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'All Creatures Great and Small' on PBS is the Bright, Beautiful Balm We All Need
January 10, 2021  | By David Hinckley
 


The PBS revival of All Creatures Great and Small is so visually delightful that you could almost watch it with the sound off.

All Creatures Great and Small 2.0, a reboot of the much-loved series that previously aired from 1978 to 1990, launches on PBS's Masterpiece Sunday at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings).

Like the original, it draws faithfully from the best-selling autobiographical All Creatures books written by real-life British country veterinarian James Herriot.

Herriot, played here by Nicholas Ralph, migrates from his native Glasgow to Yorkshire so he can get his first job with the cantankerous local vet, Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West).

At first, Farnon treats Herriot warily, just as he treats everyone. "The animals are the easy part," Farnon tells his young trainee. "The people are all the bother."

From Herriot's arrival in Yorkshire, when he gets off the bus at the wrong stop and has to hike for miles in the middle of nowhere through a British rainstorm, it's clear that the countryside will be the costar of this production.

The prospects sweep out for miles, the farms are charming, and the ancient villages have a timeless feel to them as if they could have been transplanted from the 1300s.

Therefore, it feels entirely fitting that All Creatures Great and Small never even thinks about becoming an action thriller. It moves at a rural pace, and while a horse with a sore hoof or a cow with a difficult birth constitutes a genuine emergency and crisis in these parts, Farnon and Herriot address them in what feels like real-time, not in flashy bursts.

The first episode provides a brief and satisfactory backstory for Herriot. He wanted to be a vet from childhood, but after finishing veterinary school, he has had trouble finding work.

Things seem bleak enough that his mother urges him to abandon the dream and take a job on the docks, the way his father abandoned a music career for dock work because it's steady and made him secure enough to support a family.

Thus, the interview with Farnon becomes a sort of last-chance lifeline for Herriot's dreams, which may account for the fact he never blinks at any of the tough moments through which any rookie will be put.

We also meet two of the characters who will become prominent as the series moves along, and we like both of them: the widow Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley), who is the housekeeper and the entire back office staff for Farnon's veterinary practice, and Helen Alderson (Rachel Shenton), who works on a local family farm and – spoiler alert – will resurface in Herriot's life.

One of the most appealing parts of All Creatures – the books, the movie, the earlier TV series, and now this one – is that, unlike most dramas, it doesn't depend on a villain.

People occasionally do mean things, and Farnon is right that the villagers can be exasperating. But the vets and their clients are almost all hard-working people who want to do the right things and care about what they do.

That doesn't mean Herriot's odyssey becomes Dora the Explorer, where everything is rainbows and unicorns. There are tense moments, and not every minidrama ends happily. But Herriot wrote books in which we laugh and shake our heads with the characters, not at them, and this new series sticks with that approach.

Unlike many British period dramas, All Creatures doesn't feature showers of light pouring through the windows of grand manor houses. It does let us drink in the Yorkshire countryside without having to make our way through it in a blinding snowstorm to deliver a litter of piglets.

It has heart, and we'll take it. 

 
 
 
 
 
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