A well-loved series is back, but is it the same?
All Creatures Great and Small has returned to the UK small screen. After a 30 year hiatus, and filmed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first book in the James Herriot series, the Channel 5 reboot debuted in September to overwhelmingly positive reviews. But what is it about this 1930s period drama that retains appeal for today’s viewer?
The original series ran between 1978 and 1990 and was based on the semi-autobiographical books of veterinary surgeon Alf Wright, who wrote under the pen name James Herriot. The original BBC series starred Christopher Timothy as Herriot, and followed his adventures and mishaps as a 1930s country vet in the Yorkshire Dales. Prime Sunday night viewing, it was the type of period drama that the BBC did so well; wholesome, hearty, and nostalgic. Mackayan columnist A. Alford has written about the science of nostalgia, noting that nostalgia has a number of psychological benefits: “It has been found to help us deal with stress, counteract loneliness, and make people feel increasingly optimistic about the future”. Perhaps this explains in part the success of the original BBC series. It certainly goes some way to explain the appeal of the Channel 5 reboot.
This time James Herriot is played by Nicholas Ralph, who brings just the right mix of awkwardness and optimism to the role. The first episode begins with themes of unemployment and dissatisfaction with city living in times of economic hardship. Little wonder it should strike a chord for viewers in the time of Covid, with rising unemployment and increasing numbers of town and city dwellers casting their eyes towards the country.
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Authentically shot in the Yorkshire Dales, with the village of Grassington providing the setting for the fictional Darrowby, the opening episodes follow James in his attempts to secure his job and win the trust of eccentric veterinary surgeon Siegfried Farnon, played by Samuel West. West’s Siegfried is younger and more stylised than Robert Hardy’s portrayal in the original series, but nevertheless provides the perfect acerbic counterfoil to James’ hapless inexperience. The series has some familiar faces with Matthew Lewis, who many viewers will remember from the Harry Potter films, playing wealthy landowner Hugh Hulton. And the late Dame Diana Rigg is majestic in her final role as Mrs Pumphrey.
Loyal to the books and charmingly reminiscent of the original series, we are treated to the comedic moments we might expect, as we watch James fall in the mud, get kicked by a horse, and of course, put his hand up the rear of a cow. Prosthetic rears were used this time round, to avoid unnecessary suffering and discomfort to animals. This is All Creatures as we remember it, but it is also an All Creatures for the modern world.
The appeal is timeless. For an hour we can escape to a quieter, simpler time and place, where the gently rolling dales provide the perfect antidote to the events of the past year. It is an ode to the English countryside. It is a tale of laughter, love and friendship, of family and of hope. For those of us who remember it first time around, it is a heartwarming trip down memory lane. And for the uninitiated, the story unfolds just as it should.
My only complaint? The Tuesday timeslot hardly seems fitting. Surely it is time for All Creatures to reclaim its rightful place as prime Sunday night viewing.