You have to be made of stone if watching James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) gently tend to an injured pet on the surprise Masterpiece hit All Creatures Great and Small doesn’t make you sigh. But as Season 2 opens, surprise - we’re not in Darrowby anymore. Instead, James is helping out at a rather snazzy practice in his native Glasgow, owned by his mentor Bill Weipers (Euan MacNaughton), a forward-thinking veterinarian who believes that small animal care, rather than farm work, is the future of the profession. He’s so impressed with James that he offers him a job and it’s tempting. The practice is fully up to date, with a new-fangled X-ray machine. His parents, who are delighted that he’s visiting, are aging, his dad frequently turned down for work at the docks while his mother takes in sewing to make ends meet. Wouldn't it make sense to stay?
Bill mentions that Siegfried (Samuel West) must be missing him, and James responds with a very neutral comment that yes, he must be, deep down, in his own special way. He’ll think about the offer.
Although this is Glasgow in early spring, not the Yorkshire Dales, the streets are beautiful, crates of vegetables glowing against warm gray stone, and full of life and character. We realize we’re seeing James in his element, at home, among his family and friends. He even looks different, more handsome and mature. And when he does return to Darrowby, Tristan (Callum Woodhouse) remarks that his refreshed Glaswegian accent is now virtually unintelligible.
And, it’s back to normal: James with his arm stuck up a sheep while Siegfried paces, criticizes, and complains. James is taking too long, Tristan isn’t wearing his tie, and so on. But James helps the ewe deliver a perfect lamb, and everyone calms down, cheered at the sight. Another lamb attempts to share the moment and the milk; he’s one of a pair of twins who have been rejected by his mother, which apparently happens quite often. The lamb, who has been named Herbert, survives through snacking on milk from other ewes. The farmer, Rob Benson (Philip Hill-Pearson) points out a dog on the loose and is concerned for his stock since it’s lambing season. The dog belongs to the adjoining farm owned by the Aldersons. And that means James and Helen will have to meet.
Siegfried picks his next fight with Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley). She’s bought Tristan an expensive case, engraved with his name and professional qualifications, for his birthday, and Siegfried is very uncomfortable. He rails at her for using the practice’s money, for not asking permission, for buying something so ostentatious. But we know the real reason for his discomfort is because, in a sudden decision to preserve the Christmas spirit, he threw Tristan’s examinations results on the fire. Tristan failed one of his exams, and Siegfried hasn’t told him or anyone else.
Meanwhile, Tristan is confined to looking after the animals at the clinic and preparing medications, and he’s bored. James takes his side, arguing that Tristan should be allowed to attend a budgerigar that needs its beak trimmed; influenced by his Glasgow experience, he argues that that the practice needs to pay more attention to pets. Tristan meets the owner of the bird, the elderly and blind Mrs. Tompkins (June Watson) who lives alone and finds Peter great company, even though he doesn’t sing or talk. And then, disaster strikes––as Tristan takes the bird out of the cage, it dies in his hand. Panicked, and mumbling that he needs a “clinical setting,” he rushes back to the surgery with the cage and its corpse.
James is attending another disaster at Mr. Benson’s farm. The worst has happened––the Aldersons’ dog has attacked a field of pregnant sheep. They lie motionless, but James discovers none of them have been bitten. His diagnosis that they are suffering from the shock which has caused calcium deficiency is correct, and calcium injections bring them all to their feet. One ewe, however, doesn’t respond as well. She’s in labor and gives birth to a stillborn lamb. There’s a possibility she may die too, which often happens to ewes in this condition. It’s a devastating moment for Mr. Benson, who wants the dog put down. James objects, arguing that the dog is young and energetic and should be trained, but the farmer is adamant.
Mr. Alderson (Tony Pitts) agrees. It’s what farmers do here, even though the dog, Scruff, is his younger daughter Jenny’s pet. This may be the first time James and Helen have met face to face since she stood her fiancé up at the altar four months ago, and it’s awkward. He suggests Helen come with him in the car to find her sister and the dog, but she refuses. On the way back to Skeldale House, James comes across Jenny and Scruff, and a plan is formed.
Meanwhile, life back at the surgery hovers perilously close to Dead Parrot territory. Tristan tells his brother, who spots the covered cage, that the budgerigar had a touch of mange. And now it's sleeping. Mrs. Hall knows what’s going on but keeps quiet. Tristan finds a budgerigar for sale nearby that he can pick up the next morning. It’s blue, but it doesn’t matter, he reasons, because Mrs. Tompkins will never know. Unfortunately, Siegfried discovers the sorry bundle of feathers in a desk drawer and is furious at his brother’s plan.
Choosing her moment, Mrs. Hall mentions that the Dean of Edinburgh Veterinary College phoned, wanting to know if Tristan will be returning, and Siegfried has to tell her about the exam results. They’re both as bad as each other, Mrs. Hall claims before stomping off to the refuge of her kitchen.
Siegfried’s mood is not improved by another unpleasant discovery, the disgraced Scruff at Skeldale House. He broaches a subject that they’ve all decided shouldn’t be discussed, but probably should be––the Alderson family. Hasn’t James done enough damage there already, Siegfried blusters, conveniently ignoring that Helen has to take some of the blame. But he insists the dog must be returned.
Tristan accompanies James and Scruff back to the Bensons’ farm. Tristan is uncharacteristically pensive on the drive and asks James if lying to protect people is wrong. They meet Jenny and offer her a ride home, and Jenny spills the beans on Helen. Dying of curiosity, and protesting that they’re not interested in gossip, no, not at all, James and Tristan listen avidly. Helen has changed. She goes for long walks, doesn’t do much, and her cooking has even improved, a sure sign of major change in this family. Hugh, her one-time fiancé, has fled to France and writes letters, at least one of which Jenny has read. She’s also eavesdropped on conversations and discovered Helen still professes to have feelings for Hugh, but he believes she’s found someone else.
Jenny apologizes to Mr. Benson, who has not immediately reached for his gun, and he agrees that she and James should try to train Scruff. The first attempt at training isn’t too successful. Faced with a field of non-pregnant sheep, Scruff barks and barks, pulling at the leash with excitement. Tristan helps by eating the dog treats. It doesn’t look too hopeful.
Mrs. Tompkins, anxious to have her bird back, arrives at the surgery. Mrs. Hall and Siegfried engage in a lot of gesturing at each other. She won’t take responsibility for the bird switch, and he’s very uneasy. And then the budgerigar cheeps. Mrs. Tompkins is astonished––it’s the first time Peter has ever made a sound! Siegfried explains with some embarrassment that the beak trim helped him find his voice. It’s science.
Helen, knowing how hard a farmer can take the death of one of his animals, visits Mr. Benson with a basket of produce as apology. When she finds that James and her sister are training Scruff, she’s furious. It isn’t his place or his responsibility. The conversation that follows is ostensibly about Scruff, but it’s really the first time they’ve talked:
James: I know I’m not from around here and I may not understand how things are done, but I know the difference between right and wrong. Killing a perfectly good animal can never be right.
Helen: It’s not your dog. Or your reputation.
James: It was a mistake. Animals mess up sometimes just like people do. There’s no reason to keep punishing yourself.
Helen: What am I supposed to do? Go on like nothing has happened?
James: What’s the alternative? The dog didn’t do anything wrong. He deserves a second chance. I think you both deserve a second chance.
And it’s then that they’re both able to say they have missed each other, a small, shy step toward ... what?
To everyone’s relief, dog training is a success. Jenny is able to let Scruff off his leash among the sheep and he ignores them. Jenny is a bit too thrilled by her new role as a matchmaker and she’s longing to tell Helen all about her conversation with James.
Later, James is having a beer outside the pub, watching the street, and realizing that despite his reservations, he belongs in Darrowby. Even the arrival of Siegfried, ready to pick a fight about Scruff, doesn’t spoil the mood, and James calmly makes his case. The episode ends with one of Mrs. Hall’s gargantuan roast dinners (bring on the Yorkshire puddings!), her way of determining that James will stay.
So a happy ending for all creatures great and small––the bereaved ewe adopts Herbert the orphaned lamb, Mrs. Tompkins’ beloved Peter has a new lease of life, and James and Helen are talking again.
What did you think of this first episode? Were you surprised by Mr. Benson’s emotional bond to his sheep? Did you feel that Siegfried was a little over the top, or is it just because we’ve been away for so long? I feel Jenny is heading for real trouble, with her rebellion and a possible crush on James; now more than ever, she needs her big sister.