I have never read All Creatures Great and Small, nor any of the follow-up novels by Alf Smith, written under his pen name of James Herriot. Nor did I watch the beloved TV version that ran in the UK and on PBS for seven seasons across the late Seventies and early Eighties. The quiet adventures of a young veterinarian in the 1930s Yorkshire Dales just didn’t sound like my tempo. So I had no real plans to watch or write about the new adaptation, which premiered to big ratings and acclaim in England last fall before making the traditional pilgrimage across the ocean to be part of PBS’ Masterpiece.
Then our republic almost burned itself to the ground, and suddenly there was nothing I wanted to watch more than this gentle show, with its low-stakes plotting, lush scenery, adorable animals, and ensemble of fundamentally nice people. Even if one of those people spends most of his time with his arm up the rear ends of various cows. It is an incredible balm, and a welcome contrast not only to the dumpster fire of our own reality, but to a television landscape where too many shows, even the great ones, are rooted in physical and emotional trauma.
The new version (which premiered over the weekend on PBS) opens in 1937. The fictionalized James Herriot, played by TV newcomer Nicholas Ralph, is recently graduated from veterinary school, and under pressure from his parents to go work at the Glasgow docks with his father rather than pursue some overly fancy new career. Mrs. Herriot (Gabriel Quigley) at first seems like a class-conscious villain. But the moment James is on the train to interview for a job in Yorkshire, she breaks down crying, admitting how badly she wants him to get it, and how worried she is that he’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t.
This is the current adaptation — whose first episode was written by Ben Vanstone and directed by Downton Abbey vet Brian Percival — making clear that its primary concern will be about people wanting the best for one another, even if they cannot always express their affection in the right way. The show’s actual villainy rarely extends further than, say, someone lying about the size of their livestock in a town fair competition. James’ new boss, Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West), is introduced as a mercurial, overbearing employer, but he’s really just mildly crabby — and not even so much after the first few episodes. (Most of his ire winds up being directed not at James, but at his own underachieving brother Tristan, played by Callum Woodhouse.)
There’s conflict throughout the seven-episode first season (really, six episodes and a Christmas special), but outside of an hour where James second-guesses whether he should have euthanized a horse, that conflict is always intentionally skimpy. A key source of tension in one episode is that Siegfried has a cold! In another, James regrets letting Tristan — who has yet to successfully pass his own vet school exams — look after Tricki Woo, the indulged Pekingese cat of the wealthy and eccentric Mrs. Pumphrey, played by Dame Diana Rigg in one of her final roles. Even the central love triangle, in which James moons over local farmer Helen (Rachel Shenton) while she dates the wealthy Hugh (Matthew Lewis), is played in miniature: Hugh’s clearly not right for Helen, but his worst sin is lying about the condition of a bull.
This light approach is, I gather, faithful to the spirit of the books and previous adaptations (there was a movie in 1975, with a young Anthony Hopkins as Siegfried), and a big part of why they were so beloved. But in the world we’re stuck in now, and in a TV universe where a dark tone and byzantine plotting are so often the default, the empathy and simplicity of All Creatures feel genuinely radical.
The cast is terrific. Ralph neatly threads the needle between gawky innocent and romantic hero, and he and Shenton spark quickly. Anna Madeley brings the requisite dry wit and unmistakable steeliness as Siegfried’s housekeeper Mrs. Hall, while West and Woodhouse instantly seem believable as siblings who resent each other’s weaknesses and envy their strengths. And because the stories are deliberately tiny, individual moments within them can seem huge. There’s a scene in the sixth episode where one character puts their arm gently around another at the end of a difficult day, and if you don’t find yourself welling up even a little, then you may be made of stone. The importance of friendship, family, and community can be powerful dramatic subjects even without murders, scheming, or meth labs, provided you tell those stories as well as this series does.
Early in the premiere, Siegfried takes James on a tour of the beautiful countryside in which we will have the pleasure to watch them work. James spots a short-horn cow, long a Yorkshire trademark, but one that’s falling out of fashion in favor of other cows that can produce far more milk with the same amount of time and effort. He feels these breeds will be better for the local farmers.
“But at what cost?” Siegfried asks. “This place has a character all its own. The short-horns are a part of that. With them gone, the Dales lose a part of what makes them so special.”
There are shows that produce far more plot, action, and tension. But it’s the modesty that makes All Creatures Great and Small so special.
All Creatures Great and Small airs Sundays at 9 P.M. ET on PBS. I’ve seen all seven episodes.