Review – All Creatures Great and Small

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Friday, January 8th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. 

Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Megan Basham has a review of All Creatures Great and Small, a new PBS Masterpiece series premiering Sunday.

MEGAN BASHAM, TELEVISION CRITIC: Earlier this week I sat sifting through options for my first review of the year. After a divisive end to 2020 led to an even more divisive beginning to 2021, the usual dramas with their intrigue and action, the comedies with their snarky leads shooting barbs at folks outside their tribe, struck me like hot water on sunburned skin. I felt too raw to engage with any of them. Then PBS’s Masterpiece Theater came to my rescue with a series that was just what the doctor, or in this case veterinarian, ordered.

CLIP: So where did it all start for you, wanting to be a vet? There was a small city farm in the back of my school. It was like having part of the country in the city. I developed a real love for the animals there. Ah well, there, you see, the animals are the easy part. It’s the people that cause all the bother.

It’s a minor miracle that the U.K.’s Channel 5 decided to remake All Creatures Great and Small, the hit 1970s series adapted from James Herriot’s bestselling memoirs. The collection of homely and charming tales about a Depression-era vet working in a small English village includes no sex, no violence, and only a smattering of minor salty language. The highest stakes are whether a cow has been misdiagnosed or a racehorse will have to be put down.

CLIP: Let’s just take a moment. Shouldn’t you be doing something? Nature takes the time she needs. Bring the tractor. We’re going to have to winch him up. I can’t let you do that. Excuse me? Nobody’s winching this horse anywhere. It’s cruel and unnecessary.

“Who did they make this show for,” one mainstream critic who found it too mild asked grumpily. “Me!” I wanted to shout. They made it for people like me, who are weary of being assaulted by all that is ugly and crass and contentious in the world, who are longing for something comforting and community-minded. All Creatures Great and Small couldn’t offer more warmth and neighborliness if it was a steaming pot of tea next to a plate of shortbread biscuits.

CLIP: Look at that. Short horn cow. You see? Gorgeous beast. Dying out now, of course. Friesians give so much more milk. As much as eight quarts per day. And you think that’s a good thing, do you? If a farmer can get more milk for the same amount of effort, I suppose it is. Do you suppose? But at what cost? This place has a character all of its own. The short horns are part of that. With them gone, we lose a little more of what makes it so special.

Which is not to say there’s no conflict in the show. You can’t have a story without it. It’s just that the conflict arises from clashes in personality that give viewers reasons to have a good-natured chuckle rather than feel superior.

Take young James, for instance. He arrives in the tiny town of Darrowby fresh out of veterinary school in the crowded urban environment of Glasgow. His tidy tweed suit and carefully laced oxford shoes are no match for the lush, rolling dales of Yorkshire. Beautiful as they may be in a panoramic shot, they can get fairly mucky close up. His timid city manners are no match for the earthy, idiosyncratic characters he meets on the local farms. 

None are so quintessentially British as his cantankerous employer, senior vet, Siegfried Farnon, who chomps his pipe and barks out orders more fiercely than any of his canine clients.

CLIP: How is it possible we have nothing we want and two of everything we don’t? It’s almost as if you might benefit from employing some sort of system. Sarcasm really doesn’t suit a woman of your religiosity, Mrs. Hall.

Siegfried’s temper grows all the more growly once his layabout brother, Tristan, returns home, having once again failed his college exit exams.

As James makes mistakes and learns his trade, often in hilarious ways, he and the locals clash at times. But they all come together in the end for a pint in the pub. There’s no question of anyone in this community excommunicating anyone else. James even manages to have a friendly relationship with his rival for a local girl’s affections.

When differences do grow more serious, the characters encourage each other to look beneath the surface to find the best in their fellow man. No one here is dismissed as a “garbage person” to use that odious Twitter term.

CLIP: Wait, James. Siegfried‘s bark really is worse than his bite. He’s been very kind to us. Underneath it all he’s a good man. Stand up to him. He’ll love you for it.

Funny as the show often is—and it is often very funny, especially when a pampered pekingese named Tricki-woo comes on the scene—James, Siegfried, and the other inhabitants of Darrowby left me reflecting on the idea of community. How good it would be if Americans still gathered regularly in a place like the pub or, even better, the local church, after a hard week. A place where we’re forced to reconcile our differences and exorcise our animosities face to face. 

All Creatures Great and Small may not have the addictive quality that earns that highest honor critics throw around today—bingeable. But it is like a nourishing hearty, soup seasoned with the wisdom of Thessalonians 4:11—make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.

I’m Megan Basham.

(Matt Squire/ Playground Television and PBS via AP) This image released by PBS shows Nicholas Ralph in a scene from “All Creatures Great and Small on MASTERPIECE.” 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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5 comments on Review – All Creatures Great and Small

  1. MaryBeth Genet says:

    Thank you so much! My raw heart needs a bit of James Jartiot, too.

    1. Mary Beth Genet says:

      … Harriot

  2. Kyleigh says:

    Thank you for this review! I love James Herriot’s books and we have enjoyed some of the old TV series but have been wary about the new one. I’m looking forward to watching it now!

  3. Jeanne Badgett says:

    Love Megan’s reviews and reporting!

  4. Paula Garcia says:

    Your thoughts on community civility reminded me of a long ago admonission from my father. When we were young parents of three and my husband was in graduate school, we had a neighbor who pounded on the wall and called often to warn that, “if you can’t keep those kids quiet…” My dad, who grew up and lived in the same rural community all his life, just said, “you have to do what you have to do to get along.”

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