'He's a man with a lot of fight and compassion': Tony Curran on Young James Herriot

Fresh from appearances in films such as The Adventures of Tintin and X-Men: First Class, plus numerous TV series including Boardwalk Empire and Doctor Who, actor Tony Curran recently returned to his home city of Glasgow from Los Angeles to film BBC Scotland's Young James Herriot.

Unlike the programme's three young leads, Curran plays the older and wiser Professor Donald Richie, trying to pass his words of wisdom to James Herriot (Iain De Caestecker).

Here, Curran describes the turbulent backdrop to this All Creatures Great and Small prequel and the characteristics he admires in Richie.

Jonathan Melville: How did you get tempted back to Scotland for this series?

Tony Curran: I have a house five minutes up the road! I like living in LA but it's nice to come back and stay at your old house. I also like the story and the script and the character of Donald Richie who's based on a gentleman called William Weipers who was the Dean of Glasgow Veterinary College. He helped get it affiliated with Glasgow University and was held in esteem and a guru of the college.

The character of Richie is quite a socialist and within the stories there's a political wrangling going on and Donald gets a little upset about it.

Did you have anyone in mind when you were finding the character of Richie?

There are traits of my father, his integrity. I think it's going to be quite amusing, a rollercoaster ride then the dramatic catalysts come in and it becomes quite challenging. I loved the fact it was set in Glasgow in the 1930s. I said to my mother that it was set in 1933 and she said that was the year she was born. It's an interesting backdrop of a decade, just post World War One.

I recently played a character called John Maclean, who they called the Red Clydesider, and he was a friend of Trotsky's and I've read a bit about that in the past, about the mine workers and workers rights.

Veterinary surgeons weren't held in great esteem at the time and it was still untested ground. Characters like Weipers were at the forefront of that. I was talking to James Herriot's son, Jim, about this and he was quite knowledgeable about what he did and his father did after him.

Is he a man with a temper or unorthodox?

The real man was very calm and never raised his voice, he was revered by his peers. There are some parts where people touch nerves. If you know anyone with socialist or political sensibilities, there's a lot of fight in them and it's just the way they deal with it.

There are some instances in these three episodes where it's not just the challenge of someone who owns a cow or a horse but it's also dealing with some political agenda as well, which goes beyond the veterinary college, so he definitely has a switch that can be flicked.

At the start you're not quite sure who Richie is but all is soon revealed, but it becomes clear that he sees himself in Herriot. In the scripts he's not taking the classes and is out getting his hands dirty, and that's how I see Donald Richie being as a young man. He's not a villain, he's a man with a lot of integrity and fight, a lot of compassion.

We've heard that Herriot is working out who he is and it sounds like he could be easily influenced. How does Richie influence or guide him?

He's 17 and very impressionable and there are lessons he learns. I give him some warnings about certain things he shouldn't be doing and he doesn't listen. Richie doesn't tell him what to think but it turns out he's often right. As people get to know the characters more there's a feeling of them evolving.

Iain De Caesteker mentioned that the shooting schedule is hectic – is there a chance to put your own stamp on things?

I went to see the Javier Bardem film, Biutiful, in LA and went to a Q&A where the director and Bardem discussed how they shot the film in sequence. They shoot in a house, then in the middle of Barcelona, then back in the house, and it's great for the actors, but shooting for TV isn't so easy, budgetary and logistically-wise.

I did Boardwalk Empire recently and that's been on for a whole season and they were doing a lot of coverage because it's HBO and they have the money. This is a three part drama for the BBC and you've got to crack the whip, as it were. When you get here you come up with your ideas pretty quickly. Every actor will tell you that you always get your best ideas once the camera has moved on to someone else.

Do you reflect much on what you've accomplished as an actor?

I do the small reflections sometimes but otherwise I crack on with it. People remind you of what you've done but I remember that I'm part of a bigger process, a storyteller.

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Episode One of Young James Herriot is on BBC One Scotland on Sunday 18 December at 9pm.

Related links

'It’s about James Herriot becoming the character everyone knows’: Iain De Caestecker on Young James Herriot

‘She just breezes through life’: Amy Manson on Young James Herriot

‘He could be a very good vet, he just doesn’t apply himself’: Ben Lloyd-Hughes on Young James Herriot

Photo Gallery: Young James Herriot – Episode One