Animals, spectacular scenery, attractive and interesting humans, gentle humor, and a dash of nostalgia—it’s a winning combination that made the original version of All Creatures Great and Small (1978-1990) so popular. Whether you’re new to the whole James Herriot phenomenon or remember the original, there’s a lot here to enjoy in this new adaptation.
The first episode opens with colorful artwork reminiscent of the title art for The Durrels in Corfu (from which All Creatures inherited one of its cast, Callum Woodhouse as Tristan—more on him later) and a familiar jaunty theme tune, a variation on the original; the score is by Alexandra Harwood whose credits include The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society.
We’re in Glasgow in 1937, where young James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph in his breakout role) is trying to keep up his spirits. Recently qualified as a veterinarian, he’s unemployed, living with his parents. They’re sympathetic but worried as rejection letters roll in. How long will it be before James gives up on his dreams and tries to get a job at the docks, as his father has had to do? Do farmers really need veterinarians now that tractors are replacing draught horses?
And then the miracle happens. James is invited to interview for a position as a veterinarian assistant in Darrowby, Yorkshire, and sets off on a long journey by train and bus, experiencing the first of many embarrassing encounters with dour Yorkshire folk who have a laugh at his expense. When the bus stops to pick up passengers, the driver announces “Darrowby,” which is shorthand for “This is the bus to Darrowby.” James hurriedly leaves the bus and discovers he is standing in the middle of a stunning, vast, green landscape with no town in sight. A passing driver helpfully tells him he needs to get a bus but there aren’t any until tomorrow. James has no choice but to walk to the town and arrives damp and late. James’s future boss, it appears is out, but friendly, glamorous housekeeper Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley) offers James tea.
Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West) bursts into the house like a human tornado, demanding a pencil which James supplies and which he throws randomly across the room after using. Without a chance to do more than catch a glimpse of Mrs. Hall’s tempting tea tray, James learns that Siegfried’s idea of an interview is a field test. He impatiently barks out orders—James is instructed to pick up a box with a cat inside, to be returned to the outbuilding where patients are kept, and led to the assistant’s car, a “nice little runner,” which, as James is to find out, is a death trap on wheels.
Siegfried unbends a little to express his love of the Yorkshire countryside as they drive to their patient, a lame horse. He shares his fears for the survival of the Dales and their unique species, like the Shorthorn cows which are being replaced by Friesians for their superior milk yield. James in turn tells him why he became a veterinarian—he loves animals, and we see him astonished by the beauty of the Yorkshire scenery.
James encounters the bigotry of the Yorkshire farmers who comment rudely about his foreign (Scottish) accent, and the horse is equally unimpressed, kicking James into the mud. Sadly, he's wearing his best, and totally unsuitable, clothes. But James persists, finds the source of the infection, and lances it (pus warning). Siegfried then performs his party piece, pouring chemicals into the hoof to produce a purple cloud—it impresses the clients, he explains.
Back in Darrowby, Siegfried and James visit the pub where several locals are being regaled by the hilarious story of the new veterinarian’s assistant who talks funny and ended up in the mud. Siegfried deftly fends off questions from farmers about their stock and then leaves James with them. James is offered a glass of the landlord’s home-brew. It’s not as friendly a gesture as it appears since the ale is extremely strong, and James staggers back to the house, waking up Mrs. Hall who finds him blearily feeding the cats, one of the assistant's tasks.
But he survives the night and isn’t too hungover to eat breakfast the next morning, although Siegfried makes it clear he is not tolerant of those who oversleep. On a visit to a farm the next day James, sent in search of the farmer, encounters a very large bull wandering loose and is rescued by an attractive, capable young woman who is relatively friendly. She’s Helen Alderton (Rachel Shenton), the farmer’s daughter.
“Another one,” she comments, when he identifies himself as Siegfried’s assistant (he’s the sixth so far, we learn). It's difficult to impress a woman when you're standing on top of a wall, holding her chicken, as she deftly tethers the bull. Poor James. But he successfully diagnoses and treats a calf with a broken leg, despite Siegfried’s stream of criticism and a barrage of questions about what he’s doing and why. Helen advises James to stand up to Siegfried—it's the only way to cope with him.
They return home for afternoon surgery, and James is instructed to fetch two cats from the outbuilding, one for Siegfried to castrate and the other to be returned to its owner, Mrs. Dinsdale (Naomi Radcliffe). She's upset that he's brought out the wrong cat, and James realizes that the night before he was so drunk he put them in the wrong cages. He produces a second black cat and at this point, Mrs. Dinsdale, not the most gracious or helpful of women, tells him her cat is ginger. James rushes into Siegfried’s surgery and snatches the ginger cat from certain castration (in this period castration wasn't nearly as common as it is now). Mrs. Dinsdale, wailing that her cat has been drugged, complains to Siegfried that James was drunk in the pub last night. It turns out she’s married to one of the farmers who encouraged that lethal second glass of home brew. Siegfried is livid.
We see James packing his few possessions to leave the next day. End of the story?
Mrs. Hall, who is troubled by James’s dismissal, argues his case while she and Siegfried play Scrabble. It’s a rather sweet domestic scene, and you wonder what sort of history they have together—with her, he behaves almost like a human being and while the pipe, beard, craziness, etc., may not be everyone’s cup of tea, surely he’s noticed how attractive she is. She worries that he’s working too hard because he can’t or won’t hire an assistant. Siegfried is mildly concerned that James was drunk but his real issue is that the two-cat mishap was so public, taking place in front of a waiting room full of clients he’s anxious to keep. He’s very conscious of his social standing, maybe a bit too much so, since he believes farmers, lower on the social scale, can be impressed with a cloud of purple smoke.
Later that night, a dairy farmer arrives on a bike, needing help with a cow in labor. James wakes and insisting that he prove himself, drives out in the heavy rain to the farm. Mr. and Mrs. Rudd (Alexis Platt and Roxanne Morgan) are afraid that they may lose their beautiful Shorthorn heifer and her calf. She’s distressed, the calf is in the wrong position, and it takes all of James’s considerable skill and knowledge to save both.
Meanwhile, Siegfried is very upset that James went out on the call—he discovers Mrs. Hall asleep in a chair awaiting his return—and drives to the farm, arriving at dawn. He accuses James of taking too long to deliver the calf, and James has had enough.
James: Has anyone told you how insufferable you are?
Siegfried (after a pause): Not to my face.
Bravo, James. He has the job and laughs as he drives back to Darrowby in the dangerous car speeding downhill to make it up the hill on the other side.
What did you think of this episode? Stay tuned for two entertaining human and one canine character next week, as James’s adventures continue. What do you think Mrs. Hall’s backstory is? Do you think Helen and James will get together? Let’s talk All Creatures Great and Small!