Review by C.J. Bunce
Fans of the 1978-1990 television series All Creatures Great and Small may think it’s… unthinkable… to remake such a solid adaptation of James Herriot’s landmark series of books. And yet here we are in 2020 with a brilliantly good, cleverly funny adaptation worthy of the source material and every bit as good as the earlier successful series. The first season is currently airing on PBS Masterpiece, and also available for streaming online. The autobiographical stories follow the exploits of a young veterinarian, James Herriot, in 1940s Yorkshire as he gets his footing in a rural office in a tiny town where the people are more difficult than his challenges treating the local animal life. This is one of the greatest examples of uplifting, heart-warming drama and British humor and–possibly a surprise to those outside of England–a study in a wide range of dialects and personalities in a single village. The small cast is perfect, and it features some actors you’re likely to be familiar with from other genre shows. Even better, the new All Creatures Great and Small, UK Channel 5’s highest-rated drama ever, has been confirmed for a second season.
Scottish actor Nicholas Ralph plays Herriot, and the fact that this is his first TV role plays superbly to the fact that his character is, in modern parlance, a true “newb.” If you’re lucky enough to have witnessed Ioan Gruffudd overcome his wobbly sea-legs in his youth as the star of the A&E Horatio Hornblower movies, you’ll think Ralph may indeed be the next Gruffudd. He gains employment under the likes of Dr. Siegfried Farnon, played by Samuel West, who we loved and you and everyone else should as well in series including Mr. Selfridge, Midsomer Murders, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, The Frankenstein Chronicles, Law & Order UK, Horatio Hornblower, and even As Time Goes By, along with notable film roles in The Gentlemen, Darkest Hour, Van Helsing, Notting Hill, and Howards End. West’s Farnon is a tough boss with a soft interior, helped along by Anna Madeley (In Bruges, Silent Witness, Mr. Selfridge, Law & Order UK) as Mrs. Hall, the prim and endearing caretaker of the office and the men who work–and live–there.
All three are kept on their toes by Farnon’s younger brother Tristan, the epitome of the modern slacker played for great laughs by Callum Woodhouse (Father Brown). Herriot is infatuated from afar with a local young woman named Helen, played by Academy Award-winning screenplay writer/producer/actress Rachael Shenton (Switched at Birth, The Silent Child, Blood and Bone China), a put-upon daughter and sister and strong-willed farmer who is a delight in every scene.
The series is carefully mostly off-screen with the more graphic practice of animal medicine, but the characters get into all sorts of real-life situations even modern vets will be familiar with. Fair warning: the worst of it involves putting down a sick and pain-enduring animal. Along the way the life of a rural vet is showcased in an easy, cozy sort of manner, the highs and lows peppered with building good relationships with recurring townspeople, including some of the last performances of Diana Rigg (Doctor Who, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Great Muppet Caper, Bleak House, The Avengers), playing Mrs. Pumphrey, doting companion to the little dog with “flop bot.” And Harry Potter fans will be pleased to see the now extremely tall Matthew Lewis (Happy Valley, Ripper Street) as a wealthy young man who also has eyes on the subject of Herriot’s affection. Keen-eyed viewers should watch for Sherlock and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’s Tony Pitts.
Known for her work in dozens of short films, Alexandra Harwood‘s appropriately quaint and pastoral musical score is a lovely feature of the show. The cinematography (from Vanessa Whyte, Erik Molberg Hansen, and Erik Persson) rivals that of the equally stunning but very different Shetland series.
The series features the best single episode of TV this year so far, “All’s Fair,” a jam-packed episode filled with so much drama–and humor–you might think you just watched a two-hour movie. The episode finds poor James left to judge various events at the town’s annual fair, while Siegfried and Tristan hold tours of the veterinary office.
Push aside all the British television series you’ve seen so far, this is the best of the pack. Set your DVR for All Creatures Great and Small, airing Sundays at 8 p.m. Central through February 21, 2021, on PBS’s Masterpiece. Or stream all the episodes free online now here at the PBS website. And don’t forget to check out James Herriot’s novels, all available here at Amazon.