“All Creatures Great and Small” is a bucolic balm of a show. The hit British Channel 5 program, which just finished airing its second series on PBS through its Masterpiece anthology, is based on the series of semi-autobiographical novels James Alfred Wight wrote under the pen name James Herriot and follows the daily lives of a veterinary practice in the Yorkshire Dales in the 1930s. Every episode features a veritable menagerie of adorable animals of different shapes and sizes, from cows and pigs to birds and fish to a pampered Pekingese named Tricki Woo.
All of the veterinarian’s patients come from two animal handling companies: First Choice Animals, which supplies most of the farm animals and the domestic pets, and Atkinson Action Horses, which gives the show all the majestic steeds that populate the farms of Darrowby. Both companies have storied histories working in TV and film, and both are family operations: First Choice Animals was started by Jill Clark forty years ago, and she ran it almost single-handedly until eight years ago when her son Dean joined the business. Mark Atkinson, the founder of Atkinson Action Horses, was a dairy farmer who pivoted to training horses and has been providing horses and riders to movies and TV shows for over 25 years. He currently runs his company with his son Ben, who manages Atkinson Action Horses’ live shows.
Clark, who came to the “All Creatures Great and Small” as a fan of the original 1978 TV adaptation of the novels, lives with many of the animals she supplies for the show. Although she doesn’t often count, she estimates that she currently has about nine dogs, 14 cats, four rabbits and two guinea pigs underneath her roof. She and her son also own a farm, which houses the farm animals they source out for production. Most of the animals they supply for “All Creatures” come from either her home or the farm, with a few sourced from Clark’s friends if necessary.
“If we have to get animals into the show, we do end up owning them,” Clark says. “Because I would prefer to do that. It makes life an awful lot easier. We don’t have to cope with owners who can be a little bit problematic. Generally, we buy them or rehome them. I try to get some from rescue if I need them.”
To work with animals on set, Clark has a license to work with animals, and an animal welfare officer oversees the production to make sure it follows the guidelines set by local councils. The animals are trained to act exclusively through positive reinforcement: as Clark puts it, about 90% of it is offering them food or a bowl for performing a needed action.
The show constantly requires the actors who play the vets and farm hands to get very up close and personal with the animals: in the very first episode of the series, lead James (Nicholas Ralph) has to help a cow give birth, a scene that required Ralph to lie right next to the cow with his arm underneath its body. Because the animals are required to have extensive training to be on set, Clark says the majority of keeping the actors safe is making sure they feel comfortable working the animals and that they understand they won’t hurt them.
“It’s us giving confidence to the actors, which I think we’ve managed to do,” Clarks says. “They gain in confidence every season, and get better with them.”
One of the trickiest parts of working with animals on the show is the mere process of moving them around the English countryside in the first place, especially the cows. The process of moving them is highly regulated, in order to prevent the spread of swine fever or any other potential diseases. Every cow has a passport and paperwork affiliated with it, and when it moves to a new spot it is required by law to stay there for at least seven days. The cows are transported two at a time, to ensure they have a companion at all time, and Clark says usually one person is sent to run around Yorkshire looking after the various cows pocketed in their various locations.
Most of the animals, especially the cows and other large animals, are usually played by doubles. The major exception is Tricki Woo, the most prominently featured patient in the series, who is played by a pekingese dog named Derek. Tricki Woo is such a major part of the cast that Derek’s name is featured in the end credits, along with all his human costars. One of the first things Clark did when she got hired to work on “All Creatures Great and Small” was try and find a pekingese who could play Tricki, but at first she had no luck. However, one night while she was having a dinner party with friends, a woman who used to breed pekingese turned up at her house looking to rehome Derek. When Clark saw him, she knew he would be perfect for the part.
“He’s an absolute dog in a million,” Clark says. “He just is Tricki. He just plays the part perfectly. He’s the first one in the makeup chair because he has quite a dark face, so he has his own makeup artists that touch him up before he goes on set.”
For Atkinson Action Horses, Mark Atkinson serves as the onset horse master who is responsible for looking after the safety of the actors and the horses. All of the horses on the show are well-rehearsed, having worked in the Atkinson Action Horses live shows for years and given rigorous training for both stunt work and regular commands. Mark Atkinson says the horses are thoroughly looked after to make sure that they are well fed and kept in good condition, and are given different workloads based on what they can handle. Some horses, for example, only need a 10 minute break, while others need an hour or can’t work a full day.
“You know, sometimes the horses have to work less hours than the actors, but we just make sure that the horse is happy,” Mark Atkinson says. “Happy horse, happy crew, you know, that’s how we tried to do it.”
The vets sometimes end up getting seriously hurt by the animals they care for, but the production and handlers help ensure everyone on set stays safe. One of the more memorable stunts in the second series is in the episode “Many Happy Returns,” where James’ coworker Tristan (Callum Woodhouse) gets brutally kicked by a horse he’s examining.
According to Ben Atkinson, the scenes were shot using two horses, one trained for low energy scenes, such as laying down or standing still, and one trained for high energy scenes, such as kicking and galloping around. The low-energy horse was used for the majority of scenes where Tristan examined the horse. For the stunt, he was substituted with a stunt horse who was trained to strike small targets using his front leg. The scene where Tristan got kicked was then shot with a stunt man wearing thigh pads, so the horse could actually hit him. For the scenes where Tristan de-sharpened the Horse’s teeth, Woodhouse was replaced with a double that’s a fully qualified horse dentist, who actually examined the horse’s teeth on screen.
“If we find ourselves where we’re going to be dealing with anything such as equine dentistry or hoof care, then we’ll bring in specialists who are fully qualified within that area of expertise,” Ben Atkinson says. “Because even though it’s make believe, and it’s for a film, it’s still very real for the horse when there’s someone playing around with their teeth or their feet.”
In addition to stunts, the show also features many scenes where the vets assist in an animal’s birth: in Series 2, James helps a ewe give birth to a lamb in the first episode and a horse give birth to a colt in the last. These scenes are using a variety of techniques. For the horse’s birth, the horse was taught how to lay down and be comfortable while the actors rolled it over, and the scene was constructed with both shots of the real horse and some prosthetics.
For the lamb scene, most of the footage is of a real vet, standing in for Ralph, actually helping a lamb give birth. A similar technique was done in the Christmas special that closed Series 1, where a real-life dog birth was filmed on a green screen set and edited into the episode. These scenes require heavy planning on the part of Clark and her team, who set the mothers up at their farm, which is modeled to look like the sets on the show. The lamb birth was shot by a secondary camera unit with experience in shooting wildlife photography, with a minimal crew so as to make sure the mother isn’t caused any stress.
“They keep their dignity, we don’t have the entire film unit running in and out,” Clark says. “Everybody is calm, everybody knows what they’re doing. And the sheep, the expectant mother is just fine with it all because it’s what she’s used to.”
“All Creatures Great and Small” has already been renewed for two more series, each consisting of six regular episodes and a Christmas special. Series 3 has already begun pre-production, with filming set to begin soon. Clark says First Choice Animals has just begun moving cows up to the Yorkshires, and had to find extra cows for the upcoming episodes.
According to Mark Atkinson, “All Creatures Great and Small” has retained most of its crew from the first series as it has continued, and the various departments have become very close as the series has continued. He adds that he has bonded with Clark and her son Dean over the course of working on the show.
“We’ve had lots of conversations, and we usually try and meet up in the evenings and we’ll discuss and smile about the day’s work that we’ve had,” Mark Atkinson says.
Ben Atkinson says part of what makes “All Creatures Great and Small” a great show for the handlers to work on is how willing the actors are to work closely with the animals, and how dedicated they are to learning about real veterinary practices. According to Ben, Samuel West, who plays head veterinarian Siegfried, frequently comes to the company’s farm for horse lessons. When one of the horses came down with a sickness and a vet was called in to care for it, West prolonged his stay in order to observe how the vet worked, so he could bring that knowledge back with him to the show.
“It’s really lovely to see people that are so very definitely engrossed in it all, very dedicated to the part,” Ben Atkinson says. “You can tell from how they act with their preparation and with their passion for the job that it’s very much not a pay packet, but something that everyone’s heart and soul is involved in.”