"Thirty years after the last episode appeared on our screens All Creatures Great and Small returned for another series"
James Herriot's tales of a country vet had first appeared on screen in a 1974 movie starring Simon Ward, followed by a sequel, It Shouldn't Happen To A Vet, starring John Alderton in 1976.
For the TV series the personable and talented Christopher Timothy was cast as Herriot, a novice vet who joins the practice of Siegfried Farnon and his easy-going brother Tristan (a pre- Doctor Who Peter Davison). Set in the fictional Yorkshire Dales town of Darrowby, initially in the 1930's, the immediate popularity of the programme was due in part to it's reflection of a much gentler time when life moved at a somewhat slower pace, following faithfully Herriot's written tales of all manner of agricultural and domestic animal ailments.
The show's run came to an end in 1980 after three series, with Herriot and Tristan Farnon heading off to World War 2. Two Christmas specials followed in 1983 and 1985, but absence, as they say, makes the heart grow fonder, and concerted public pressure succeeded in bringing about a return for the series in 1988. Acknowledging the passage of time, events in Darrowby had moved on to the post-war period. Siegfried, (the hugely experienced and powerful performer, Robert Hardy) was married and a new vet, Glaswegian, Calum Buchanan joined the practise to compensate for the almost complete departure of the Tristram character, since Peter Davison's appearances were down to a minimum due to other work commitments.
Other core cast changes saw Carol Drinkwater's Helen Herriot replaced by Lynda Bellingham. By this point all of Herriot's original stories had been adapted, although some unpublished memoirs were used for plots and writers were given the freedom to invent new situations.
The series finished after 90 episodes with another highly rated Christmas special in 1990. The show spawned a lucrative James Herriot industry around Thirsk where the series was filmed, with it's warm and engagingly eccentric characters which became the standard template for a flood of nostalgia tinged, gentle country set dramas and comedies which continue to this day. Indeed, this part of the country in particular has been the setting for many successful series on British TV, including Last Of The Summer Wine, Open All Hours, and the not dissimilar Heartbeat.
Thirty years after the last episode appeared on our screens All Creatures Great and Small returned for another series after the rights to remake it were acquired by Playground Entertainment, a film and theatre production company with offices in New York and London, founded in 2012 by Sir Colin Callender, former President of HBO Films. Playground Entertainment already had a back catalogue of successful television series' which included The Dresser, Dracula and the Golden Globe and BAFTA Award winning Wolf Hall. The series premiered in the UK on Channel 5 on 1 September 2020 and in the US on PBS as part of Masterpiece on 10 January 2021. The series, which consists of six episodes and a special Christmas episode, was filmed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the publication of the first book in the James Herriot series ("If Only They Could Talk" was published in 1970).
The first episode was watched by 3.3 million viewers and the overnight ratings made All Creatures Great and Small Channel 5's highest rated show since February 2016. By the time the consolidated ratings were taken into account (live viewers and catch-up services) it became the channels highest rated series ever with an audience of 5.4 million. With critical responses such as "Perfect... heart-warming... a much needed balm" - The Telegraph, "Irresistible... vivid... milks every drop of melancholic pleasure from the lost and gentle past" - Daily Mail, and "Charming... reminds us of basic values of decency in the most pleasant way possible" - The London Times, it was no surprise when a second series and Christmas Special was commissioned.
As in the original BBC series, significant changes were made from the source material including the character of Siegfried, played by Samuel West (Mr Selfridge, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) who gives a career-defining performance that bounces comfortably between tetchy, eccentric, and exasperating - traits which try, but fail to disguise a warm hearted and caring widower with a passion for animals that often eclipses his regard for people. Nicholas Ralph in his breakout role as James Herriot plays the role of James with a warmth and kindness that was missing somewhat in Christopher Timothy's interpretation. Ralph also uses his genuine Scottish accent whereas Timothy was instructed to keep his speech neutral for universality when the BBC series was being filmed (Herriot/Wight had a soft, lilting Scottish accent). The role of Mrs Hall (Anna Madeley - Mr Selfridge, The Crown), has been reimagined as a younger, live-in housekeeper and a slightly warmer figure than in the novels, and the series also expands the role of James' love interest, Helen (Rachel Shenton - Hollyoaks, Switched at Birth, White Gold). Playing the role of Tristan Farnon, Callum Woodhouse (The Durrells) starts off as a lazy character, who appears to be content to spend his time drinking in the local pub and chasing women, all designed to hide his lack of confidence and the inferiority he feels when compared to his brother. However, it's pleasing to see his character develop over the seasons into a caring and conscientious adult with a growing self-belief.
The series was to have starred Diana Rigg (The Avengers, Game of Thrones) as recurring character Mrs Pumphrey (with her overly indulged Pekingese, Tricki Woo), but unfortunately, after just two appearances, the actress passed away. Her role was later recast by Patricia Hodge (Miranda).
Beautifully and authentically filmed (largely in the Yorkshire Dales around Nidderdale the village of Grassington in Upper Wharfedale was used for the fictional village of Darrowby), the breathtakingly beautiful countryside with its undulating landscape adds to the authenticity of that rarest of animals - a reimagining done right.
Published on January 25th, 2022. Written by Marc Saul for Television Heaven.