Creature Comforts? Samuel West on the politics of All Creatures Great & Small

A new take on All Creatures Great and Small is still wrapped in the cosy charm of 1930s Yorkshire, says its star Samuel West. But there are specks of grit in there too

Samuel West is having a good day. This morning’s piano practice with his eldest daughter went well, which is not always the case. His youngest turns three in the morning – a reason to celebrate, though he will miss, he says, having a two-year-old: “It’s such a nice age.”

And this weekend, West saw his parents, beloved actors and canal enthusiasts Prunella Scales and Timothy West, without having to socially distance for the first time in months.

His has been a creative lockdown. The 54-year-old created a Pandemic Poetry jukebox in which he reads poems suggested by his Twitter followers and shares the results on SoundCloud.

“The lyrics of Firestarter as a Shakespearean sonnet was one of my high points,” he says. He has reached almost 500, with guest readers including Benedict Cumberbatch, Meera Syal and both of his parents.

It’s no surprise West has been using his time creatively. He has spent his life in the creative industries – acting with the RSC, in the West End and far beyond, in major films from Howard’s End to Notting Hill and Iris and appearing in quality television from Mr Selfridge to The Crown.

He is also patron of radical exiles the Belarus Free Theatre and a “union man” who served on the committee of Equity for many years.

There’s more of a texture of reality in a world which, after all, is going through a depression in the 1930s and heading into another war

His latest role is contrarian veterinarian Siegfried Farnon in a charming new adaptation of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small.

“I watched the 1970s series quite a bit with my parents. I think they were slightly surprised they weren’t in it,” West says, laughing at the memory.

“It’s about a community and people doing what they can to be an asset to the collective. And it’s also about a community that is traditionally mistrustful of outsiders learning to welcome somebody who turns out to be an essential addition.

“For many people it will just be a lovely piece of that period escapism, and why not? But when we think of things that we have to get better at, relying on each other, welcoming outsiders and looking after the land are three that are very high, on my list anyway.”

It becomes clear that we both like to consider television through the prism of politics. 

“Without getting too rose-tinted about a time when life was much harder for many people, there’s something simple about the storytelling,” says West.

“And I think it’s important to say that it’s not about people who are rich. We’re very good at making television about aristocrats – and I’m delighted to have been in some of it – but it’s not the only story we need to be telling.

“I don’t want to pretend that it’s a gritty, realistic drama. But our adaptation reminds viewers that James Herriot is from Glasgow and that Siegfried was a widower. There’s more of a texture of reality in a world which, after all, is going through a depression in the 1930s and heading into another war.”

And why is the economic context and texture of a series about country vets important?

“Because it needs to matter that a cow is ill,” says West. “Nowadays, people have herds of 5,000 cows and if they lost 50, they’d be upset but their profit margins would not be overly damaged. In this case, we’re talking about farms where people have been clinging on.

“The loss of a cow would be absolutely catastrophic. So that’s the circumstance in which saving a cow’s life matters.”

Saving the cultural life of the country also matters. And West’s life on the cultural coalface means he understands the industry, its people and its importance better than most.

He fears the fallout from lockdown could be felt for years to come. West points out that the writers of recent TV hits like Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads and Quiz by James Graham, as well as Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag – all cut their teeth in subsidised theatre.

The creative industries are profitable. Our shows and our films and our television are highly exportable

“The worry is that the government will step in to preserve what it calls the crown jewels but you have to look after the people who mined those jewels. Because otherwise you ain’t gonna get any new jewels,” he says.

“If you don’t look after the places that try new stuff out, in 10 years’ time, you aren’t going to have any of these things that took 10 years to develop.

“The creative industries are profitable. Our shows and our films and our television are highly exportable. The fact we are talking about television and films admired all over the world shows that talent pipeline works. And it works not just by taking people who can afford to live at home with their parents or who have inherited money.”

Lockdown struck down, temporarily, he hopes, a piece of theatre very close to his heart. “We were due to start rehearsing a production of The Watsons by my darling partner Laura Wade, which I was directing,” he says.

“It was going to transfer to the West End and open in June. To be able to work on a thing you love, together in a room full of love, is very special. 

“This was going to be the West End debut for one member of the company who’s about 67 and is blind. To have that promised and snatched away is really hard. So I’m wishing with every fibre that it happens.” 

DID YOU KNOW…

Last year, 27,000 people worldwide earned an income selling street papers, making a total of £23.4 million.

West talks movingly about the way small theatres have become important spaces for “people are excluded from school, people who are lonely people or may have dementia, people who just need to come out of the rain”.

Whether it is jazz clubs, arts centres or football grounds, West has been missing sociability during lockdown.

“We’re social creatures,” he says. “I miss football. I miss sitting next to strangers and watching a story whether that is a windy nil-nil draw on a cold Tuesday night, or Hamlet. Not being able to do these things will not just damage our GDP but damage us as a society.”

He ends with a plea.

“All the libraries that have closed. All the youth clubs. It’s increasingly difficult to meet in public in places that you don’t have to pay to get into. We’re going to have a big problem with youth unemployment. Let’s make sure there are lots of cheap and interesting things for them to do.”

All Creatures Great and Small airs 9pm, Tuesdays on Channel 5 from September 1.

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