Ben Vanstone on All Creatures Great and Small Series 3: ‘War is coming: that tension is underneath everything’
Ben Vanstone, writer and showrunner of All Creatures Great and Small, discusses Series 3 of the hit Channel 5 drama
Samuel West as Siegfried Farnon, Nicholas Ralph as James Herriot, Rachel Shenton as Helen Alderson, Callum Woodhouse as Tristan Farnon, and Anna Madeley as Mrs Hall. They're outside, in the Dales on a sunny day, with a car behind them and a dog near their feet. In a circular insert on the bottom left corner is an image of writer Ben Vanstone. (Credit: Helen Williams / Playground Entertainment / Ben Vanstone)
All Creatures Great and Small – Channel 5’s beloved adaptation of vet James Herriot’s novels – is returning for its third series this September. It’s Spring 1939, some months after James proposed to Helen and Tristan sat his veterinary exams; a potential new strain of TB has been spreading amongst the local cows, and there’s talk of war in Europe on the horizon.
Ben Vanstone, writer and showrunner of this iteration of All Creatures Great and Small, recently sat down with NationalWorld’s Alex Moreland to discuss Series 3. Vanstone discussed some of the challenges that come up as a show goes into its third year, explained why James Herriot’s original novels remain their key touchstone for the series, and hinted at some of their plans for a potential fourth, fifth, and even sixth series of All Creatures Great and Small.
More broadly, Vanstone talked about some of his own influences as a writer, revealed a little about his work on the upcoming Ewan McGregor drama A Gentleman in Moscow, and what he hopes viewers take from All Creatures Great and Small Series 3.
So, we’re a few days away from the start of Series 3. How are you feeling?
Yeah, excited. I mean, I’m thinking about Series 4 a lot more than I am Series 3 – we’ve started working on that, we’ve been doing a series of writers rooms, got another next week – I quite quickly move on, actually. That always comes as a surprise to me, now that [the show] actually is going out. I’m really looking forward to seeing what people think of this season. It’s a slight change from previous years. But yeah, still the same old show.
I suppose the release of Series 3 must be easier than the second was, or indeed the first?
Exactly. It’s certainly less stressful – initially, we weren’t quite sure how it was going to be received. Making TV shows or films, it’s all alchemy: you hope that you’ve got it right up until you’ve finished it, and then you can be happy with it and think that it’s great until you find out what other people think of it.
It’s hard to judge. But after the response, we got to see [that] we seem to have developed a very loyal fan base who love the show, and are happy with what we’re doing with James Herriot’s work. So yeah, it’s less stressful, but you’re still keen to see what everyone thinks of what you’ve been doing over the last year.
That was quite a nice way of putting that, “alchemy”. So, this is your longest running project, in terms of how long you’ve worked on one series – what sort of challenges present themselves, going into your third year?
I think it has more pluses than minuses. Actually – well, I suppose this is a plus and a minus – as you get to know the characters and show so well, you feel very comfortable in writing for them. You know, you always know what Siegfried is going to say, and what Mrs Hall is going to say, and they sort of take you on a journey rather than you having to force it. I think that also has the danger of almost becoming too comfortable with the show, and not trying to shake it up at all, or try to do something a bit different.
I think this year we’ve really thought about that, and we made sure that we wanted to make this the best series of All Creatures. We’ve, I think, really stepped it up this year. [This series has] done a few things that are a little bit different to previous years, which we hope people will enjoy. But yeah, I’d say that’s the greatest danger [across series 3].
Can you speak to that in more detail at all? Is there anything in particular across this year that’s a contrast to previous series?
Not without giving too much away! I think that it’s more that we’ve tried to remain brave with the stories we’re telling and how we tell them, and not necessarily repeating the same formats. I think inevitably the fact that we’re in 1939 lends all the stories a sort of inherent drama underneath it all that perhaps wasn’t there in the first and second series. You know, war is coming this year, we all know it begins in 1939 and where that ends.
There’s that tension underneath everything. So that’s a different flavour to what we’ve had before - but I think we’ve tried to deal with it in an All Creatures way, and tell it through the story of the Dales and Derby and our characters, rather than feeling like it’s suddenly a show about the country on the brink of war.
Was that a difficult needle to thread, how you approached World War Two?
Constantly. I think keeping the levity and joy and fun and all the things that we associated with All Creatures, while at the same time having this dramatic undercurrent with very real stakes – not just for our characters, but for the world at large – it was a really nice challenge. And a great one to, I think, reinvigorate the show.
How much are the novels – and, probably to a lesser extent, the original series – still a guide at this point?
The original series has never really been a guide, we haven’t gone back to it for that much at all, because we were always focused on the books. All our stories come from the books –
[An electronic voice rings out. “Would you like to try again?”]
Sorry, that’s my watch butting in. It always thinks that I want advice.
Does it do that when you’re writing too?
Yeah, if I’m talking about things, occasionally it chips in – it’d be nice if it just said “it’s okay”!
I was talking about the books – we get all of our vet stories either from the books, or we talk to Jim Wight, Alf’s son [James Herriot was a pen name] about those stories and what we can do. Sometimes you have to finesse them into a bit of a shape to suit the needs of TV, which may not originally be in the book. We try and get as much as much advice as we can on how to make that work. There’s a TB testing strand that runs through this series, which is very much taken from the book, but we’ve had to sort of massage that to make it work for our characters. So yeah, [the novels are] the touchstone for our series – and remain so, especially in terms of tone, and humour, and light, love, joy. I think that we very much still rely on those books, they’re there at the heart of the show.
Was there anything in particular this year that needed that finessing? Something from the books you were looking to adapt, and you thought, ‘oh, this is great, but right now it’s very much a novel thing’?
I suppose… I suppose it’s easiest to talk about in generalities is that [Herriot’s books] are always very backwards looking. They’re told from, you know, twenty, thirty, sometimes forty years later – he’s looking back and reminiscing. So, the way they are told isn’t necessarily in the present, in the now. We might slow stories down, for example, so it’s more of an uncovering – if there’s something wrong with an animal in the novel, you might just come in with him going and fixing the animal, and then off he goes again.
We would have to look at that story and go, ‘how do we build that into this shape? And what could happen to cause this?’ Then we work from there tell it in the now, through action rather than just as a ‘hey, this is what happened’ retrospective tone.
You were commissioned for the third and fourth series at once. When you’re sitting down to plan them in the first place, does that change how you approach it? Is it a case of approaching them both as one – does it lead to maybe more serialisation?
We were commissioned for Series 3 and 4… I think it was confirmed the summer before we started shooting Series 3. But, by that stage, we had already thought ahead to where we want to go with these characters. And, you know, while we’ve been commissioned for just Series 4, we have Series 5 [in mind] as well, because you can’t really work out where you end Series 4 without thinking about what you’re going to play in Series 5.
So yeah, while that might have been a permission that we were given, by no stretch did we have that as the endpoint of the show. It was a great endorsement for the work we’ve done so far, I think, but we were [already] story lining. In the beginning, we storylined 3, 4, and 5 when we were working on Series 3. Only in a very broad sense of where we want these characters to be at what time; now, likewise, we’re looking at 4 and 5 and what comes after that. So, we are always looking further down the road with our characters, so we feel like we’re always setting something up rather than having to reinvent the show on the hoof if you suddenly get commissioned again. I hope we keep going! We’ve got the stories to tell.
How long do you imagine the series going? Or maybe how long would you like it go for?
I think there’s a question about how long everyone wants to keep doing it, first and foremost, the actors and everyone else on the show – but I would certainly be confident we know what we’re doing through Series 5, and then in Series 6, if that’s wanted, then there are ideas and plans of what we could do with that. Then, I think there are some natural points where there’s a break, but also opportunities for a slight reinvention of the format as well.
So, on another note – obviously, the show’s been hugely successful for Channel 5, and it’s been credited by some people as a big contributing factor in their reorienting the channel towards original UK drama. I was wondering what you thought of the show’s impact in that sense?
I would suggest that they were already in the process of doing that at Channel Five – Ben Frow and Seb [Channel controller Ben Frow and commissioner Sebastian Cardwell], they were already I think looking to move the channel in that direction, and we were a part of that. I think they did a couple of other successful series as well – like Blood, by Sophie Petzal, which is great. We’re obviously really happy to be successful for them, and grateful for their support, they’ve been brilliant. They’ve been so good to work for, and a channel that you’d love to take more stuff back to – what they’re doing is really, really ambitious.
Couple of broader questions. What would you say are your biggest influences as a writer? Generally, as much as on All Creatures specifically.
I’ve always said William Goldman’s work – I think he’s got warmth, humour, fun, action. Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, things like that, I absolutely love from when I was a kid. Anything by Aaron Sorkin, I think is just brilliant. On the novel side, I loved Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I mean, a whole breadth of different influences, I suppose. As we all have now – I think we’re so exposed to so much TV and film in a way that I certainly wasn’t when I was younger.
That’s the sort of writing I aspire to most, I suppose: things that have that warmth, humour, wit, fun, action. Yeah, I suppose that’s where I’m not particularly gritty, I don’t think. I might have thought I am at times! But it seems that nothing I write that is a gritty crime [show] gets made. So perhaps it’s not my thing.
Is that something you’d ever be interested to try writing?
There’s a whole pile of scripts I’ve written and never got made! Much as is the case with every writer, I’m sure. So yeah, amongst that there’s various sort of ‘dark’ material, but I’m not sure it’s my strength. Who knows? But I’d love to keep adapting, as well as an original series. I’m quite into sci fi, but again, I’ve never made any.
Is there anything in particular you’d like to adapt?
No, I mean, I’ve got enough on my plate at the moment to do! Then I’ll make some decisions after that about what I want to do next. There’s a couple of originals I want to do, and I’ve got a play that I’ve never finished that hasn’t got much to do to finish writing it. I might finish that!
Am I right in thinking you’re on A Gentleman in Moscow for Paramount+ at the moment? Is there anything you can tell us about that?
It’s a brilliant project. It’s Paramount+ and Showtime, Ewan McGregor is cast as the Count. Yeah, we’re gearing up to go we’re, it’s looking like filming early next year. It’s a really brilliant book, and it’s a real pleasure to be working on it. And then to have Ewan as our Count! He’s fantastic.
Finally – what would you hope people take from All Creatures? Obviously, it’s something that people have this big emotional connection to already – what are your hopes ahead of Series 3?
I hope people can see what’s going on in the world now, and relate that to what’s going on in the world then in 1939. When we were making this, actually, the war in Ukraine had just broken out; for us, writing about child evacuees coming to the country and a war breaking out in Europe at the same time that Russia invaded Ukraine, really brought home the reality of what’s at stake.
I hope that people in some way can connect with our show, not just as a piece of historical drama, but actually feel the similarity of what it could be like today. Just having an emotional connection to it, I suppose, rather than just seeing it as a historical event.
All Creatures Great and Small Series 3 begins on Channel 5 on Thursday 15 September at 9pm, with a US broadcast on PBS later this year. You can read more of our interviews here.