When Channel 5 rebooted All Creatures Great and Small in 2020, nothing much had changed from the BBC’s 1970s adaptation of James Herriot’s books. Now as then, there was much cockle-warming do-goodery from veterinary newbie James, set off by the harrumphing of his short-fused boss, Siegfried Farnon. Meanwhile, their co-stars – the herds and flocks, the hills and dales – were as picturesque as ever.
No, the main difference was in the person of Helen Herriot (née Alderson), as played with great warmth but also beadiness by Rachel Shenton. We first met her dragging a two-ton bull by its nose ring while her future husband took evasive action by leaping atop a dry stone wall.
“Clive, his name was,” Shenton recalls. “He’d got a CV. He’d done quite a bit of telly and he was good around people. But it’s still a bloody bull and he’s still massive! I was completely terrified and did breathe a sigh of relief when they called cut.”
It’s impossible to imagine such a scene featuring Carol Drinkwater back in the all-male 1970s. Granted much less agency, her more ornamental Helen would never have engaged in an intellectual sparring match with Siegfried. Shenton’s Helen 2.0 gives as good as she gets. “Oscar Wilde considered sarcasm the lower form of wit,” Siegfried tells her reproachfully in the new series. “But the highest form of intelligence,” she quips back. Drinkwater left after three series, to be replaced by Lynda Bellingham. Shenton, back for a fourth, is going nowhere.
“I feel very protective of Helen,” she says. “I love her spirit and grit. Our adaptation is obviously for a 21st-century audience, so the women are three-dimensional. We understand and know their lives away from their romantic relationships, which is far more interesting.”
Her character is also truer to the original, she argues. In spirit she is playing the actual woman as described to her by Jim Wight and Rosie Page, the offspring of the real-life Herriots, who are the show’s consultants. “I didn’t have a sense of who she was away from the books. But working with James and Helen’s children, you got to peek behind the curtain. James was always a straight man. If anyone said something a bit naughty it was always her.”
This is Shenton too, who turns out to be a great and frequent laugher – although when the moment comes she can also reduce herself suddenly to tears.
In the flesh, it’s a mild surprise to find her not in gorgeous vintage knitwear but more contemporary threads topped by a broad-brimmed dark green hat from Burberry. Shenton is diminutive and dark-eyed and – she gets this a lot – such a dead ringer for Hayley Atwell that someone really ought to cast them as sisters.
Before the plucky, practical Helen – “famously she was the first woman in her village to wear trousers” – Shenton had played all sorts of other creatures: a wannabe glamour model in Hollyoaks; an executive vamp in the sitcom White Gold; most recently a psychotic stalker in Channel 5’s For Her Sins. But the role that in the deepest sense defines her was in The Silent Child, a moving short film that grew out of her father’s late-developing deafness following chemotherapy.
“I think he coped far better with cancer than he did with losing his hearing. I remember my dad being in situations where a platform would change at a train station and he couldn’t understand where he was supposed to go and he needed someone to write it down. It was emasculating needing that help, and it was tricky.”
Fourteen when her father died, Shenton determined to learn British Sign Language (BSL). “I just thought if I ever see a deaf person in that situation then I’ll be able to help. And I very quickly fell in love with it.” Her immersion in the deaf community, which continues to this day, prompted her to write a script about a four-year-old girl who is isolated by her parents’ scepticism about BSL. Shenton played a social worker who teaches her to communicate. It was in part a campaigning film. “Deafness is not a learning difficulty,” said a caption at the end. “We hope this film contributes in the fight for sign language to be recognised in every school across the globe.”
There’s a wonderful clip on YouTube in which the production team – including Shenton, her husband Chris Overton who directed it, and deaf child actor Maisie Sly – listen to the Academy Award nominations for Best Live Action Short Film being announced. When The Silent Child went on to win an Oscar, Shenton signed her speech.
Her visit to Los Angeles in 2018 “will always feel a little bit surreal”, she says, not least for the chat she had with Meryl Streep at an event before the ceremony. “She was very gracious. I was sat near her and we were talking about what dresses we were going to wear. It was quite girly! She said we need more women in the Academy.”
Shenton has written other shorts for the production company she founded with Overton, whom she met working on Hollyoaks. Her next script is The Gladstone Girls, a podcast drama set in her native Stoke-on-Trent, specifically the Gladstone pottery factory, which is now a museum where The Great Pottery Throw Down is filmed. Before the factory’s closure in 1970, her grandmother was one of several female co-workers who on Friday afternoons would turn the lithographing room into a hairdressing salon for the weekend ahead. When a floor manager called a halt to this custom, they wore their hair in rollers as a peaceful protest and attracted enough media attention to reverse the decision.
At its heart, not unlike Made in Dagenham, it’s a story about industry’s undervaluing of female skill and it’s as Shenton describes it that the tears spring up.
“It’s sort of a love letter to Stoke really,” she says, smiling as she cries. “Sorry! I just absolutely loved that story. I love that time. It’s a celebration of the Potteries and the industry that was rich in artistry and craftsmanship. My granny used to say that the first time she held a paintbrush she knew that’s what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. It’s an art. They trained for years but never earned the right to be an artist.”
Shenton is so intensely loyal to her “unfairly maligned” home city (although she lives in central London) that perhaps it’s no surprise she’d not meaningfully set foot in Yorkshire until she first worked there in 2019. In the over-sweetened made-for-television romcom A Very Yorkshire Christmas, she played an American soprano who falls in love with Yorkshire and a Yorkshireman. “Have you seen that?” she says, startled to hear it brought up. “My mum likes it. It’s really loved in America.”
The same, of course, goes for All Creatures, which is shown on PBS and has gathered a huge following in the States. “When we shoot in Grassington it’s a bit like doing live theatre, because all the fans are quite literally watching the action happen. They bring deckchairs and stay for the whole day.”
Having won one of the film industry’s highest prizes for a film she wrote, does she never feel tempted to throw her ha’p’orth into the script, maybe suggest for variety that the vets don’t always save every single animal?
“No! No, I don’t! I love the writing. Sometimes when I read in the script there’s a calf in trouble, I’m skimming ahead going, ‘Come on, James.’ And it’s fine, it’s all good. I like it that way. I can’t bear it another way.” She pauses. “You don’t want me to cry again.”
Series four of All Creatures Great and Small begins on Channel 5 on Thursday at 9pm