One suspects that there was curiosity, and not a little trepidation, when old fans of All Creatures Great and Small heard a television remake was in the works. The original television episodes depicting the life of Yorkshire country veterinarians circa 1937 are old friends to many because of their close faithfulness to the content and tone of James Herriot’s books.
When America was suffering through the end of the Vietnam War, Watergate, economic stagnation, and the counter-culture revolution, the first semi-autobiographical novel by Herriot (pen name of James Alfred Wight) appeared. All Creatures Great and Small went through countless printings soon after hitting American shores in 1972. Worldwide fame followed, and eventually 80 million copies of the book and its sequels were sold.
The 1960s had just seen the largest-ever shift of population from rural to urban areas of any decade in U.S. history, Americans had just experienced the infamous “Rural Purge” by major network television, and increasing numbers of Americans were losing their last family connections with someone who still made their living on the land.
The books had clearly struck a chord, and British television producers soon began work on a television series starring Christopher Timothy, long-time character actor Robert Hardy, Peter Davison (later of Doctor Who), and Carol Drinkwater. A long-time PBS staple in America, the series racked up 90 episodes between 1978 and 1990. Over that period, the 1970s haze and malaise was forgotten, but a loyal following developed for the trio of vets rolling around picturesque Yorkshire dales, visiting small farm holdings to tend to livestock, and caring for small animals in their country-house surgery.
Viewers may have been prepared to find fault with the reboot currently playing on PBS, but it is masterful. Director Brian Percival is an alumnus of Downton Abbey and the exquisite North and South, and it shows. The modern filming is vivid and warm, with stunning shots of the Yorkshire countryside and period sets that look good enough to eat.
The real surprise, though, is in the acting. One could always imagine the almost scrawny Christopher Timothy being replaced by an actor who could believably be seen as James, arm to the elbow up a cow’s uterus, fighting a calf’s breech presentation, and the fine Nicholas Ralph does just that and more. Robert Hardy’s unforgettable portrayal of Herriot’s senior partner, Siegfried Farnon (named, like his younger brother Tristan, by a father who was a Wagner fanatic) would seem harder to live up to, but Samuel West, if anything, captures Siegfried as he appears in the books even better than Hardy — younger, more physical, and less explosive. Callum Woodhouse (The Durrells in Corfu) as Tristan Farnon takes the most getting used to, but, unlike Peter Davison, he does look enough like his on-screen brother to be believable in the role.
There are respectful nods to the original series, such as animated opening credits that echo bits of the original’s sequence. Along the way, the series captures much that is familiar about a city-bred young man finding himself in the depths of the countryside — wrong clothes, wrong shoes, and oblivious to the little good-humored practical jokes with which country people have long tested their visiting city cousins to see what they are made of.
Women play larger roles than they did in the original books and series, especially Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley), the three bachelor vets’ housekeeper, who is transformed from a elderly matron into a 40-ish woman who is a bit spicier and with more emotional involvement in the men’s lives. It’s good television, but unnecessary all the same. Herriot’s women were what most women of the land always have been — strong enough in their own right and in no need of updating.
We learn to see individual hills as old friends one has known all one’s life, and the portrayals of the local farmers are mostly free of condescension. All in all, the new All Creatures Great and Small is just as right for our troubled times as the original novels were for their own: comfort for people who desperately need it.
Still, there is something indefinable missing. This may be because high production quality comes at a cost: the first season of the original series had 13 episodes, whereas this one has only six. The clip of the new production isn’t exactly rushed, but it does have more peaks than quiet valleys. While British publishers originally gave humorous titles to Herriot’s books, the novels actually have a serious, walking-pace lyricism that has held up for decades. All Creatures Great and Small is a wine that needs time to breathe, and one hopes that this initial run is successful enough that Percival and the cast will have the chance to do just that.