A Review of the UK Channel 5/PBS Masterpiece Show All Creatures Great & Small
I grew up with dogs. I like dogs. I like all animals. Hell, I like animals more than I like most people. So when I was about 7 or 8 years old, my mom gave me a copy of James Herriot's Dog Stories, a collection of memoir pieces written by a veterinary surgeon who practiced for nearly 50 years in the Yorkshire Dales. I was enraptured by the stories - charming and entertaining accounts of small-town living (with the bonus of ALL DOGS ALL THE TIME) - and read and re-read the book several times over the next ten years before I, unfortunately, misplaced it at some point during a move. (It is a strange turn of events that 30 years after reading and falling in love with these stories I have come to work in the finance department of a medical group that manages veterinary practices nationwide.)
I later came to know that James Herriot was the pen name of a veterinarian named James Alfred Wight, and he had written a series of eight memoirs set in the 1930s-1950s about his experiences with veterinary practice, animals, and their owners, published in the United Kingdom starting with If Only They Could Talk in 1970. Later on, when the books were scheduled for publication in the United States, the first six books in the series were considered too short to publish independently, so they were combined in pairs to create three volumes, followed by the last two original books. After that, publishers in the US pulled stories from all of the books to create compilation volumes, of which Dog Stories was one (there is also a Cat Stories book and a Yorkshire Stories book, among others). The most famous book of the US publications is All Creatures Great and Small, but overall the entire franchise based on Wight’s writing was very successful, leading to several television and film adaptations of his books, including the film All Creatures Great & Small, released in 1975, a BBC television series of the same name that debuted in 1978 and ran for 90 episodes, and most recently, a UK Channel 5 television series that debuted in 2020 and has been airing in the US on PBS on January 10, 2021, as a part of Masterpiece.
This last series in particular is what I am going to focus on here because it dropped on PBS at EXACTLY the right time for me and my boyfriend. After the relentless stress of the COVID lockdown, the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol (and losing my aunt to COVID on the same day), we were really in need of some gentle fare. This latest adaptation of All Creatures Great & Small is, quite simply, a lovely show about nice people who do nice things and care about each other, and it was and is a soothing balm amidst the general horror of the world these days.
The show begins in 1937 with James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph), a newly qualified vet, moving from his family's home in Glasgow to accept a job in Darrowby (a small town in the Yorkshire Dales) at a vet practice in Skeldale House owned and operated by Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West). Living at Skeldale house along with James and Siegfried is Siegfried’s younger brother Tristan (Callum Woodhouse), who was raised by Siegfried after the death of their parents and is training to be a vet as well (while also being a bit of a hot mess), and their housekeeper, Mrs Audrey Hall (Anna Madeley). Eventually, Helen Alderson (Rachel Shenton), a local farmer's daughter, moves into Skeldale House after falling in love and marrying James.
All Creatures Great & Small is your basic workplace dramedy, with the oft-seen trope of work friends turning into a chosen family (especially given that all of the key players live at Skeldale House). Every episode usually features an overarching plotline about a major farm animal health situation in the farming communities of the Yorkshire Dales (usually handled by James or Siegfried), a smaller plotline about the oddballs who bring their housepets to Skeldale House for checkups and minor ailments (handled by Tristan, who after finally passing his qualifying exams is put in charge of the general surgery at Skeldale), and vignettes about the personal lives of all three vets and Mrs Hall. At times the stakes can feel pretty low - any farm animal-related crisis usually involves James saving the day (or on the occasions when he can't, the farmer handling the bad outcome with no hard feelings), any element of consternation Siegfried feels about the reputation of his practice tempered by his and James' skills (and often wise words from Mrs Hall), any scrape Tristan gets into usually resolved by him slowly learning how to take ownership of his mistakes and grow into a better vet, and any drama with James and Helen's relationship resulting in them having a sensible conversation and figuring out how to be true partners in marriage. If there is a problem in Act 1 of an episode, it is almost always resolved by the end of Act 2.
Over time, especially if one were to binge this show (all episodes from seasons 1-3 are available on Amazon Prime Video or through the PBS app if you are a member of your local affiliate), the manufactured drama, wacky hijinks, and always happy endings start to feel so sweet that it will give you a toothache (as my boyfriend says). But ultimately, the real strength of this show is not so much the simplistic plotlines as it is the witty writing, rich character development, and performance of the actors. Additionally, the most recent season (the finale was just aired on February 19, 2023), set in 1939, begins to slowly explore some darker themes. World War 2 is on the horizon, young men are being encouraged to enlist, conscription (England’s version of the draft) is beginning and James has conflicted feelings about being in a protected profession and thus barred from enlisting (public health and safety in farming communities is a direct result of veterinarians' work), and Helen doesn’t want to lose James to the military. Siegfried is triggered by the impending war due to trauma from his experiences in the British Army Veterinary Corps during the first World War, and Mrs. Hall is dealing with the fallout of her strained relationship with her son, who is enlisting, after having her marriage to her husband fall apart due to his returning from the first World War with shell-shock (what has now come to be known as PTSD). The show does retain its fundamental gentle vibes in Season 3, but the specter of violence and death from the looming war in the background allows for more depth and complication in the stories than seen in the prior two seasons.
While Nicholas Ralph is indeed very charming as our protagonist James, and his chemistry with Rachel Shenton as Helen is quite sweet, and while Callum Woodhouse as Tristan is extremely endearing in his rakish hot mess way, the MVP of All Creatures Great & Small by far is Samuel West as the eccentric, grumpy, but secretly soft-hearted Siegfried, and the relationship between Siegfried and Mrs Hall is a wonderful depiction of two people who have known and worked and lived together for so long that they have become soulmates - platonic soulmates, but soulmates all the same. The decision by the producers of this version of All Creatures Great & Small to age Mrs Hall down from being the crotchety elderly woman of Wight’s source material to someone warmer and closer to Siegfried's age is a masterful one, allowing for this wonderful relationship to develop, and Anna Madeley is a terrific, wry, no-nonsense foil to West's bombastic weirdness. (There is a not-insignificant contingent of fans who ship Siegfried and Mrs Hall for this reason; I fully admit I am one of these fans).
Bottom line: If you have had your fill of dark television media and are looking for some good old-fashioned heartwarming fun, please check out All Creatures Great & Small. Your spirit will thank you. (And when you're done, hit me up so we can debate whether Siegfried and Mrs Hall should just get married already or not.)
Reeya is a musician and writer based in New York's Capital District. Her debut album, "The Way Up," was released on January 27, 2022. She can frequently be seen in her car on the NYS Thruway cursing traffic on her way to the Hudson Valley for band rehearsals or to Brooklyn for recording sessions. In her other life, she works as a staff accountant for a management company that oversees veterinary practices nationwide, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU returns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use.