NICHOLAS Ralph is reflecting on a remarkable year. One where he has starred in the feel-good TV show of 2020 – Channel 5's revamped series of All Creatures Great and Small – playing the lead as Scots vet James Herriot.

The actor, who grew up in Nairn and moved to Glasgow in 2013 to pursue acting, will return to our screens this week for a heart-warming festive episode. Across the country, viewers will coorie in to watch the Christmas special.

It's a far cry from this time last year when Ralph, 30, was perhaps best-known among regulars of the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, where he cut his teeth after graduating from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

It is early November when Ralph's voice drifts down the line from London. Being the star of a major TV show takes some getting used to, he admits, not least playing such a much-beloved character from literature.

"It has been incredible from start to finish," he says. "What an amazing opportunity. For the series to be received in the way it has, it took me quite a while to get my head around it all.

"Of course, we haven't been out and about as much as we normally are [due to lockdown], but I have been recognised a couple of times by taxi drivers and people on the street. It is surreal. The people I have bumped into had lovely things to say about the show."

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The timing of the series in what has been a miserable year for many helped too. Set in the 1930s and with a welcoming, cosy vibe, the drama has provided a much-needed escape for viewers. "Absolutely," agrees Ralph. "My pal described it as like getting a big hug in a show."

Based on the experiences of vet James Herriot (real name Alf Wight), the Channel 5 series aired this autumn. Older readers will fondly remember the original series, starring Christopher Timothy as Herriot, which ran on BBC One from 1978 to 1990.

Both television incarnations draw from the James Herriot books, penned by Glasgow Veterinary College graduate Wight, sharing details from his work and life in Thirsk, Yorkshire, with the stories set between the 1930s and 1950s.

All Creatures Great and Small centres on a trio of veterinary surgeons working in the Yorkshire Dales. The eccentric Siegfried Farnon hires James Herriot to join his veterinary practice at Skeldale House, alongside Siegfried's younger brother Tristan and matriarch housekeeper Mrs Hall.

"During the audition process – there were rounds and rounds of that – I watched the first episode of the BBC series just to get a flavour for the James Herriot world," says Ralph.

The Herald: Nicholas Ralph as James Herriot in the All Creatures Great and Small Christmas special. Picture: Channel 5/Playground TelevisionNicholas Ralph as James Herriot in the All Creatures Great and Small Christmas special. Picture: Channel 5/Playground Television

"But, as an actor, you don't want to watch any more than that because, even subconsciously, you could end up copying things. The books are like the gospel to me, although I don't read too far ahead – I read the first two.

"I went to the Glasgow archives and I found the real James Herriot/Alf Wight, his scores and absentee [record] from when he was a student at the vet school.

"You do a lot of Googling and everything else, but the books were definitely my main source of material when trying to create the character and finding out about that world. They are brilliant stories. One minute you are laughing out loud and then the next, you are really touched."

The cast for the 2020 reboot of All Creatures Great and Small is led by Ralph alongside Samuel West, Anna Madeley, Rachel Shenton and Callum Woodhouse, with the late, great Dame Diana Rigg, Matthew Lewis and Nigel Havers all making appearances.

West plays Siegfried with Woodhouse as his brother Tristan, Madeley as Mrs Hall and Shenton playing Helen Alderson, a farmer's daughter and love interest to James.

Then there is the bovine, equine and canine thespians. Ralph laughs off the old adage about never working with children or animals. In fact, he had little hesitation about getting his sleeves rolled up and stuck in.

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"We did a 'vet boot camp' before we started shooting," he says. "Me, Rachel, Callum and Sam went off with our consultant vet on set, Andy Barrett, and spent a couple of days getting up close with the animals.

"We met cows, sheep and horses. From day one, he had us going through the procedures we would be doing on the show. I wanted to do as much as possible. I said from the start, I was keen to do that.

"We can use stunt doubles and other pieces of trickery, but as much as I was allowed to do – the rules have changed with animals and entertainment – I wanted to do that."

The boot camp, he says, taught the basics of handling animals and using veterinary equipment. "There are little vocal techniques you can use to soothe an animal," he says. "We learned how to approach it, where the danger zones are – that was useful stuff.

"When examining a cow, there is a triangle that you do where you go 'stomach, lungs, heart'. With the horses, we learned how to examine the hooves to look for any abscesses.

"We went through a lot of procedures, right down to how to wash your hands before commencing an operation. As an actor that is what you want. You want specifics and those fine little details. I think I did Andy's head in with my constant questions."

The Herald: The cast of All Creatures Great and Small. Picture: PA Photo/Channel 5/ViacomCBThe cast of All Creatures Great and Small. Picture: PA Photo/Channel 5/ViacomCB

When filming All Creatures Great and Small, animal welfare was top priority on set. It is against the law for a TV production to perform a medical procedure on an animal which it doesn't need.

In calving scenes, a prosthetic substitute – an artificial cow's rear – was used for the close-up shots. Perhaps not something Ralph envisaged when he signed up to drama school?

"Never," he laughs. "Luckily, coming from a theatre background, so much of it is imagination. I did a one-man show where I played 18 characters and we went on this big adventure – that was Captain Amazing at the Citizens Theatre.

"It was bizarre seeing the back end of the [prosthetic] cow. Of course, it was lifeless as well. We did the first take and they shouted 'cut!' early. I asked what was wrong and was told: 'It's the cow. It has no breath. The legs and tail are stiff.'"

"So, we had to get one of the art department guys to lie in the straw. You could just see his eyes and hands poking through as he held the two legs and the tail and twitched them every so often."

Another scene saw Ralph's character get kicked in the face by a horse. In rehearsals, there were a few heart-in-mouth moments working with horse trainer Mark Atkinson. Not least, when Ralph's stunt double couldn't make it on the day that they planned to run some preparatory scenes.

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"I was in this barn with this massive racehorse that was rearing up, almost touching the roof, then clattering down," recalls Ralph, "I said: 'Err, Mark, I don't think I will be anywhere near the horse. If you don't mind, I will step back …'

"On the actual day of filming, the rearing went out because they thought it looked too much like a wild Western. With the kickout, the horse was so well trained, it kicked the same distance every time.

"I was quite happy to go in and have a shot. I managed to get the timing really good and that is what they ended up using in the episode which I was chuffed with."

Then there was the Alderson's bull Clive (real name Jester), a friendly and happy beast by all accounts. "I haven't met many bulls, but he was the softest bull I have ever met," attests Ralph. "A big softie. Rachel had to do a lot of work with him and handled him well.

"One day we were out in the middle of this field and he decided en route to where we were going to film, that he was going to bolt. He is a bull, they are unpredictable – even the softest ones. He wasn't being aggressive. He just took off down the field."

The Herald: Nicholas Ralph as James Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small. Picture: PA Photo/Channel 5/Playground TelevisionNicholas Ralph as James Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small. Picture: PA Photo/Channel 5/Playground Television

Resident vet Andy Barrett was the one holding Jester's lead rope at the time. "Andy was almost water skiing in his wellies next to him along this muddy stretch of field," says Ralph. "The director and DOP [director of photography] were walking the other way and not looking at the bull.

"One of them turned and said: 'Can you hear something?' They looked round and saw Jester, this two-tonne bull legging it towards them. They split off and the bull belted through the middle."

Then from the great to the small with a memorable performance from Tricki Woo, the beloved and pampered Pekingese dog belonging to Mrs Pumphrey, played by the late Dame Diana Rigg.

"We met this fluffy little guy and found out his name was Derek," says Ralph. "You would never think of this particular dog being called Derek, this little fancy guy who walks around with his tail in the air.

"The great thing about working with little Del Boy was what he gave you back in the scene. You would say: 'Tricki, you have been eating too much, haven't you?' and he would do this little grumble. 'Yes, you have Tricki …'" says Ralph, mimicking dog noises in reply. "He was a lot of fun."

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The eldest of two sons, Ralph grew up in Nairn. "I'm from just outside Nairn, but close to the town," he says. "There was a field in front of our house and woods nearby. It felt quite country bumpkin without being that far from the town.

"The field was always full of cows and sheep. We would feed the cows and, when we were little tots, the farmer would lift us onto one cow's back and take us the length of the garden and drop us off again. We named the cow Friendly."

Ralph is the first in his family to pursue an acting career. "People often ask where the acting flair comes from and we still don't know," he muses. "My dad worked offshore, and my mum worked as a physio's assistant in the local hospital.

The Herald: Nicholas Ralph as James Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small with Rachel Shenton as Helen Alderson. Picture: PA Photo/Channel 5/Playground TelevisionNicholas Ralph as James Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small with Rachel Shenton as Helen Alderson. Picture: PA Photo/Channel 5/Playground Television

"It took me a while to find the acting path I wanted to go down. I think they thought I was a bit mad when I decided to do it in my early twenties, but they were completely supportive throughout and I was very fortunate to have that."

Ralph moved to Glasgow and won a place at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. "It took me a couple of times," he says, referring to the audition process for his course. "I was working in bars and restaurants and managed to get little acting gigs on the side."

He graduated in 2017 and began to hone his craft treading the boards. "I did rep theatre with the Citz for just under a year. I did five shows with them which was fantastic continuation of training and as an actor who had newly graduated, it was just under a year's worth of work.

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"I went on from there and got my first lead role with National Theatre of Scotland in a play called Interference. During that I had my first audition for All Creatures Great and Small.

"After that, I had a UK tour lined up with a Citizens Theatre and Wonder Fools collaboration, 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War. When we finished that was when I found out I had the part in All Creatures Great and Small. It has been incredible and I'm loving every second of it."

This year, he has filmed a horror thriller, The Devil's Light, and a biopic, The Most Reluctant Convert, in which Ralph plays a young CS Lewis. Series two of All Creatures Great and Small will begin shooting in 2021. In the meantime, there is the Christmas special to enjoy.

The episode takes place on Christmas Eve – the day before Helen is set to get married to wealthy landowner Hugh Hulton. James is trying to bury his heartache and has invited his new girlfriend to the annual Skeldale House party.

Meanwhile, Tristan has decked the halls with mistletoe and Mrs Hall is laying on a feast as she looks forward to her son Edward returning for Christmas. Among the sprinklings of seasonal cheer, there is a donkey with a dodgy tummy and a difficult litter of puppies to contend with.

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"People should expect a real jam-packed episode full of highs and lows but also a lovely Christmassy feel about it as well," says Ralph. "A lovely hour-long bit of television for Christmas."

The All Creatures Great and Small Christmas special will air on Channel 5 on Tuesday at 9pm, with a repeat on Boxing Day at 7.45pm