Susan Penhaligon in All Creatures Great And Small

Susan Penhaligon and Oliver Mellor in All Creatures Great and Small. Pic: Comp
Susan Penhaligon and Oliver Mellor in All Creatures Great and Small. Pic: Comp
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JUST a mention of the title is all it takes to have the strains of the theme to the long-running BBC drama series All Creatures Great And Small lodged in your head.

But the All Creatures Great And Small that tours to the King’s Theatre next week is very different to its telly counterpart. So says actress Susan Penhaligon, who tours to the Capital in the new stage adaptation of James Herriot’s classic veterinary tales.

“It’s an adaptation of the books by Simon Stallwarthy, one time Hull Truck Theatre Company director, and I think it is a very good adaptation,” says the actress, emphasising, “it really is not the TV series and is very cleverly staged.

“The problem is, you can’t talk about it without referring to the TV show, and this is based on the books. And as James Herriot himself - his real name was James Alfred ‘Alf’ Wight - said, ‘The books are about the characters not the animals.’

“And that is what this play does, it is about the people. The TV series made it more about the animals, but in the books you don’t see the animals and on stage you have to imagine them.”

One thing the play does have in common with its TV predecessor is that it is set against the idyllic background of the North Yorkshire Dales, a place of close and hard-working communities, homely farmhouses and rowdy public houses.

Based on the books of real life vet Alf Wight, and his semi-autobiographical anecdotes of newly-fledged practitioner James Herriot, Penhaligon plays opposite Coronation Street’s Oliver Mellor as the iconic vet.

The play follows Herriot’s life in Darrowby, as he risks life and limb to save a herd of prize cattle, poisoned pigs, and with them the livelihoods of the practice’s eccentric clientele, before enjoying a well-earned pint in the Drovers Arms.

“James Herriot narrates the different stories, moving the play from scene to scene to scene,” explains the actress, who was born in Manila, and tagged the ‘British Bardot’ in the 1970s thanks to films such as The Land That Time Forgot, No Sex Please, We’re British, and the role of Mae Rose Cottage, in Under Milk Wood.

She continues, “In a strange way, the structure of this play is like watching Under Milk Wood on stage, it captures little vignettes from James’ life - stories of rough, tough farmers of the pre-war 1930s.

“And of course, like the books, we learn about James’ love life and the characters he meets.”

Completing the ‘all-star’ cast are former Blue Peter presenter Mark Curry, as the blustering but good-natured Siegfried Farnon, Steps’ heartthrob Lee Latchford-Evans, as the roguish Tristan Farnon, and 2Point4 Children’s Clare Buckfield as Herriot’s eventual wife, Helen.

“One of the great things about this show is that you can bring your granny to it, bring your teenage children, it really is suitable for all the family,” says Penhaligon, who plays Mrs Pumphrey, owner of the spoiled pooch Tricky Woo.

“She is a very, very upper-class lady, and is a rather glorious part to play,” she laughs, modestly adding, “but it is a cameo role because the central characters are James Herriot, Siegfried Farnon and Tristan Farnon.

“That said, it is a very strong cast. It’s a company show, a great ensemble piece. That is its power. Everybody is invested in making it as good as they possibly can and, as a production, it has a good edge to it. It’s a good drama because it is about stories.”

And it won’t be long before the actress, whose TV credits include A Bouquet of Barbed Wire, Upstairs Downstairs, Doctor Who, and the romantic sitcom A Fine Romance, in which she played Judi Dench’s sister Helen, is back in the Capital.

This August she will return to star in the new bitter-sweet comedy, Keeping Up With The Joans, which runs throughout the Fringe at The Pleasance Courtyard.

In it, Penhaligon will be joined by former Doctor Who girl Katy Manning - she played Jo Grant, assistant to Jon Pertwee’s Doctor - and local actor Arron Usher, long time Musselburgh panto favourite, soon be seen in the new BBC Scotland Commonwealth Games sketch show, Don’t Drop The Baton.

“I’ve toured a lot and I quite like going around the country, I’m a gypsy at heart and I love Edinburgh,” smiles the actress.

“And I can’t wait to be back there for the Fringe - it’s like a smorgasbord of entertainment. I actually did a Dario Fo play called Abducted Diana, at the Fringe years ago, which got fantastic audiences. That was at the Pleasance too. So I can’t wait to return.”

All Creatures Great And Small, King’s Theatre, Monday-Saturday, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), £14-£29.50, 0131-529 6000