Episode 6 of All Creatures Great and Small, originally the finale of Season 2 (PBS airs the 2021 Christmas special as Episode 7), begins with James and Helen in line at their local movie theater, waiting for the projectionist to turn up. He arrives on a bicycle, the line shuffles in to the theater, and James and Helen find themselves sitting behind a farmer, Mr. Cranford (Mike Harding), who has been shooting him dirty looks. As they settle down to enjoy the show, Mr. Cranford turns round and tells James, “She’s dead.”
Horrified, James and Helen peer at Mrs. Cranford, who is taking a nap beside her husband. No, not her, her husband says. It’s the cow James treated recently; and neither did he get the salve he’d been promised. As dates go for the couple, it could have been worse.
These are tense times for everyone. Pathe News covers the story of Neville Chamberlain flying to Munich for negotiations with Hitler. Helen probably speaks for most people when she assures James it will get sorted, but we know what’s going to happen. James is also anticipating the visit of his parents in a few days, knowing that he must tell them about his decision to stay in Darrowby. Certainly it’s best to do it in person, as he claims, but ... it’s too late now to do otherwise.
Siegfried, in a bright and sunny mood (almost certainly related to a date with Diana the previous night), sings, quotes poetry and Shakespeare, and tells James he should marry Helen and stop wasting time. James, following the traditional wisdom for men of his generation, believes he must be better established financially to marry, and Siegfried blithely suggests he and Helen can live at Skeldale House.
James’s first call is to Mrs. Dalby, the widowed farmer whose herd fell dangerously ill in Season 2's third episode. She couldn’t afford the regimen James suggested of cow cake and the hay must be saved for winter, so the herd is back into the field. Now they have developed a new set of symptoms. She’s doubting her decision to keep the farm going instead of selling up, as so many have advised her to do. James is concerned for her and suspects the herd may have salmonella, which could be fatal. He takes samples for testing.
Tristan strolls around Darrowby, has a quick word with his former girlfriend Maggie, and then we meet a character new to us, Mrs. Donovan (Frances Tomelty) and her dog Rex. She is the local animal expert and busily extolling the virtues of her miracle dog shampoo which cures all ills and keeps animals out of the clutches of money-grabbing veterinarians. Rex spots a dog wandering around, takes off after him, and is hit by a car. Tristan rushes over and takes charge. Mrs. Donovan, mistrustful of conventional medicine, accompanies him to the surgery where they discover it’s too late. Rex has gone, and Mrs. Donovan silently makes her farewell. It’s achingly sad.
She wants to bury Rex at his favorite spot and allows Tristan to carry him there. He’s kind and tactful, even though she rebuffs his conversational openings. Mrs. Donovan lives on a canal boat with a group of people who have an encampment nearby. Are they travelers, or destitute? Along the way, the dog who was the cause of the accident shows up, and you can see Tristan’s mind turning.
Meanwhile, James has gone to the Aldersons’ where mare Candy is due to give birth, although nothing seems to be happening at the moment. Since James has to drive to Harrowgate to drop off the samples at the lab, he invites Helen to come along. He asks her to meet his parents when they arrive, and she’s not altogether comfortable about it but agrees to come to dinner. Helen tells him she likes the fact that he’s not romantic, but practical. He tells her that Siegfried thought he should marry and not be so hesitant, and, look! James is proposing without realizing it. Helen, overwhelmed, tells him to stop the car, and they walk into a field where they kiss. She notices a scent hanging about him––fortunately, nothing to do with Mrs. Dalby’s cows––which Siegfried charmingly described earlier as “the inside of a tart’s handbag.” He’d borrowed Mrs. Hall’s violet-scented bath salts.
So they’re engaged! Finally! But James hasn’t asked Mr. Alderson for permission and Helen tells him to do so immediately. She advises him to look her father in the eye and not gabble, as James does when agitated (right this moment, for instance). But when they arrive back at the farm, there’s a full-scale emergency. Candy is in trouble, in labor and breathing with difficulty. James examines her and discovers the uterus is twisted. He sends Jenny off to phone Skeldale House for help and both Siegfried and Tristan arrive. It’s a very serious situation, too late for a C-section, and both mare and foal could die. The only solution is to roll her over onto her other side, untwisting the uterus.
James grips the foal’s feet and holds on as the mare is turned over onto her other side, and the foal is born. It’s an emotional moment for everyone as the foal gets to her feet and nuzzles her mother.
But now for the serious business of the day. James tells Mr. Alderson, large, formidable, and a man of few words, that he wants to marry Helen, and is invited to the house. Mr. Alderson produces a bottle of whiskey, and starts to talk about the weather. Punctuated by shots of whiskey, and ignoring James’s polite attempts to refuse the refills, Mr. Alderson talks movingly about his late wife:
I can’t picture her face the way I use to. Time passes. But I see it in them girls of mine. I see it in our Jenny, she has that look when she gets cross. And our Helen has her smile. I see it sometime when I catch her looking at you.
James assures him he loves Helen and will take care of her. Mr. Alderson snorts. He knows, and tells James, she’ll be taking care of him. And he knew James had already proposed to Helen––that smile again––and since she’s so stubborn, he knows that just like her mother, she’ll do exactly as she likes. He then produces the engagement ring he gave her mother, a tangible blessing on the marriage.
And Jenny, that scamp, is watching the whole scene! But she has her own agenda now. When Helen gets up the next day, Jenny is hard at work making breakfast. She’s also done all the morning farm chores and makes it clear this is the pattern of the future. Helen’s work here is done.
Back at Skeldale House, Mrs. Hall answers the phone to an irate Mr. Cranford, who has still not received the salve. They are not a delivery service, Mrs. Hall tells him. Tristan, who can hear Mr. Cranford shouting down the phone, while he is preparing the salve, looks thoughtfully at the extra bottles of stool sample in the surgery. James comes down late to breakfast and shares his good news with the household. Everyone is delighted, and there’s another, no less momentous piece of news from the laboratory––the samples from Mrs. Dalby’s herd showed no bacterial infection (and we’re going to learn what is ailing them soon).
But the momentous day has arrived, and James goes to meet his parents from the bus: Hannah (Gabriel Quigley) and James Sr. (Drew Cain, The Nest). It’s a gorgeous day, and they are impressed by the beauty of their surroundings. James takes them with him on his call to Mrs. Dalby, where he has good news. The calves are suffering from a copper deficit, which he diagnosed by the lack of pigment in the fur surrounding their eyes. And it’s easily cured with a copper solution which is “as cheap as chips.”
After taking his parents to the inn where they’ll be staying (they were too shy to accept an invitation to spend the night at Skeldale House), James collects Helen. He tells her there’s something on her back, and as she twist around to take a look, drops to one knee. He presents her with the ring, proving he is indeed capable of a romantic gesture.
Meanwhile at Skeldale House, conversation is difficult. James and Helen arrive, and he introduces her as his fiancée. His mother drops a clanger about James leaving. Siegfried looks surprised and angry, and Mrs. Hall shepherds him and Tristan out to set the table. Since the dining room is an adjacent room, everyone can easily hear the ensuing conversation. As Hannah muses on the possibility of replacing James’s bed at home with a bigger one, James comes clean:
I’m staying here and it’s not only because of Helen ... Thinking about [the job offer] has made me realize all the more how much I love it here. Every day is different. I wake up and have no idea where the job will take me. I could be up in the High Dales wrestling cattle, or helping a dog that’s had his paw caught in a trap. It’s this place and those hills.
Helen tells them that James is too modest to say how he’s helped so many, including her family, and how well-regarded he is in the community. It’s a lovely endorsement. James Sr., who has taken a bit of a shine to Helen, looks quite pleased, but Hannah is silent and shocked. We viewers are spared yet another awkward dinner at Skeldale House. But when his parents leave the next day, and James promises to visit, his mother becomes upset again––you don’t visit your home. As the bus drives off she’s crying.
There are a few loose ends to tie up in this episode. Tristan captures the stray dog, who is quite friendly, and takes him on a walk along the canal. He tells Mrs. Donovan it’s a pity he’ll have to put the dog down, but he has no home, and who’d want a dog that looks as bad as this. If only there were someone who could look after him and shampoo him ... Grumbling, knowing that she’s been conned, and trying not to show how pleased she is, Mrs. Donovan takes the dog into her boat.
Mrs. Hall and Mr. Hammond take a walk with their dogs, discussing their concern about the precarious negotiations taking place in Munich. Mrs. Hall comments that she thinks dealing with Hitler would be a breeze after working at Skeldale House. She’s worried about another war, fearing her son Edward would enlist and be be damaged, as his father was. Mr. Hammond, who lied about his age to join up early in World War I, is thankful that he did not suffer as badly as the men he fought with.
But by the end of the episode, Chamberlain has returned from Munich, and the community gathers to celebrate peace in the Drovers. Mrs. Donovan shows up with the stray dog, Roy, who is thriving with her care and the special shampoo. Tristan has embraced the philosophy of being kind to both animals and their people and has decided to return to college for a final shot at that pesky exam. When James arrives with Helen, they are fresh from a meeting with Mr. Cranford, who is furious about the salve Tristan prepared with the, ahem, special ingredient. “No one is rude to Mrs. Hall,” Tristan proclaims.
Next week, it’s Christmas in Darrowby and the final episode. Will there be great knitwear, cute animals, inappropriate costumes, and a mistletoe overload? Almost certainly. Meanwhile, what did you think of this episode? Let’s talk.