was the combination of cast and crew camaraderie, solid prep, planning and patience that carried it off. We rehearsed the blocking and dialogue, including the goat chase sequence, with the cast. Then, with myself as a stand-in for the goats, we showed the crew. After talking through the setup positions for the two cameras, we shot the scene in the planned sections in story order.
The sequence had to have pace to create the sense of disorder with a touch of farce, and it was important to keep a purposeful momentum in the filming process. We needed to keep takes to a minimum in each setup, with quick resets so we didn’t tire the goats or allow them to get bored, while keeping in mind that the final section in the scullery was the most difficult to achieve narratively and ‘goat stunt’-wise.
We completed the scene within the day’s schedule without tiring, boring or overfeeding our lead protagonists.
Why do you think ACGAS has had so much success not only in the UK but also in America and around the world?
The world of ACGAS is universal, relatable. At the heart of the show is a ‘family’ – the foundation of all communities, in whatever form that might take. This one is pretty dysfunctional, but it embodies the enduring spirit of humankind to overcome obstacles and find resolution, love and positive forward action.
It radiates a compassionate view of humanity in mutual co-existence with animals and nature, and paints a rather romantic picture of simpler times – even though life was harsh and war never far away, they get through.