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

Taking the lead in Young James Herriot, BBC Scotland's look at the career of Britain's most famous vet, is 23-year-old Glasgow actor, Iain De Caestecker (Coronation Street, The Fades).

Based on the biography of the real James Herriot, Alf Wight, the series follows the young veterinary student as he arrives in Glasgow to begin his studies. Unlike the BBC's All Creatures Great and Small, this prequel series introduces viewers to a younger, less experienced Herriot.

I met with De Caestecker on the set of Young James Herriot in July 2011 to discuss his awareness of All Creatures Great and Small and the responsibility of portraying such a well-loved character in a new series.

Jonathan Melville: What research did you carry out before you started filming?

Iain De Caestecker: I haven't seen a full episode of All Creatures Great and Small but I have watched clips and I've been reading the books. Alf Wight's son, Jim, wrote a biography and I met up with him. Also Zoe, Alf's granddaughter, works in the art department so that's been really nice, if you have any questions you can ask.

The main thing for me was knowing that a lot of people were familiar with the character from All Creatures Great and Small so it was trying to create the right way to show that this is about James Herriot becoming the character everyone knows.

Within all the research I've been doing on him I've been watching a lot of silent movies to create a younger, different character. It's about him not getting there yet, he has a lack of knowledge of the world at this point and he's very eager do anything and everything, he'll try anything once.

Rob McAloon (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) and James Herriot (Iain De Caestecker) (copyright BBC/Shed Productions)

Alf Wight loved the Arthur Conan Doyle's books and in his diaries you could tell he was picking up a lot of his language. He loved Sherlock Holmes so I've been trying to dial some of those things in, the different characters. He sees the world as a playground at the start.

Doing something this everyday you do get into the character and it's hard to switch off. When I go home or go out for dinner I try to think how he might react to that and you can use that the next day.

Which of his character traits have stayed with you?

His curiosity, trying to find a way to see things he's seen for the first time, forgetting everything you know.

How has it been working with animals?

It's cool. I love animals and I'm going on safari in January. Most of it so far has been puppies and dogs. We've had horses in, they're very well trained and hit the mark better than the actors.

You talked about trying to find the character. When you do multiple takes is there much discussion about how you can change things?

All the time. Mike's [Keillor, the director] great, and Owen [McPolin] the Director of Photography.

Sometimes we'll come in and we're not too sure what we're going to do and we'll plot something out then there'll be something there and we'll say “let's use that”, it changes all the time. We're filming three episodes at once so we're always trying to plot out a clear journey for where he's going to go.

When I met Alf Wight's son, Jim, I was saying the most extreme way I'm going to play the character is at the start of the story, he's going to have the most naïve side of his personality at the start and you'll see he's going to get wiser and more grown up as it goes on.

[Listen to Iain De Caestecker discuss filming Young James Herriot]

The episodes are shot out of sequence, how difficult is that?

They've tried as much as they can to film in sequence where they can. Now we're about half way through I'm getting a grasp on who the character is. Sometimes it's like a jigsaw puzzle, you do something one scene and you have to leave it and because you've done it one way you have to do the next scene and the one before it like that as well.

There's a Harry Potter feel to the series, with the trio, starting a term at school. What's it like working with these guys, is it like a team? Have you got many scenes together?

Yeah, we've got loads. We're in almost every day together. We get on really well. In a wider sense, with the crew and everything, it's like a team. We've got loads of people coming in and out. The things about them is that they're very different. Ben Lloyd-Hughes' character, McAloon, and Amy Manson's character, Whirly, and then James, they're all really different which works really well.

We get on well and because we're filming three episodes at once we make sure we get together at night and go over stuff. Sometimes if you're not feeling to good about a scene the next day it's good you can fall back on each other.

Are you playing the character with a Scottish accent?

I am. Alf Wight went to the same school as me, well I went to Hillhead Primary and he went to Hillhead Secondary. He grew up in Glasgow and had a bit of a Scottish accent.

With Wight being a real person, is their a weight of responsibility with this role?

He's based on a real person so you have a responsibility to the family. Everyone said he was a genuinely nice man, but we also wanted to show he's naïve but that he's not perfect at this stage. He makes an impact on people.

The thing about him is he has great social skills and find him east to get on with. There's no prejudice and everyone's equal.

All Creatures Great and Small was a cosy Sunday night drama and this is set in the politically turbulent 1930s. Is Young James Herriot a darker series?

I think it's a bit of both. It has a lot of comedy but there's a lot of drama and themes about Glasgow and Britain in the 1930s.

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

Related links

‘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