James Alfred Wight sold millions of books and was recognized with a CBE on the queen’s honors list, but his prospects seemed rather modest in 1937. You might recognize him by his pen-name: James Herriot. In the midst of the depression, it was difficult for a newly qualified veterinarian like Herriot (as he is known in his somewhat fictionalized memoirs and the previous dramatizations), but fortunately, his prospective new boss is dashed difficult to work for, so he still has an opening. Fans already know Herriot’s bedside and stable-side manner wins over the mercurial Siegfried Farnon and the Yorkshire community they serve in the newest seven-episode All Creatures Great and Small, which premieres this Sunday on PBS.
Herriot’s parents made great sacrifices so he could graduate from the University of Glasgow’s veterinary program, but jobs are scarce in the 1930s. If he doesn’t land the position in rural Darrowby, he will have to join his father working on the docks. Frankly, Farnon does not want to hire an assistant, but his motherly housekeeper, Mrs. Hall insists he needs help. Poor Herriot does not exactly get a warm welcome, but he slowly wins over the widowed older vet with his diligence. Fortunately, he compares rather favorably with Farnon’s slacker younger brother Tristan, who has just failed his veterinary finals, yet again.
Nevertheless, the well-meaning Herriot has plenty of awkward moments during his early days. Frankly, we didn’t remember from the previous serious the life of a country vet entailed so many moral crises (and somehow, we missed the 1975 movie starring Anthony Hopkins altogether). Comparisons between the series are inevitable especially since Nicholas Ralph and Samuel West look so much like their previous counterparts, as Herriot and the elder Farnon, but that sort of stands to reason. However, Anna Madeley is definitely a younger and softer Mrs. Hall. She also becomes a much greater emotional center for the series.
This All Creatures also co-stars the late, great Diana Rigg, as the fabulously wealthy Mrs. Pumphrey, whose beloved pug Tricki-Woo must board at the practice for a week to protect him from her pampering. It is always good to see her. Probably the next most notable guest star would be Nigel Havers (of Chariot’s of Fire), appearing as the chairman of the local racetrack.
Of course, the real stars of the series are the beloved characters and the endearing animals they treat. Ralph sometimes portrays Herriot as such a naïf, he can be uncomfortable to watch, but he still wins viewers over with his warmth and earnestness. West clearly relishes Siegfried Farnon’s sharp tongue and high-handed demeanor. He definitely supplies most of All Creature’s humor, in a House MD kind of way, but Callum Wodehouse gets the biggest laughs of the series as Tristan, saying the things we’d like to in the finale. In fact, he does a terrific job portraying the prodigal Farnon brother’s maturation. Yet, it is Anna Madeley who pulls the heartstrings—in the right way—as good God-fearing Mrs. Hall.
All Creatures generally gets better as it continues, but the best episode is probably episode six, “A Cure for All Ills,” which really packs an emotional wallop. The entire season makes it palpably clear how important the health of livestock is for the economic survival of Darrowby farmers, but this episode really drives it home.
There is no question, this is quality comfort television, coming right when we could really use it. True to its source material, All Creatures is all about the importance of community, family (both that of blood and that of choice), the human-animal bond, and bovine virility. The verdant Yorkshire countryside also looks lovely on-screen. It is just a refreshingly welcoming viewing experience. Highly recommended, the new All Creatures Great and Small starts this Sunday (1/10), on most PBS outlets.