My animal passion for Britain’s favourite vet: As the All Creatures Great And Small remake charms us all over again, original leading lady CAROL DRINKWATER reveals the real drama was firmly off-screen – with co-star Christopher Timothy
When I was 29, I was offered a role that changed my life. It was early summer 1977, and I was on location in Devon alongside John Hurt, Alan Bates and Susannah York filming The Shout, based on a short story by Robert Graves.
My role was modest but it afforded me an opportunity to be associated with some of the finest screen actors of that time.
It also allowed me two weeks off during the schedule, when my agent found me a part in a German television series. I returned to London to collect my passport and head to Heathrow for a flight to Munich.
While I was throwing clothes into a case my agent rang. ‘Can you pop into BBC Shepherd’s Bush on your way to the airport? New series, All Creatures Great And Small. Be there in an hour.’
I grabbed my bag, shot down four flights, out the door and to the Tube station.
My mind returned to that transformative day this week, as I watched the second episode of Channel 5’s delightful recreation of the veterinary drama.
It transported me back to a period of my life defined by merriment, personal turmoil and even a brief love affair that caused a scandal.
Not that I had any idea of what was to come when I was shown into a small room where producer Bill Sellars and script editor Ted Rhodes sat behind a desk. I took a chair. There were no cameras, no recording machines. This pre-dated modern casting technology.
Cast’s away! Carol and Christopher on a break in the Bahamas. ‘It took months before we found common ground; a basis for friendship. A friendship that later blossomed into a love affair. I think it’s fair to say that we didn’t hit it off in those early days.’
‘Do you know the books?’ asked Bill. I admitted I’d never heard of Alf Wight, the Sunderland-born vet-turned-writer publishing under the name James Herriot.
‘We are looking for someone to play his wife, a farmer’s daughter. We’ve seen every actress in London.’
No script was offered. I was not asked to audition. Sellars simply said in his soft-spoken manner: ‘Well, nice to meet you. Look out for the books, you’ll enjoy the gentle humour.’
And that was that. In the taxi to Heathrow, I discovered I had left my passport behind. There was no time to return for it.
I explained my dilemma to a member of ground staff, fully expecting to be refused boarding.
‘We’re Europe now,’ I was breezily informed. (Britain had joined the European Communities four years before under the leadership of Edward Heath.) ‘If you’ve got your driving licence . . . ’
Fortunately, I had.
Now in the terminal bookshop, I encountered an impressive display of Herriot paperbacks: It Shouldn’t Happen To A Vet; All Creatures Great And Small.
I had been in such a tizz about not missing the flight that, up until then, I had forgotten the interview that had caused my ill-prepared arrival at the airport. I purchased two Herriot titles and sped to the boarding gate.
I read those stories — such light-hearted fun — in my Munich hotel room.
Almost as soon as I had finished them, my agent sent a fax. ‘Sellars wants another chat.’
The meeting took all of five minutes. Before I was back at my Kentish Town flat, where my passport lay on my bed, Sellars had called my agent to offer me the role of Helen Alderson.
But I turned it down.
He was flabbergasted. ‘For Heaven’s sake, Carol, why?’
The previous year I had lost a major opportunity in Hollywood following a ghastly experience with the movie director Elia Kazan, who had repeatedly harassed me sexually. My confidence had been shattered.
Yet John Hurt advised me to accept the role, as did others. My agent even threatened to stop representing me if I did not reconsider.
And so I reconsidered.
A contract was drawn up. I was to appear in 11 of 13 episodes of series one. If the show was well received, the BBC could option me for two more series.
My fee per episode was to be £250. I signed on the dotted line. Filming was to commence in July. I would not be required for the first week but would join the cast during week two.
A few days later an invitation arrived. Lunch in a BBC boardroom: ‘An opportunity for cast to meet before shooting gets under way.’
That lunch remains imprinted on my memory. I recall the printed silk dress I wore, the navy-blue suede shoes. I remember as I entered the room, a young waitress in a black-and-white uniform offering me wine from a tray.
Sellars greeted me and led me to Robert Hardy, who was to play eccentric surgeon Siegfried and was in conversation with three others.
Tim (Robert Hardy’s first name was Timothy) took my hand, looked me in the eyes and said: ‘What perfect casting.’
I was trembling and elated.
Next, an introduction to Chris Timothy. My earliest encounters with Chris were not the easiest.
It took months before we found common ground; a basis for friendship. A friendship that later blossomed into a love affair. I think it’s fair to say that we didn’t hit it off in those early days.
Yet viewers have often remarked on the obvious attraction between Chris and I. They claimed it shone out of the screen.
Unfortunately, that’s not true. It wasn’t until after Chris’s terrifying car accident that we began to understand each other. But more on that later.
Peter Davison was the youngest of our quartet and, according to Sellars, the least known and greatest casting risk. I liked him instantly. He was terrified, as was I, and equally out of his depth.
When he was introduced to Chris, Chris simply replied: ‘Too tall, recast.’ Peter’s face fell.
All smiles: Carol on set with ‘the boys’, from left, Peter Davison, Robert Hardy and Christopher Timothy
I didn’t know it then, but Peter’s greatest fear was that Tim or Chris would insist upon replacing him. Neither of us at that stage had experience of Chris’s warm, dry humour.
After lunch, we said our farewells. The next time we’d meet would be in Yorkshire for the first block of filming.
Here, I should probably reveal a little about my private life at that time. I was painfully enmeshed in an on-off relationship with an actor I’d met working in the theatre and whom I’d loved for several years.
Hindsight shows clearly that the emotional engagement was more or less entirely on my side. In any case, my lover was flying to New York around the time I was to commence filming on All Creatures. Due to career commitments, we would be separated.
I drove to Yorkshire, ready for my filming stint. The boys — rather comically, Tim, Chris and Peter were frequently referred to as ‘the boys’ — were still filming when I arrived. I bumped into no one that first evening.
The following morning I was to shoot my first scene of the entire series: Helen on a bus to Darrowby, a bus in which the new vet arriving from Scotland was also travelling. A fleeting encounter between Herriot and Helen Alderson, who were later to fall in love and marry.
On the bus with us were a dozen extras — non-speaking roles. We shot the scene in an isolated spot high in the Yorkshire Dales.
Scene completed, the team headed to the next location. I was not required for any further set-ups, so the director’s assistant told me to stay put — a unit car would be ferrying me to join cast and crew for lunch.
But no driver appeared. So I sat on the bus with the extras until evening. In costume and make-up.
It was only at the end of the day when someone enquired, ‘Where’s Carol?’ that the penny dropped.
A car was sent instantly and drinks awaited my return to the hotel. I was far too excited by this new opportunity to take the omission to heart.
Chris, Peter and I were staying in a lovely hotel in a picturesque village, West Witton in Wensleydale, in the middle of nowhere.
Robert Hardy had chosen lodgings in Long Row. An invitation was sent out to everyone to join him for dinner on the Friday evening at his hotel.
It was the opening of the hunting season, but I was a vegetarian and no fan of blood sports. To my horror, after we assembled in the bar for drinks, a brace of grouse shot a few hours earlier was carried triumphantly to the kitchens. I thought I might faint.
We were ushered through to the dining room. Tim called for ‘Claret’. I was seated opposite Peter. We giggled, marvelling at the pomp and ceremony, the glamour. He told me I looked like Rita Hayworth. I was thrilled to bits.
Chris and I had shot several scenes together by then. An encounter in a park, with me wheeling a bicycle and wearing trousers tailor-made for me by the costume department. The lovely designer had taken inspiration from magazines of the period.
Our schedule was very demanding and continued through to Christmas, when a fortnight’s break was called.
The series, of which ten episodes were ‘in the can’, was due to air on January 8, 1978.
‘It’s looking promising,’ smiled the usually inscrutable Sellars.
Because I had no news from my boyfriend in the U.S., I spent the holiday in Suffolk, which was where I was when the call came through. ‘Bad news.’
Chris had been involved in a serious car accident and had broken his leg.
We were summoned to London for an emergency meeting. Over lunch, Sellars gravely presented the options: recommence with another actor, delay transmission or cast Peter Davison in the role and find a new Tristan. None of us warmed to any of these choices.
Eventually, it was decided we would film all scenes not involving Chris, including scenes for the second series. Peter, Tim and I were each allocated extra material.
And so, in the knee-deep snow of February 1978, I found myself on a hilltop with Robert Hardy and crew. The scene called for Helen to assist a ewe with her lambing.
To make matters more difficult, this was an era before special effects; a pregnant ewe, ready to drop, had been found especially for the occasion.
But it soon became clear that the mother wasn’t in a hurry.
The wind was biting. It was past midnight. We had been there since sunset.
Buried beneath three coats — resembling a Michelin woman — scarves protected my ears and head. Someone was feeding us brandy. In between takes, Tim and I huddled, chatting. I confided my broken heart.
‘Go to the States,’ he advised, ‘get that beau to marry you.’
The lamb was born an hour before dawn. I was paralysed with cold; a little worse for wear from the brandy and the disclosing of my emotions.
We soldiered on without Chris for nine weeks until he gamefully returned to work. He was limping, rocking from side to side, struggling to take steps; visibly in pain.
The series had gone to air. The reviews and audience reactions were beyond all our expectations.
My only disappointment was that letters had been received declaring that 1930s Helen would not wear trousers; it was judged immodest. No more trousers for Carol was the BBC’s edict.
(On a different note, I must say that the new series has done wonderfully with replicating the fabulous clothes from our original series for Helen!)
A holiday break was called. My 30th birthday was approaching. I booked a flight to Texas where my friend was filming. He collected me from the airport. I was over the moon to see him. However, it soon became clear that he had met someone. My proposal never passed my lips.
Back on location, when I saw Tim, he lifted my hand and frowned when he saw no ring. I shook my head, fighting back tears. He wrapped his arms around me and offered comforting words.
By that point, Chris and I, in costume in our ancient Austin, were ready to shoot. But there was a delay, a technical hitch. Distanced from the crew, we waited hours together in that car for the camera to roll.
Until then, Chris had always seemed too preoccupied to talk to me. And so, as far as I recall, it was only then that we had our first in-depth conversation.
He told me how his marriage had broken up, months back, before commencement of filming. He was living apart from his six children, struggling to find a solution that caused no one hurt. I listened in silence. At some point, I confided my own story.
We had found a connection. Still, it was months before that tentative exchange grew into anything more amorous. But whenever there were free days, when everyone dashed off home to beloved partners, we, with no one to go back to, dallied, nattered, shared meals.
Slowly, we, who were playing television’s perfect couple, reached out to one another.
Fresh faces: Rachel Shenton and Nicholas Ralph as Helen Alderson and James Herriot in Channel 5’s remake
I no longer remember our first embrace. I remember our screen kisses with clarity, but the private moments have long since disappeared.
Suffice it to say that, by Christmas of 1978, we were a couple. Only Peter was cognisant of the fact — or so I believed. On reflection, the entire crew knew but they respected our secrecy.
Given Chris’s physical injury, we decided to escape for a warm-weather holiday after his Christmas with the children.
A friend offered us a house in the Bahamas. But when we arrived at Heathrow airport on Boxing Day, it became clear our ‘romance’ had been leaked. The photographers were waiting. It hit the following morning’s papers; my parents heard the news on the radio.
When we landed in Miami, another pack of newsmen greeted us. They found us again in the Bahamas.
Eventually, Chris cut a deal: we’d pose for pictures if, afterwards, they’d quit the island, give us privacy. I was against it, but assented.
Of course, others soon arrived and we were obliged to escape to another island. It was getting crazy, expensive. I woke one night to hear Chris crying. He was missing his kids.
We terminated our holiday and returned to London. Outside the door to my flat, my neighbour had deposited a stack of newspaper cuttings.
Among my mail were letters accusing me of being ‘a marriage-breaker’. One put a curse on me: ‘You will forever be barren.’ Another: ‘Happiness will never find you.’
It was chilling, painful.
Chris moved in with me. For who else was there to turn to but one another? It was a maelstrom.
When we returned to filming, the team were amazing. Many knew, if not all the facts, at least the bare bones of the truth. For a year or more Chris and I were together, paddling the same life raft.
Of course we were ill-matched. We discovered that early on, but we remained supportive of one another. After the third series was completed, Chris signed for a season in the theatre, where he met the woman who has been the love of his life ever since.
We separated amicably and returned for our next stint of filming with no rancour whatsoever.
First morning, we were shooting a bedroom scene. Our colleagues were concerned it might be awkward. Tension was high, but Chris relaxed the mood with his dependable humour. ‘No rehearsals required; we’ve done this before.’
I left the show soon after the filming of our second Christmas Special because I felt the character of Helen needed more meat.
I suggested she might visit outlying farms, assist the elderly, lonely, join a charity organisation, but Sellars was adamant: ‘Only material from the books.’
It was also time to move on romantically. I met Michel, my future husband, in 1984 while I was shooting a mini-series in Australia. We didn’t look back, and two years later bought a dilapidated olive farm in the South of France, from where I have been building a career as a writer.
And it goes without saying, Chris and his wife remain treasured friends.
Carol Drinkwater’s latest novel, The House On The Edge Of The Cliff, is published by Penguin, £8.99.
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