IN the ’70s, All Creatures Great And Small was favourite family viewing, with millions gathering around the TV each week to watch the hilarious antics centred around a veterinary practice in the picturesque Yorkshire Dales.
Admittedly there was a choice of only three channels to watch at the time, but this was must-see TV and the enduring image from the hit series, which continued on and off until 1990, is of its star Christopher Timothy, playing idealistic young country vet James Herriot, with his arm up the back end of a cow.
It was a regular, messy, occurrence, watched with a mix of disgust and admiration by the nation’s viewers in the days when what you saw on TV was what you got.
“I could never have been a vet” says Timothy, now 73, but that’s never stopped people confusing him with the real deal.
“People still say ‘come and have a look at my dog’. That still happens. And I still manage to smile!”
While there’s no doubt that the show made Timothy a household name, he’d started out on his acting career over a decade earlier on the stage. Over the years it’s taken in a six-year spell in TV series Doctors, as well as writing and directing, and he’s currently back treading the boards in the thriller Dial M for Murder, which is bringing him to the Theatre Royal in Newcastle next week.
But he’s perfectly happy to talk about old favourite All Creatures, although my mention of it is, he tells me, the first of the day (it’s noon).
He looks back on it as “great, great times”, particularly the week he spent learning the job while living at the home of a Yorkshire vet who “taught me how to put a hand up a cow’s bum”.
He met the real “Herriot” too: Sunderland-born vet-turned-author Alf Wight on whose books the series was based. He fondly recalls a shy man with a twinkle in his eye who “poured a mean glass of scotch”.
Three years ago Gala Theatre in Durham premiered the stage adaptation of the first of those books for the stage. Timothy couldn’t make the play but heard the verdict of Alf Wight’s daughter Rosie who had travelled up to see it.
“She said ‘not bad’ – praise indeed!” laughs Timothy who also keeps in touch with the late vet’s son, Jim, as well as cast members Carol Drinkwater, who now lives in France, and is in email contact with Timothy’s wife, and Lynda Bellingham (who at different stages played his on-screen wife) as well as Peter Davison and to a lesser extent Robert Hardy - “Christmas cards maybe” - who played fellow vets Tristan and Siegfried Farnon.
“A tour of it is being planned now,” he adds of the play and mentions how Matthew Horne, a recent guest with him on The Alan Titchmarsh Show, told him he’d been asked to play James Herriot on the tour but had work commitments.
He isn’t precious about the role, which he says he landed when John Alderton (who played the character in a film version) turned it down, though did not much rate the 2011 drama Young James Herriot, detailing the vet’s younger days.
“I was disappointed,” says the actor, who adds that at his age he feels he can start saying what he wants.
And he makes for engaging conversation, which takes in the phone hacking trial; his love for film and theatre which transport the audience, such as the stage version of War Horse; why he’s appalled that children’s classic Peter Pan has been turned into a pantomime; how he’d have liked to play Macbeth in his younger days, and his plans for a play with pal Matthew Kelly after he missed his chance with Waiting for Godot.
And his favourite acting experience, he reveals, was playing Jesus Christ in the York Mystery Plays in the ’80s, which involved 300 dedicated volunteers.
“It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I was very, very proud to be in that.”
He enjoyed it so much he doesn’t like anyone else to play the role, he jokes. “I think ‘that’s my part!’ I can’t bear it.”
His current role in Dial M for Murder is Chief Inspector Hubbard, tasked with unravelling a complex plot in the play which is best known as the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film starring Grace Kelly as an unfaithful wife in a claustrophobic and convoluted tale about betrayal, blackmail and attempted murder.
The 50-set production is going all-out on style, with a bold and dramatic set which sees two important plot devices, a handbag and telephone, picked out in red.
“It has a very traditional set-up: one room of a flat and in ours the stage revolves but it moves so gently and slowly that the people are caught unawares,” explains Timothy.
It’s certainly grabbing audiences’ attention on the tour and the actor mentions the interest in a question-and-answer cast session after one performance.
“It’s fascinating,” says Timothy. “We had 100 people, maybe more, stay behind at one.
“One of the questions asked of all of us was ‘did you accept the job because you are into thrillers’? I accepted because it’s a really good part.
“I’ve seen the film quite a few times and strangely had seen it only about a month before I was approached to do it. I watched it out of nostalgia; it’s of a certain time and I think not one of Hitchcock’s best movies.
“I’d thought it was a bit creaky but it’s a brilliantly constructed play when you read it.
“And we’re taking an interesting angle on it, although we haven’t changed it or the lines.
“The audience is involved. That’s the feeling - the silence out there is palpable.
“I don’t want to say too much about the attempted murder but the first time I saw it in a dreary rehearsal room I still thought ‘wow’.
“It’s very filmic and the comments from the public say this is by far the best production they’ve seen.”
Another audience question during that cast session was the old favourite ‘how do you learn your lines?’ and he says: “It was interesting; everybody was different.”
So how does he?
He laughs: “With great difficulty!”
Dial M for Murder runs at Theatre Royal, Newcastle, from March 18-22. Visit www.theatreroyal.co.uk or call 08448 112 121.