The year 2021 marks ‘Masterpiece’s’ 50th anniversary. The PBS staple has been airing prestige TV series since 1971, long before they were described as such. Most of these shows over the past five decades have been U.K. imports, so it’s not surprising that Masterpiece is bringing back old favorites from across the pond to celebrate its milestone year. January kicks off with a lovely new adaptation of “All Creatures Great and Small.”
“All Creatures” is based on the semi-autobiographical books written by James Alfred Wight, but better known by his pen name, James Herriot.
“All Creatures” is based on the semi-autobiographical books written by James Alfred Wight, but better known by his pen name, James Herriot. A British veterinary surgeon, Wight was raised in Scotland in the 1920s and 30s before moving to Yorkshire. His first three books — “If Only They Could Talk,” “It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet” and “Let Sleeping Vets Lie” — were gathered together and reprinted as “All Creatures Great and Small” in the early 1970s. Film adaptations followed, and then the BBC got hold of the rights. Beginning in 1978, it ran a TV series starring Christopher Timothy as Herriot and Robert Hardy as his mentor Siegfried Farnon. The show ran seven seasons, becoming a massive hit both for the BBC and over here on PBS.
Since then, there have been other Herriot adaptations and even a reality series inspired by his stories. But this is the first reboot for “All Creatures.” Part of the reason for bringing the show back now is Herriot’s works themselves are also 50 years old — “If Only They Could Talk” was published in 1970. The U.K. premiere (on Channel 5) coincided with the book’s anniversary, while PBS (which is a co-producer) held it to be part of the planned ‘Masterpiece’ anniversary celebration.
The irony is the original “All Creatures” was not a ‘Masterpiece’ property. The show didn’t fit into the deliberately highbrow style of the PBS brand, which in the late 1970s was more interested in shows like “I, Claudius” than “I, Veterinarius.” Most importantly, the series was too simple — just a man and his animals. And yet, “All Creatures” thrived anyway.
The show turned out to be the platonic ideal of what Americans expect British TV to look and sound like: thick Northern accents, sprawling green hillsides, quaint towns filled with working-class, salt-of-the-earth farmers. “All Creatures” feels quintessentially British, with its pastoral focus on country life. The show became a staple of PBS stations in syndication, and ‘Masterpiece’ is apparently happy to embrace the new series as part of public television’s legacy.
Years and distance mean the show also now fits more comfortably within the ‘Masterpiece’ brand. There’s a timeless aspect to the mid-century setting, a world where electricity and telecommunications have become commonplace but modern technology does not yet exist. It’s a little bit more modern than “Downton Abbey,” a great deal more rustic than “Victoria,” and far less dark and gritty than the last show blessed with PBS’ all-important, winter season Sunday night slot, “Sanditon.” In other words, it’s the perfect reboot for ‘Masterpiece;’ a familiar story that feels both old and new at the same time.
But the real reason this show is destined to be a hit all over again is the gentleness of its premise, and the smallness of its dramas. These are not stories that span continents or generations. Tension is found in two cats accidentally put back in the wrong cages, or cows suffering from milk fever.
The show turned out to be the platonic ideal of what Americans expect British TV to look and sound like: thick Northern accents, sprawling green hillsides, quaint towns filled with salt-of-the-earth farmers.
In the opening episode, James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) escapes a fate of working on the docks in Glasgow like his father to live his dream working with animals as Farnon’s (Samuel West) assistant. Time seems to stop the moment he gets off the bus in Yorkshire, standing in the middle of lush fields, rolling dales and an endless sky. The camera pans slowly across the landscape, as Herriot simply absorbs the beauty of this world he’s been dropped into. Like the cliffs in “Poldark” (another PBS reboot that ended in 2019), or the house in “Downton Abbey,” that landscape is as much a character as the farmers and wealthy landowners who populate Yorkshire.
Not that any of the characters are slouches. Newcomer Ralph carries the series as a fish out of water, a city boy who has just found a slice of heaven among the cows and pigs. West, the far better known of the two actors, has found his career-defining role as eccentric and exasperating boss Farnon, who clearly cares far more for the four-legged folks he meets then the two-legged ones. The series is also blessed with one of the late Dame Diana Rigg’s last performances, as the wealthy Mrs. Pumphrey. She never allows her character’s adorable Pekingese, Tricki Woo, to upstage her — no small feat. Plus there’s Oscar-winner Rachel Shenton (“The Silent Child”), and PBS regulars like Anna Madeley (“Mr. Selfridge”), Matthew Lewis (“Harry Potter”), and Callum Woodhouse (“The Durrells”), who round out the ensemble.
“All Creatures” was never meant to be pandemic escapism any more than Netflix meant for other period dramas like “The Queen’s Gambit” or “Bridgerton” to become massive hits in the wake of continuing lockdowns. But it’s hard to think of a better moment for something as simple and charming as this series, set in a world so far removed from our own. Sometimes all television (and the world) needs is someone with a gentle heart big enough to care for all creatures, great and small.
PBS’ new ‘Masterpiece’ series ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ is pastoral perfection The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ NBC News.