The episode of All Creatures Great and Small opens with a funeral, black-clad mourners following a horse and cart that bears a wooden casket. It looks like all of Darrowby has turned out to pay their respects, and you’ll find yourself anxiously scanning the faces to see who the community has lost. The team from Skeldale House is among the mourners, as is the Alderson family, and I found myself sighing with relief.
We learn who’s been lost very soon, and it’s as bad as it could be. Farmer Billy Dalby’s sudden death leaves his wife, Phyllis (Amy Nuttall), and two little boys alone to cope with the family farm. James makes a condolence call that is also in response to a request to visit their herd of stirks (yearling cattle). He finds Mrs. Dalby in the field, gazing anxiously at her farm’s future. The cows are having respiratory problems caused by a parasite that breeds in the pasture, and then lodges in the bronchial tubes. Because they’re young, they don’t have much resistance.
James delivers the bad news as gently as he can. The only thing that can save them––and it may not save the entire herd––is to take them out of the field and feed them expensive high-protein food as well as the hay that was being saved for the winter. Although this news has come at the worst possible time, and as desperately sad as her situation is, Mrs. Dalby still graciously feeds James tea and homemade biscuits.
It weighs heavily on James’s mind, and he stops by the Aldersons’ farm to visit Helen, who’s busy shoveling muck in a barn. She’s also worried about Phyllis and has offered to help her. James takes the opportunity to invite her out on a date, and she accepts (there’s always the chance she’ll say no, or something will go desperately wrong, but he’s willing to take the risk).
Back at Skeldale House, Tristan is lamenting that he can’t attend the Test Match (the major cricket match of the year in London) in person; without being paid, he just can’t afford it. He determines, though, that since he has a few days off he’ll listen to the match on the radio. Siegfried, however, is bustling around trying to find work for him and asks for help in carrying some large containers from the car to the barn at the back of the house. Siegfried has decided to keep––or rather have Tristan keep––chickens. It is, Siegfried claims, a vital educational experience for a veterinarian.
James, returning home, is amused to hear that Tristan has named the hens, probably after ex-girlfriends. He advises Tristan to stand up to his older brother, but as we know that’s easier said than done. James, worried about Mrs. Dalby’s herd, stays up all night to research the disease. When Siegfried suggests throat injections of an old-fashioned and unproven drug, James is skeptical, but it’s all they have. Other farmers in the community don’t believe Mrs. Dalby can run the farm alone and are suggesting that she sell up. Mrs. Hall disagrees.
On his next visit to Dalby farm, one of the animals has died. Mrs. Dalby has dipped into the family savings, and her elder son Billy proudly contributed some pennies from his piggy bank. Tom, Mrs. Dalby’s farmworker, also supports the idea of the injections.
It’s delightful to see the arrival of an old friend, Tricki Woo, who has come to stay with his Uncle Herriot while Mrs. Pumphrey attends the Test Match in London. Since Uncle Herriot is out on rounds, Siegfried and a highly amused Mrs. Hall take the dog and his trunkfuls of supplies into the house. The rest of the episode is punctuated by Tricki Woo’s grunts and benign furry presence. To his embarrassment, and in the absence of Uncle Herriot, Siegfried is now accepted as a friend by the little dog.
Meanwhile, the chickens are not laying. Siegfried, followed by his new doggy friend, goes to inspect and criticize Tristan’s work, and Tricki Woo suddenly remembers his predator origins and attacks. One of the hens, channeling her dinosaur ancestry, pecks him. Siegfried and Tristan rush Tricki Woo out to examine the damage, and Siegfried leaves the barn door open.
Later that day, Tristan answers the doorbell and finds a neighbor bearing a chicken. He smuggles the bird through the house and discovers the worst has happened. The barn is empty and the chickens have absconded. He puts into place his backup plan of planting eggs from the grocery shop in the nesting boxes.
James has a more pleasant dilemma of where to take Helen on their date; his first thought was their local pub, the Drover’s, but Tristan has advised him to think big and take her to the upscale Renniston Hotel for dinner and dancing in a much more romantic atmosphere. Even before he arrives at the Aldersons’ farm to pick her up, things go wrong. His car gets stuck in a muddy puddle and he arrives wet and muddy from the knees down. Helen’s sister Jenny, who behaves like a real brat here, offers her father’s dancing shoes. They are not only too big but have floppy bows on them.
I’m not sure whether this is Yorkshire farmer standard dance garb or Mr. Alderson’s eccentricity, but in the book, this is highly embarrassing for James––here, not so much. Helen is wearing a very cute dress with an asymmetrical neckline which she knows is too informal for the Renniston, but James assures her she doesn’t need to change. So she’s underdressed (but looks great) and he has silly shoes.
At the front desk of the Renniston Helen is recognized by the staff, so she must have been here with ex-fiance Hugh. James is clearly uncomfortable with the posh set up, and when the staff member at the front desk asks if he has a room, he replies that he does. Helen smiles, aware that he’s made a mistake (if she were on a date with Tristan I’m fairly sure a room reservation would have been made with nefarious intentions). More embarrassment ensues when the waiter asks for his room number, and he has to explain that no, they’re only here for dinner.
Then they embark on a conversation about the Dalby farm which has a subtext of what Helen’s intentions are. James asks if she could ever leave her farm, and she tells him, yes, she is tired of shoveling muck and the grueling hard work farmers do, day in, day out. He takes this as an argument for Mrs. Dalby to sell up and move out; he agrees that leaving home can be painful. He knows because he’s done it. But not, Helen argues, in the way the Dalby family will be leaving their home:
All the memories of Billy are tied up on that farm. All the boys’ memories. That’d mean her leaving behind everything she’s ever known ... Because your life isn’t the ground under your feet. You haven’t poured blood, sweat, and tears into the soil you plough. You haven’t raised animals from birth, knowing they could be taken from you at any moment, and with them your livelihood ... Billy Dalby took that farm from his father and his father before him. It’s young Billy’s birthright, so long as there’s something to inherit.
So much for a romantic evening. Meanwhile, Mrs. Hall, anticipating a rousing game of Scrabble discovers that she will be spending the evening alone. Siegfried has a date with Diana Brompton (who we met in Episode 2) and Tristan has a mysterious chicken-related errand. But before Siegfried leaves, he’s greeted at the front door by an entire family of four, each with a chicken in their arms. Even now he doesn’t understand the full enormity of the chicken debacle.
The deception continues the next morning when Siegfried discovers eggs in the nesting boxes, and at breakfast, he sings the praises of freshly laid eggs from your own hens. To Tristan’s surprise, his brother hands him a paycheck and congratulates him on a job well done. James leaves the table having decided to break the bad news to Mrs. Dalby that he can’t save her herd, just at the moment when Tristan starts to make his confession. Tristan says he lied because he wanted to make Siegfried proud, and hands the paycheck back. His calm, honest approach works. Siegfried insists he should keep the money.
Take it. We all make mistakes. The thing is to forgive and learn from them.
We all make mistakes? And Siegfried admits that he was the one who left the barn door open. Tristan smiles and thanks him. This has to be the first time we’ve seen the brothers treat each other with respect and honesty and Tricki Woo grunts his admiration.
The neighbor whose vegetable garden the chickens invaded visits again with a basket of eggs. Apparently, the chickens’ egg-laying mojo kicked in (do you think it was because they found it a superior environment to the gloomy barn?). Siegfried wonders if they should give him the hens.
Another of Mrs. Dalby’s stirks has died. With his characteristic gentleness, James tells Mrs. Dalby that she can’t send the herd outside to graze. Even with the current treatment she could lose all of them. There is a slim chance that some might survive. He advises her to sell up. While she appreciates his honesty, her mind is made up:
... I understand the risks involved. But when I look around, I don’t just see the things I’ve lost or might lose. I see everything that I have. I see my boys. How I’ve so much worth fighting for. And I owe it to them, to my family, not to give up. Even if it is the slimmest of chances, I’ll take it. I might not have been able to save my husband, Mr. Herriot, but I can save our farm. Our home. So I’ll be staying put. Like my Billy always used to say, ‘Only them as has ‘em can lose ‘em.’
As he leaves, James calls out to young Billy, offering to play soccer with him. But Billy, who raided his own savings and has been present at every consultation, turns the offer down. He’s the man of the house now, and he has important responsibilities.
Back at Skeldale House, England’s win in the Test Match is celebrated (I believe it’s the 1936 match against India) with much rejoicing. Mrs. Pumphrey (Patricia Hodge, A Very English Scandal) arrives unexpectedly early because she missed Tricki Woo so much. She’s disappointed that Uncle Herriot is out on a call, but graciously accepts an offer of tea, and feeds homemade biscuits to Tricki Woo under Mrs. Hall’s disapproving gaze. We learn Mrs. Pumphrey sponsors a local cricket match so brace yourself for more mystifying jargon in future episodes.
Siegfried confesses that Tricki Woo suffered a “slight incidence” while encountering a hen. Mrs. Pumphrey isn’t as upset as we’d expect. It is his fifth peck of the year apparently, and she has an eye-rollingly silly theory that it’s because he’s an only dog. François her chauffeur (Joseph May) presents Siegfried with one of Mrs. Pumphrey’s famous hampers as thanks, and she sternly reminds him it is for Uncle Herriot.
Once again James drops by the Aldersons’ farm, where Helen is perched on the roof ridge of the barn. He climbs up to join her. You can see the entire farm and more from this vantage point. Helen and her mother used to climb up here with sandwiches and eat lunch together. She shares the spots on the farm that her mother used to point out, finishing with the poignant memory of the place where Mrs. Alderson told her husband she was expecting their first child. And finally, James and Helen kiss, high above the rolling dales. Thank goodness.
What did you think of this episode? And please share your thoughts about Patricia Hodge as Mrs. Pumphrey, following the star turn of the late Diana Rigg in Season 1. Let’s discuss!