All Creatures Great and Small is a timeless classic that continues to be much loved by generations. As she gears up to film the second series in the Yorkshire Dales, Ripon-based production designer Jackie Smith talks to Ruth Campbell.

All Creatures Great and Small, the heartwarming and humourous adventures of young country vet James Herriot, has proved the perfect balm for these troubles times. The warm and comforting scenes of 1930s Dales life as portrayed in Channel 5’s new version has been a huge hit with viewers. A Christmas special is heading our way and a second series is being filmed in the spring.

The creative force behind the series is Jackie Smith, who lives in Ripon. Jackie leads the huge design teams that make the series come to life, every detail perfected. A former Ripon Grammar School pupil, she lived and worked in London and Glasgow for 21 years, before relocating to the North Yorkshire city to be close to family and so that her three children could attend RGS, where her mother, uncle, stepfather and two sisters were also educated.

Jackie had retrained and worked for some years as a teacher when, serendipitously, Channel 5 came calling in search of a production designer for All Creatures and she found herself in the perfect location to pick up her former career. Conquering any fears she had over being out of the business for 12 years, Jackie took inspiration from Betty's famous Fat Rascal and Yorkshire home baking to create the colour palette for the show, which has won huge popular and critical acclaim, giving Channel 5 its biggest audience in five years.

"I wanted the audience to feel the comfort and nostalgia of walking into a kitchen which smells of bread and baking," she says. "I wanted to contrast the often bleakness and harshness of the Dales with the warmth and comfort of home. It was important to show how hard life was in the 1930s in the Dales, but also how important home, family and friends are in our lives."

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Sunderland-born Alf Wight, who wrote the books under the pen-name James Herriot, practised as a vet in Thirsk. For the series, the 'Darrowby' scenes are filmed in Grassington, but everywhere the crew went, they found a strong sense of community. "The warmth of the people, the beauty of the landscape and the grit and determination when faced with challenges are not only key elements of the show, but are a reflection of the reality of life in the Yorkshire Dales," says Jackie.

Early on she found a vintage wallpaper which she used in the veterinary practice scullery area as a metaphor for the whole show. "It has an underlying structure of lines, which reminded me of the drystone walls which carve up the landscape, and an intertwining leaf pattern which wove its way between these lines. This, for me, represented the chaos of family life and everyday dramas in the show," she explains.

Jackie's route to becoming one of the most sought-after production designers in the business came via degrees in 3D design and architecture. She completed her Masters at the Royal College of Art in Kensington, stubbornly refusing to take on her tutors’ advice that her skills were better suited to theatre or film design. "I was determined to qualify as an architect," she says.

That all changed when a guest tutor called Anton Furst came to the RCA to critique a short theatre design project. "He was working as the production designer on the Batman movie and invited me to visit the sets at Pinewood. I jumped at the chance and this experience really did change my life," says Jackie. "When I stepped onto the partially-built streets of Gotham City, I was just awestruck. I realised I could work in an industry where you can design something and have it built within weeks, not the years it takes for architects to realise their visions. I was sold."

Jackie set about applying for work in the film and TV business and was finally offered a job at the BBC as a design assistant. Over the years, she has worked with a host of leading actors including Ewan McGregor, Catherine Deneuve, Julie Walters and Rupert Everett on a range of stunning productions. Currently, she's working on the ITV crime drama series Vera, which is filmed in Newcastle and the North-East.

"Filming in lockdown is very tough," she says. "Because of the masks and social distancing, most meetings are on Zoom or are held outside! Freezing! And all sorts of camera trickery is coming into play because of the two-metre rule so that the audience can’t see that actors are further apart that they would naturally be. We have a whole team on set on Vera at the moment, devoted to Covid-19 health and safety and making sure we all stick to the rules. It’s a tough gig, but we are all so happy to be working. During the first lockdown so many people in my industry received no government help at all as they didn’t fulfil the criteria. I was one of them."

All Creatures Great and Small has its own challenges. "Filming the veterinary procedures is always quite complex," says Jackie, "from sourcing the correct period surgical tools, actors being briefed by the real vet on set, the prosthetics we had made to mimic the animal being operated on, finding the correct veterinary books to be shown on camera and making sure that the whole sequence could be cut together to ensure the audience didn’t know the animal wasn’t real."

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On a period drama, every prop and every location has to be right for the period. "It is sometimes very difficult, and on bigger budget shows errors can be dealt with in post-production. I think on the whole, we did okay, although I can still spot things I'm not happy with, but at least I will get to address these things in the next series!"

So has the success of All Creatures taken her by surprise?

"Yes and no. It would be hard to mess it up really as the books are so loved, and the stories are so good," she says. "Any story rooted in real life has an extra potency and connects more viscerally with people. It has been wonderful that all age groups have seemed to enjoy it, which means the world to me."

Covid-willing, preparation for the second series will begin in early January with filming starting in March. Jackie is excited by the prospect. "I love my job, pretty much all of it - seeing things you wouldn’t ordinarily get to see, people’s houses, stately homes, landscapes and the internal workings of buildings normally off limits. It’s a privilege. The best thing is when your team is working so well together that you can all anticipate what the other wants and needs. Then the magic happens."

  • The All Creatures Great and Small Christmas special is on Channel 5 on December 22 at 9pm, with a repeat on Boxing Day at 7.45pm