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The Reality and Humor of 'All Creatures Great and Small'
January 10, 2021  | By Mike Hughes

For a decade, TV viewers knew what to expect from PBS.

A lush Masterpiece series would settle into Sundays each January and beyond. There were six seasons of Downton Abbey, three of Victoria, one of Sanditon.

And now? All Creatures Great and Small (9 p.m. ET, starting Jan. 10, check local listings) has much in common with Downton, including the same director. But it has a crucial difference. "We have made a lot of excellent British television stories about people who are rich," Samuel West, who co-stars as Dr. Siegfried Farnon, told the Television Critics Association (TCA) in July. This show, by comparison, "is ground-level stuff."

That's way on the ground – lying in the straw to give a rectal exam to a fallen cow. (Don't worry; prosthetics were used.) It's messy work, crucial to the working family.

"One farmer (might) have one cow," said producer Colin Callender. "If that cow gets ill and dies, it would cause untold financial trouble."

That urgency has propelled All Creatures for a half-century of books, a movie, a 90-episode TV series (1978 – 1990), and now a reboot with an eight-week opening season.

On the one hand, this is, like Downton, a light story about eccentric souls. "I had forgotten, until I reread the books, (that) there's enormous humor in the books," Callender said.

On the other, there are stories of life-and-death importance to working people and their animals.

This was a world familiar to Dr. James Alfred Wight, who was known as "Alf," but used the name James Herriot as an author and his character's name.

After growing up in Scotland, he graduated from veterinary school in 1939 and soon began working for Dr. Donald Sinclair in the Yorkshire Dales region of England. He would continue working in the Dales until retiring (and turning the practice over to his son) in 1989. The first of his novels arrived in 1970.

Memories of the real people he fictionalized still ripple through the area. For the reboot, the consulting veterinarian is Dr. Andy Barrett, who had worked for Dr. Sinclair.

That's important to West, whose Siegfried character is a fictional version of Sinclair: "I (asked Barrett), 'Was he eccentric?' And he said, 'No, he was mad.'"

This series centers on Siegfried's home and office. There, he has his brother Tristan, a vet student, and his housekeeper, Mrs. Hall – a role that has been expanded for the series.

"The heart of this piece is about the community in the Dales and all the people living in it," said Anna Madeley, who plays Mrs. Hall. "And she's at the soul of the community."

Into this world comes an outsider, fresh from vet school. Nicholas Ralph, who plays Heriot, knows the feeling; this is his first TV or film work. "I still have moments where I pinch myself," he said.

He needed guidance on some key issues, said co-star Callum Woodhouse. "I think the best advice I gave" was not to eat breakfast before work: On the set, the food is free.

Woodhouse had been in that situation himself: Fresh from school, he was cast as Leslie in The Durrells of Corfu, another light-hearted Masterpiece with a gorgeous setting.

"Yorkshire rains a little bit more than Corfu, but . . . the landscape just looks absolutely stunning," Woodhouse said. "I just lucked out with my locations."

Ralph is sort of used to the countryside. His boyhood home in Scottish Highlands, he said, backed up to a farm. There, a friendly farmer would sometimes lift kids atop a cow named Friendly.

But his lone childhood pet was a guinea pig named Nip. Now he must seem like an expert on all creatures, great and small.

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