Review by C.J. Bunce
Last year’s premiere season of the All Creatures Great and Small rated in our borg Top 10 television series of the past decade as well as scoring as best drama, best new series, and best British series in our year-end review of 2021. The charming, funny, historical drama is back in the States with its second season, now airing weekly on PBS Masterpiece. After the lovely Helen called off her wedding to Hugh–following a night stranded with #2 town veterinarian James–in last year’s Christmas season finale, what direction will the series take viewers next? Luckily the show’s writers don’t miss a beat, settling right back in as James returns from a visit back home, back to plenty of work. For those that missed the first season, now is a good time to jump aboard. Don’t think this will be a short-lived series–it’s so good a third and fourth season are already locked in.
All Creatures Great and Small is an adaptation of James Herriot’s quaint, landmark series of books. Smart, cleverly funny, and even educational, it’s an adaptation worthy of the source material and every bit as good as the earlier successful series. 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 the rare Best in Class combination of uplifting, heart-warming drama and British humor. The small cast is perfect, and it’s no surprise All Creatures Great and Small made UK Channel 5’s highest-rated drama ever.
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 the new man in town. Last season he gained employment under Dr. Siegfried Farnon, played by Samuel West, who we loved in 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), who offered the most refreshing performance by an actor last year as the best mix of a fellow who is cocky, yet lacks confidence, and is bold, yet wears his heart on his sleeve.
This season James remains infatuated from afar with local young woman 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. After she left her fiancé at the altar, she now sees herself as pariah, if nobody else really does (this is a kindly village, after all). Everyone seems to know that James and Helen are destined for each other, as Helen attempts to harden herself against everyone, an effort quickly thwarted by a conspiracy of sorts between James and her sister Jenny (Imogen Clawson).
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. The worst of the first episode involves a lamb that is stillborn, but the circumstances are well handled. 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 the often eccentric townspeople.
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, Ashley Barron, and Erik Persson) rivals that of the equally stunning but very different Shetland series.
Fans of British TV, this is the real deal. Set your DVR for All Creatures Great and Small, airing Sundays at 8 p.m. Central 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.