Best known from the All Creatures Great and Small series, Carol Drinkwater is also a popular author, writes Marjorie Brennan
SHE is still remembered fondly by legions of fans as Helen Herriot in the much-loved television series All Creatures Great and Small but Carol Drinkwater is now better known for her books — of which she has sold well over a million copies.
Drinkwater spends much of her time in Provence in France, where she and her husband have an olive farm which they rescued from ruin almost 30 years ago.
Drinkwater’s mother is Irish, as were her grandparents on her father’s side, and she holds an Irish passport.
She has a home near the Offaly, Laois and Tipperary border which she visits regularly.
While the 68-year-old has been making her living from writing for decades now, she still considers herself an actress.
“I still think of myself as an actress, an actress who writes. In my heart, I will always be an actress, that’s what I trained for and what I always dreamed of, I’ve just taken another direction. It’s still all about storytelling, I’m a seanachaí,” she laughs.
While she became a household name for her role as James Herriot’s wife in that Sunday evening family favourite All Creatures Great and Small, Drinkwater got her start in a rather different, but groundbreaking, production.
“My first role out of drama school was four lines in A Clockwork Orange. [Stanley] Kubrick was amazing. He knew everybody’s name, every member of the crew respected him, and he was respectful to people. I had to be topless, which I hadn’t expected and he asked me if I would prefer to have a closed set — I didn’t even know what that was then. He cleared everyone out— not all directors would do that.
"He was very gentle with me, he probably saw me shaking like a leaf. He also took the time to discuss what he wanted to achieve with the scene I was in, even though it was just a small part of the film. To bother with someone of such minor importance was quite overwhelming for me. It was a really good lesson for me to start out with.”
Drinkwater has written more than 20 books, including a hugely successful series of memoirs about life on her olive farm.
She signed a two-book deal with Penguin in 2015, with The Forgotten Summer released last year and The Lost Girl, which will be published later this year.
“I like the freedom of novels. With the memoirs, I always had to keep to the facts. I like that with novels, if I want to go off and write something quite dramatic or outrageous or something completely different, I can do it if I want to.
"I can always pull it back later. I love that I can let my mind take me where I want to go.”
Drinkwater says, however, that her memoirs helped forged a strong bond with readers.
“I get so much mail from women who have lost children because one of my books is about that. There was also a period when my marriage was in difficulty, which people connected with.
"Lots of people have also said they moved to the south of France when they read my books. That makes me feel a bit responsible but it also wonderful to know I’ve inspired someone to follow their own dreams.”
Drinkwater’s experience with her farm eventually led to her travelling around the Middle East in search of the roots of the fabled olive tree.
It was a challenging and rewarding experience.
“If my life had been nothing else, it would have been worth living for those journeys; I was frightened and lonely, held up at gunpoint and saw terrible things. Then I spent time with families who were so kind; frequently it was the poorer people, who had lost family members, who were the kindest, as often happens.
"The richness and generosity of the human spirit I discovered in those journeys, meeting with olive farmers and people caught up in war was very humbling for me. Also, finding trees that were six or seven thousand years old made me realise what a tiny pea I am in the world.”
Drinkwater says she is still regularly contacted by fans of All Creatures Great and Small. Does the attention for a role she began playing almost four decades ago bother her?
“It would be very churlish of me to be impatient about something that has given me so much opportunity, opened up the world for me and has made people love me. Why should I reject that? I’ve done lots of other things since and I always want to say to people, because I still get masses of mail about it, ‘if you like me in that, why don’t you see if you like my writing, see if you’d like other things I have done’.
"I try to encourage people to move on with me but to be fed up with it would be terribly ungrateful of me. I hope I’m not because I do think I’ve had a very privileged life. I’ve worked very hard but that is not necessarily a guarantee it will go your way.”
One of Drinkwater’s favourite roles was in a film she made with Max Von Sydow called Father.
“We played father and daughter and spent three-and-a-half months in Melbourne filming. He is one of the greatest actors of modern cinema and such a generous human being. He taught me a lot, and not to be so worried all the time.
"He told me ‘You are so talented but you worry too much’. It was a wonderful experience, we never had a cross word.”
While Drinkwater is kept busy with her writing, she says she would love to act again if given the right role.
“So much of the work today is not really that rewarding. There are some wonderful roles but a lot of people competing for them and I’m not in the central court because I have stepped aside.
“If someone called and the role was good and there was dignity and integrity in the piece, I’d be up for it, of course I would. It’s so hard for older women in acting so when you hear of an older woman having a renaissance in their career, I really applaud it.”
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