❉ Hannah Cooper on Oliver Crocker’s behind the scenes chronicle of the classic BBC series, told through the eyes of the series’ cast and crew.
“One of the loveliest aspects of reading All Memories Great and Small is discovering what a joyous production it was for so many of the cast and crew… However, it certainly isn’t a rose-tinted view. The harsh weather in the Dales has not been forgotten by anyone, and some of the main actors were willing to put their foot down in certain areas for their parts.”
My own memories of All Creatures Great and Small are of watching repeats next to the fireplace on winter evenings, sometimes with a hot chocolate and biscuits. Even when the subject matter isn’t always cosy – the series certainly didn’t shy away from the realities of veterinary life – it’s a very comforting programme to return to, and spending time with the characters feels like visiting old friends. All Memories Great and Small reflects this warm feeling as it’s a lovely book to keep dipping into, absorbing details of the production alongside the recollections of a plethora of the series’ cast and crew. Originally published in 2016 to mark the centenary of James Herriot’s birth, in this expanded edition of the book Oliver Crocker has included more memories from interviewees and been able to add more details to the production notes sections.
I’ve read various articles and biographies that have given me overviews of the careers of different actors, writers, directors or producers, yet it’s wonderful that in this book we learn about the work of a range of the production team. The recollections from the likes of camera assistants, make-up artists, assistant floor managers and sound recordists ensure we get a huge amount of information about different areas of the production.
These people haven’t only been asked about their work on All Creatures either, so we get to discover how they got there and how it all turned out afterwards. If you haven’t dug quite this far into the behind-the-scenes elements of television before, it’s a fantastic way of understanding roles that might not always have had an on-screen credit. Even if you are more familiar with them, hearing all these details first-hand gives you a greater appreciation of the skills involved, and the varying career pathways in television open to people during the 1970s and 1980s.
David Tilley interested me as he shares such a wealth of detail about what went into the role of Assistant Floor Manager, down to aspects like the processes for taking over from someone else if they were ill. Tony Redston was a Production Associate across two series of All Creatures and gives a good explanatory overview of the Drama department’s structure at the BBC, as well as describing how the different roles supported one another on a production. June Hudson offers insight into how she found period costume design compared to the science-fiction of Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who. I also found myself intrigued to look up more on Pip Short, who first worked on All Creatures as a Grip, but had previously been an actor. A random chat while keeping out of the cold on location led to him becoming an Assistant Floor Manager and he later returned to the series in that role. He has since gone on to be a prolific director on various soaps.
One of the loveliest aspects of reading All Memories Great and Small is discovering what a joyous production it was for so many of the cast and crew. Several people’s memories of Robert Hardy are of how generous he was in the bar, and there are also numerous references to how welcoming the main cast were to guests, with Christopher Timothy getting plenty of praise. The production notes also occasionally contribute to this air of a happy production, with some extensive details of the arrangements for a friendly cricket match between the All Creatures’ team and one from Flesh and Blood, another of producer Bill Sellars’ series. During a day off on location for the match there were also autographs and t-shirts for sale, while raffle prizes included homemade treats from Mrs Hall’s kitchen. It’s impressive that this happy atmosphere seems to have lasted across the show’s entire lifetime.
However, it certainly isn’t a rose-tinted view. The harsh weather in the Dales has not been forgotten by anyone, and some of the main actors were willing to put their foot down in certain areas for their parts. The production team were also aware relatively quickly that they were running out of the original stories from the books they had been drawing on, although they continued to consult their author, Alf Wight – the real James Herriot. Christopher Timothy is one of several people to profess his belief that the later stories weren’t as strong as the early ones.
The length of the production notes varies, with some series only able to have a couple of lines for each episode, while there is enough to provide several pages for others. They offer a huge amount of information, and the most interesting aspects may differ for each reader. Personally, I’ve had fun looking up the Yorkshire accommodation used by the programme, which often seems to have included pubs. I’m slightly doubtful that the Wensleydale Heifer was marketing itself as a luxury boutique hotel and pub when Peter Davison was being put up there, but I can see why Robert Hardy might have preferred the characterful 17th century coaching inn of The Punch Bowl.
Combined with some of the interviews, the production notes are also a fascinating way of understanding how the show’s production was organised, with location filming in Yorkshire, rehearsals in London and – for most of the series – studio recording in Birmingham. The make-up artists interviewed often emphasise the importance of their teams being organised – the Dales were a long way from Pebble Mill, so they had to be prepared for any eventualities on location.
This book does not attempt to be a comprehensive guide to All Creatures – something that would be an even more mammoth task – and the interviewees are the main focus. I think a few commentary notes would have been helpful occasionally; for instance, I was thrown by the interviewees’ remarks at one point as I hadn’t realised that the production had moved studio filming from Pebble Mill to Television Centre.
A plot summary for each episode might also have been useful, depending on how you choose to use the book. Even as someone who has watched the whole show through a couple of times, I could do with my memory prodding as the Radio Times’ synopses included are brief, and the production notes or cast and crew’s recollections don’t necessarily always relate to an episode’s plot, so sometimes I’d have liked to connect them to the on-screen context a little more. Arguably, however, plot summaries should be unnecessary; the more I read of the book, the more I wanted to revisit All Creatures.
The sheer breadth of the interviewees included in All Memories Great and Small is superb – even those no longer with us are represented by family members sharing their stories. They all have something interesting to contribute and have clearly been probed well by Oliver Crocker. This expanded edition has also received a gorgeous new cover from Robert Hammond and I think it will make an excellent companion for any rewatch.
❉ ‘All Memories Great & Small: Expanded Edition’ published by Devonfire Books, is available now on offer from devonfirebooks.com for £17.99 (+P&P). Every copy ordered will be signed by author Oliver Crocker.
❉ Hannah Cooper has spent the last few years travelling back in time to visit numerous TV programmes and she occasionally returns to the present day to write about them. Her work can be viewed at backintimefortv.co.uk and she can be found on Twitter as @MrsSimonTemplar.