These days, reboots and remakes fill me with dread rather than anticipation, which makes the new All Creatures Great and Small, premiering on PBS’ Masterpiece on Sunday, Jan. 10, such a revelation.
Not only does it respect the original source material — James Herriot’s (real name Alf Wright) novels inspired by his experiences as a veterinarian in northern England — but it holds up well against the first TV adaptation, which ran in the late ’70s and again in the late ’80s.
All Creatures Great and Small launches with seven episodes, with the concluding one taking place at Christmas — a Christmas special being a great tradition for British shows. A second season has already been ordered and, COVID-19 willing, starts filming this year.
… Set against the harsh but rugged beauty of northern England, All Creatures Great and Small has drama, warmth, lots of animals and (blessedly chaste) romance.
Nicholas Ralph stars as young James Herriott, who leaves his home in Scotland in the 1930s for the rolling farmland of the Yorkshire Dales. He’s hoping to get hired as an assistant to eccentric veterinarian Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West), who’s also dealing with his younger brother (Callum Woodhouse), a gregarious ne’er-do-well who’s stumbling his own way to being a vet.
The series also features the late Dame Diana Rigg in her last on-screen role, as the imperious owner of an excessively spoiled Pekinese.
Set against the harsh but rugged beauty of northern England, All Creatures Great and Small has drama, warmth, lots of animals and (blessedly chaste) romance. I watched all seven episodes, radar up for any attempt to “modernize” the story and bring in values and ideas that would have been antithetical to the spirit of the original.
Happy to report that producer Colin Callender, writer Ben Vanstone and director Brian Percival have made use of a lavish budget to update the look of the story while sacrificing none of its authenticity and charm.
At the biannual TV Critics Association (virtual) Press Tour last summer, Callender said:
We never, for a second, thought about setting it present-day. The whole point of revisiting the series was that we felt that the audience at large [had] an appetite for harking back to days gone by, a time when family and community were the sort of core values at the heart of British life.
Certainly, my feeling was that we are living in a difficult and problematic time, and that this series would be re-embraced because of that. That was before COVID-19, and I think those considerations are as relevant, if not more so, than ever.
“Perhaps, most of all, I remember with great affection the day, as a family, when we would sit down and watch television together when we were growing up. My feeling was that audiences want that, and that’s clearly what’s happened during the lockdown.” — producer Colin Callender
We felt there was a way to make it work for a contemporary audience, even though it was period, set in the period. We felt that the psychological underpinning of the characters could be explored more fully. We felt the role of women in this society could be dramatized more fully and center-stage.
We clearly had the opportunity to shoot on glorious high-definition technology that would bring the world of the Dales back to life.
Also, Callender wanted to do what hardly anybody doing scripted TV wants to do these days — create something that the whole family can enjoy, saying:
Perhaps, most of all, I remember with great affection the day, as a family, when we would sit down and watch television together when we were growing up. My feeling was that audiences want that, and that’s clearly what’s happened during the lockdown.
So, I think the timing of this coming out is clearly apropos. I hope it finds a whole new generation of viewers who discover the books and the characters in the way that some who may have known the old series hold it in great esteem.
It’s Callendar’s goal to draw back those who already love Herriot’s stories, and bring in more. He said:
I hope we were going to attract a whole new generation of audiences to the show. The books have never been out of print since they were first published — 18 million copies of the books sold worldwide.
There’s an enormous fan base for the books. Within minutes of tuning in, you will accept the cast wholeheartedly and embrace them fully as the characters that they play. The two shows can live comfortably and respectfully side by side.
The show deals with themes of family, love and loss, along with the realities of being a veterinarian who treats both pets and farm animals. Younger children may find the adult goings-on less than enthralling, but the occasional critter may hold their interest.
As for faith, like the beautiful church in the Yorkshire town, it’s in the background of everything but not the center of attention. However, St. Nicholas gets a proper shout-out in the Christmas episode.
If you’re lucky enough to have Father Brown airing on your local PBS station, I can only hope the station is smart enough to pair these together. With a warm scone and a piping hot cuppa, can’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday evening.
All Creatures Great and Small launches Masterpiece‘s 50th-anniversary year on Sunday, Jan. 10, at 9 p.m. ET/PT (check local listings for time and channel on your local PBS station).
Episodes of Masterpiece: All Creatures Great and Small and other PBS programming are available on the PBS app and at PBS.org, with some programming reserved for PBS Passport, a benefit for members of local PBS stations.
Image: Courtesy of ©Playground Television UK Ltd & all3media international
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