As has been written about many times in this space, book-to-television adaptations can be a tricky beast to wrangle. But I can joyously report that the same warmth, humor, and gentle stories that fill my own well-worn copies (and much-played audiobooks) of James Herriot’s autobiographical novels comes through beautifully in this new television version of All Creatures Great and Small.
Herriot is in fact a pen name for the late Yorkshire veterinarian Alf Wright, who wrote lovingly about his early years in practice in the English countryside during the 1930s and 1940s. The names and some of the places have been changed to protect the innocent, so to speak, but a gentle innocence is at the heart of these wonderful tales because they focus, of course, on animals and those who care for them.
Channel 5’s new series is not the first time All Creatures Great and Small has come to television (the books were also published under different names in the U.K., though for our purposes we’ll stick to calling by its U.S. anthology title). But writer Ben Vanstone and director Brian Percival’s winning vision hits all the right marks by not seeking to update a classic so much as bring new life to beloved material.
Throughout the six episodes (and a Christmas Special), airing in the U.S. on PBS Masterpiece, we follow the daily life at Skeldale House, a veterinary practice that young James (Nicholas Ralph) joins as he graduates from school. Run by a good-hearted but difficult-to-please taskmaster, Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West)—who has fired every other assistant he has ever had—James must prove himself not only to his new boss, but also to the local farmers suspicious of newcomers and more modern methods of treatment.
Spiritually reminiscent of some of the best series to recently feature on Masterpiece, including The Durrells in Corfu, Victoria, and Downton Abbey, All Creatures Great and Small is the sort of show that is built upon a tender kindness. It is never saccharine, but wears its wholesomeness on its sleeve as we travel across the Yorkshire dales and experience the ups and downs of rural life. The show doesn’t shy away from difficult decisions James and the others must make, and one episode in particular is absolutely heartbreaking. But the series is always balanced by a plucky confidence in its storytelling and its tone, which ultimately keeps things light and cozy.
The whole cast is truly delightful and utterly charming, with a great on-screen rapport. In addition to the amiable duo of Ralph and West anchoring the series, Durrells alumnus and comedic gem Callum Woodhouse appears as Siegfried’s roguish younger brother Tristan, and Anna Madeley is wonderful in the expanded role of Mrs. Hall, a housekeeper and den mother of sorts who is an essential part of the Skeldale family. The late Dame Diana Rigg, in one of her final roles, makes an unforgettable appearance as Mrs. Pumphrey, “mother” to a very spoiled dog named Tricki-Woo. Rachel Shenton—a dead ringer for Hayley Atwell—is also a stand-out in the all-important role of Helen Alderson, James’ vivacious love interest.
The short series is a mix of the constant challenges faced by the vets along with their own personal dramas (including more romance, or the potential for it, than in the books), as well as their relationships among the finicky, no-nonsense farmers. As such, All Creatures Great and Small is not a series that requires much from you, but gives plenty in return. It’s not fluff—there are real emotions here, and an underlying sense of changing times as modernity creeps in to the practices of the rural counties. There’s also the fact that the series starts at a time when many are still processing the scars of the first World War, not realizing a second is very close on the horizon. But in this moment right here, as a tenderly drawn slice of life that champions honor, character, and the care of animals, it is a wonderful treat and a balm for the soul.
All Creatures Great and Small premieres Sunday, January 10th on PBS Masterpiece; go ahead and fall in love, the series has already been renewed for Season 2.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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