All Creatures Great and Small actor and former Sheffield artistic director Sam West on his love of Yorkshire
Actor Sam West is back on our screens in the second series of All Creatures Great and Small. The former Sheffield artistic director talks to Phil Penfold about his love of Yorkshire and how filming became quite hazardous.
It hasn’t been easy, shooting the second series of All Creatures Great and Small. There have been all sorts of obstacles to overcome – things that you might expect, and take in your stride, such as unpredictable animals on the set, and the equally fickle Yorkshire weather.
But in the Covid world, there were severe added pressures. “We were shooting in spring,” recalls Sam West, who plays Siegfried Farnon, the broken-hearted widower trying to keep his feelings in check, and a rural veterinary practice ticking over in the late thirties, “because everyone felt that a lighter touch was needed in these rather difficult times – a season of budding trees, re-birth, lambs in the fields, and all that – and of course we had to observe all the Covid restrictions, which was far from easy. We’d rehearse a scene and do a run-through with cast and crew, absolutely everyone, in masks, and then we’d film for the camera without them. And that was weird, because you saw proper facial reactions for the very first time.
“But there was a moment for me that really made me see what we had been up against and what very different circumstance we have been living in. I saw a lovely lady, Gemma, who is one of the production team who work so extremely hard to keep everything rolling along so well, and she was just about to take her lunchtime break.
“She had a sandwich, and of course, she had to take her obligatory mask off. And I realised, with a jolt, that I had never ever seen her full face before. It’s been so awful, hasn’t it, only being able to look at people’s expressions through their eyes? That only tells half the story of a reaction or communication.”
Strict precautions on and off set meant that “there wasn’t a single case of Covid at any time”, West says proudly. “Not one. Sense and safety came as a priority all the time.”
West, who comes from ‘acting royalty’ (his mother and father are Prunella Scales and Timothy West) has had a long association with Yorkshire, going back many years. For two years, he was Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres, where he was involved in several acclaimed productions, some of which proved a little too controversial for the people who held the financial purse strings. West left Sheffield when the theatre closed for refurbishment in 2007. It was the city’s loss. And he also spent months in and around York in 2015, filming the BBC’s series Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. He played the aristocratic Sir Walter Pole.
He’s an actor who puts integrity and firm commitment into all his roles, but West (now 55) does have a way of relaxing that few of his profession embrace. He’s a passionate birdwatcher, and one of his very favourite places in all of the UK is Bempton Cliffs.
When he was under stress in Sheffield, battling the dramatic “powers that be”, he used to drive miles across the county to find peace and solitude on and near the cliffs. And old habits die hard, for during the All Creatures shoot, he was across there again, as often as he could be, “because, like gardening, it was one of the few activities that we were allowed to do under the stringencies of lockdown, and while things were slowly released.
“In fact,” he says with enthusiasm, “I couldn’t wait to drive over at one point, because there was a big rumour, among our fraternity, that someone had spotted a very rare brown albatross. I couldn’t wait to find out if this were true. I must have spent hours looking for it. You have to be so patient.”
And was the wait worth it? “No”, he reports, rather gloomily, “nothing. It never showed up.” There’s a pause, and then he says: “But I did get to see all those glorious puffins. They always give my heart a lift. Never fails”. Another of the pleasures of his life, he admits, is combining his passion for ornithology with working on BBC Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day series, where experts from all walks of life each discuss and describe one particular bird. “Such a great job,” he admits, “who doesn’t like talking about something that you love?”
It’s that voice, and his calm, measured tones that have made him a much-loved and respected voice-over artist for all sorts of documentaries. “It’s such a privilege,” he admits, “because I find out about so many things which, before I read the scripts and do a little background digging, I hadn’t got the slightest clue. It’s a bit like being paid to read the encyclopedia for me, so no hardship at all!”
Although he enjoyed filming the second series of All Creatures it wasn’t without incident.
It was one of the very last scenes that West had to film, which involved being a key player in the annual Darrowby (aka real-life Grassington) cricket match. “I still don’t know how I did it,” he confesses, “but I trotted out, twisted something in my leg, and snapped my Achilles tendon. It was excruciating, but I was so aware that the scene had to be ‘in the can’ to finish shooting, that I went on for a short while with it strapped up simply, and then they had to devise a way of getting me on screen, fairly static, and from the waist up.
“The result is that, in order for it all to heal, I’ve been in a leg cast for about four months. You just have to grin – and limp on with it.” Another challenge during filming was that he had to learn how to smoke a pipe. “So few people do, these days, but Siegfried loves his briar, so I had to learn to handle the thing as well,” says West. “Very odd, because it’s a strange ‘prop’. You have it in your mouth, and you also use it to gesture with your hands, and then there’s that thing of saying the right word as you breathe, and on the proper pause. To add to all of that, I gave up smoking 15 years ago.
“I’d go out into the garden at home (he lives in London, with his partner, the playwright Laura Wade, and their two daughters, who are seven and four) and I’d fill up the bowl with a mix called Honeydew, which has absolutely no tobacco in it, and I’d stand there, puffing away and practising in the evening air, talking to myself and ruminating about this and that. It was really quite pleasant, soothing and rather calming. But there’s no way I’m going to take it up full time.”
Yes, there will indeed be another series of All Creatures, and there are yet more planned for beyond the third.
West believes it has been such a hit with audiences “because it has light and shade, humour with just a tinge of something darker. It’s not all seen through rose-tinted glasses. And one of the key factors has to be that it all looks so right, and that’s down to our incredible design team, across costumes and locations and sets and also, in a huge way, to the people of Grassington who understand how we work and who – seem to have taken us to their generous hearts. Yes, we’ve been terribly disruptive, but they have been so accommodating and supportive, and it simply wouldn’t have been in any way possible without all of that.” West says All Creatures taught him the harsh realties of farming life. “In All Creatures, we deal with the fiction. Genuine farmers, however, have to deal with the often brutal facts.”
Samuel West is taking part in this year’s Off The Shelf Literary Festival in Sheffield, a festival he has supported for many years.
He will be interviewing Hermione Lee about her biography of Tom Stoppard on Tuesday October 19 at 6pm. Tickets: Free In conversation Live online.
He has also recorded a Harold Pinter poem. At the age of 76, Pinter wrote the poem while in Sheffield for a theatre season in his honour, apparently stirred by the sound of laughter that pervaded the Crucible’s bar.
The full programme is available to view now at www.offtheshelf.org.uk
All Creatures Great and Small is on Channel 5 on Thursdays at 9pm.