When my children were small, they were mesmerized by stories about a vet in the Yorkshire Dales in the mid 1930s who tended to animals, large and small, with expertise, tenderness, and, often, humor. The British veterinary surgeon, Alf Wight, wrote the books under the pseudonym, James Herriot. The titles echoed the Anglican hymn by Cecil Frances Alexander, first published in her Hymns for Little Children:
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
Herriot’s books were bestsellers, far beyond the small town where he worked. And because each chapter was in effect a short story, telling the tale of one specific animal and owner, the books lent themselves well for television.
The original All Creatures Great and Small starred Christopher Timothy as Herriot, Robert Hardy as Herriot’s boss, Siegfried Farnon, and Peter Davison as Siegfried’s younger brother, Tristan. Carol Drinkwater played Helen, the woman Herriot would meet and eventually marry, while Mary Hignett, played Mrs. Hall, who attempted to run the household at Skeldale House which was often chaotic not only because of early morning and late night calls, but also because of the personalities involved. Siegfried was famous for lurching between angry outbursts and softer moments, while Tristan, usually the target of Siegfried’s frustrations, spent most of his time drinking and chasing women. Add to the mix the quirky farmers and pet owners whose animals needed care and the result was an entertaining series.
While the original shows are still available to stream, PBS has revived All Creatures Great and Small with a new production with seven episodes that can be viewed on Sunday evenings, or are available to stream on PBS Passport.
The original actors, most with impressive stage careers, embraced their roles, beaching closely identified with their characters. So casting the new production was a challenge. Fortunately, this new cast succeeds, staying true to the people who inhabited Herriot’s world, while bringing a freshness to the series.
Nicholas Ralph, a Scottish actor, was chosen to play Herriot, his first major role, and his strong performance should raise his profile, both in England and the U.S. When we first meet Herriot, he’s graduated from veterinary school, but has been unable to find a position. When he receives a letter from Farnon, inviting him to Darrowby for an interview, he readily accepts. He’s thrown into the deep end of the pool immediately, and despite some missteps, performs admirably. He’s offered the job. But he will be tested again and again. For owners in Darrowby, animals oftentimes provide a livelihood. Anything that threatens the life of an animal, whether a cow, horse, or pig, can be life changing. Pressure is always on the vet who shows up in the midst of a crisis. Ralph portrays the emotions a vet feels, relying on his experience and instinct, but also aware that a mistake can be fatal.
Samuel West, who plays Siegfried, has serious bona fides in the industry, the son of well known English actors Prunella Scales (Fawlty Towers), and Timothy West (EastEnders). In interviews, West admits to being intimidated about stepping into a role made famous by Hardy. He needn’t have worried. His Siegfried is every bit as fiery and feisty as Hardy’s was, and his relationship with Tristan plays out just as well. As Tristan, Callum Woodhouse, provides the requisite foil, but also keeps things lively, playing tricks on both his brother and Herriot.
Rachel Shelton, who American audiences might recognize from her role on ABC Family’s Switched at Birth, plays Helen, while Anna Madeley, with a long list of credits that encompass theater and TV, plays Mrs. Hall. But perhaps the one role viewers will relish is Dame Diana Rigg, in what was perhaps one of her final roles, as Mrs. Pumphrey, the wealthy owner of Pekingese Tricki Woo. As always, Rigg steals the show, even away from the fluffy pooch. Mrs. Pumphrey treats her pup as a human, feeding him people food that often make him ill, thus requiring yet another visit from the vet. She soon latches on to Herriot, a relationship Siegfried is only too happy to encourage, and rewards the young vet with lavish deliveries from Fortnum’s.
There were 90 episodes of the original All Creatures Great and Small. The revival, with only seven, only whets our appetite for more.
Top photo: Helen Alderson (played by Rachel Shenton)
James Herriott (played by Nicholas Ralph)
Photographer: Ed Miller
Copyright: Playground Television (UK) Ltd.