Interview: Amy Manson, Scottish actress

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It’s a canny move to star in the prequel to a BBC classic, yet Scots actress Amy Manson has never seen All Creatures Great And Small, she tells David Pollock

BACK in the 1980s, All Creatures Great And Small was one of the BBC’s most successful TV series. And if Young James Herriot isn’t a straight reprise, the BBC’s decision to show it in a prime time slot over three nights, just before Christmas, is an indicator of how much expectation is weighing upon it to recreate some of All Creatures’ magic.

Yet Amy Manson – the 26-year-old Scottish actress whose already promising career could be launched to a new level if the series is a success – isn’t getting nervous.

“I made a choice not to read any of the books or watch any of All Creatures,” she says, “just so I didn’t feel that pressure. It’s nice to know there’s an audience for the show out there, so I feel secure in that respect, but we’re all coming from a fresh stance and it’s a good number of years since All Creatures was on. I just tried to approach the beautiful three episodes we were given on their own terms, to do something quite refreshing and not think too much about what we’re reviving.”

For those too young to remember, All Creatures Great And Small, which ran from 1978 until 1990, was based upon the semi-autobiographical novels of James Herriot (the pen-name of Sunderland-born author and vet Alf Wight) and took place on the Yorkshire Dales during the 1940s and 50s. The new series relocates Herriot to his days at the Glasgow Veterinary School in the 1930s. It’s based not on Wight’s novels but on the diaries he kept in early life – to which the production team were given exclusive access – and the authorised biography by Wight’s son Jim.

Manson mentions the word “gritty”, but quickly recants when asked to expand further. “Oh, it’s definitely all ages viewing, one hundred per cent,” she says. “There’s one story per episode and that includes a mostly happy ending. That was the formula for All Creatures, or so I’ve been told by my mum and dad.”

Still, the streets of Glasgow in the 1930s create a very different setting to the chocolate box countryside of Herriot’s later adventures, and this is a show for parents and grandparents that, much like the first series, still allows a degree of social realism to creep in.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the form of Manson’s character Whirly Tyson, a fellow student of Herriot’s whose name doesn’t sound nearly so unlikely when spoken in the actor’s delicately accented voice. “She’s a farmer’s daughter who grew up with four brothers,” says Manson. “She’s come to Glasgow to join the Veterinary College, and she’s energetic and really high on what she does. She’s a clever cookie, headstrong, willing to fight for what she believes in. But she’s got a lot to contend with, and she’s battling as soon as you meet her in episode one.”

The sexist attitudes of the day are embodied by Professor Quintin Gunnell, a gruff Gary Lewis with shaven head and handlebar moustache, who doesn’t bother letting Tyson answer in class and bemoans the fact the school is letting women in when “Edinburgh would never have them”. It’s such a sexist environment, in fact, that there’s no female bathroom at the college.

“Even though Whirly’s one of two girls in the college,” says Manson, “the other one, Jenny, would rather not be heard or seen, she doesn’t want to ruffle any feathers and she’s happy to pop over to the toilet in the nearest pub. So Whirly’s constantly fighting on her own, but she gets on with it. She’s never moaning, she’s there to do her job.”

Did Manson bring any of her own experience to the part? “I don’t know,” she ponders. “In drama school I did a lot of part-time work, I didn’t go out much. You know that feeling when you want something really badly and people don’t always believe in you? That just makes you want to push and fight harder for it? But the work gets worked and Whirly enjoys it. It was a pleasure to play her.”

Manson was born in Aberdeen in 1985 and raised for the first eight years of her life in Portlethen, and the next nine in Westhill, just outside the city. Her father is an electrician, her mother a social worker and her sister is a hairdresser who lives in Australia, so “I don’t know where acting’s come from in me”.

When she was a child, though, she would attend a drama class called Stagecoach (“singing, dancing and acting, although I wasn’t very good at the singing”) and it was here she had an epiphany around the age of 13.

“There was one day where I put my heart into it and ended up crying during an improvisation,” she recalls. “It just overtook me. I yearned to get that feeling again and when I got to my Highers I really wanted to do drama, but they didn’t do it at my school. They were great, though. They allowed me to drop a subject and go to my drama teacher’s house in Aboyne instead. It was really her belief in me that got me here now.”

At 17, Manson applied for RADA and the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, being accepted for the latter. When the head of the course told her he’d love to have her on the course, she apparently “just started bawling like a baby and said yes”. Crying seems to come easily. “Aw noooo,” she laughs, “only when I’m acting or through happiness.”

Right after college, Manson travelled to Romania and Thailand to film two low-budget schlock horror affairs (Pumpkinhead: Blood Feud with Lance Henriksen and Blood Monkey with F Murray Abraham) and has worked constantly ever since, graduating from The Bill, Doctors and Casualty to higher profile series like Torchwood, Being Human and Desperate Romantics, eventually earning a lead role in the ill-fated Brit sci-fi series Outcasts.

Manson’s plans for 2012 are on hold at the moment until an imminent recommissioning decision about Young James Herriot is made, although it seems unlikely to be cast aside, being a quality piece of populist drama with a truly likable performance from Iain De Caestecker in the lead role.

She’ll next be seen with James Cosmo in a “hardcore thriller” called January, about a woman confined to a wheelchair after a motorbike accident. There’s also a role on the table in Cool, the adaptation of Alexander Trocchi acolyte William Pryor’s heroin memoir The Survival Of The Coolest, should it ever be produced, while Manson would love to return to the stage following her CATS award-winning 2008 role in the National Theatre of Scotland’s Six Characters In Search Of An Author.

Until then, though, the memory of her first proper acting experience at that teenage drama group remains with her. “That’s what I aspire to,” she says, “just those moments where you come out the other side and you don’t know what went on because you were being so honest in speaking someone else’s words. It’s such a euphoric moment, and it doesn’t happen often. I think that’s what’ll keep me in the acting game for a long time, just to try and find more and more like that.”

Young James Herriot begins tonight at 9pm on BBC1, with further episodes on Monday and Tuesday