Hello and welcome to the balm of 2021, a show on the pastoral stages, the woolen vests and the men kicking horses in the face.
The sweetness of this spectacle. Everything about this first episode is as charming as a TV show can be. The greatest stressful time is when you don’t know if a cow is going to survive – although a part of you certainly does, because that’s the kind of show. It won’t kill a cow in the first episode. This is the kind of drama you book for the third episode.
All Creatures Great and Small is based on a series of books written by James Herriot about his nearly 50 years as a veterinarian in Yorkshire. If you grew up watching PBS, you might have seen the previous BBC adaptation, which was just as low-key and involved removing a lot from animal hooves (a trend that continues in this series!).
Right away you have an idyllic, illustrated intro with a few wind instruments so you know you’re about to watch some soothing and understated TV shows. James Herriot, who lives with his parents in a dirty apartment building and tucks his shirt into running shorts with a rubber band around his waist, finally gets an interview for a vet job. It’s weird having his dad as ‘you and your impossible dreams’, because it’s not like he wanted to be an influencer in Scotland in the 1930s. He wants to be a vet, which is pretty stable. ? James wears a waistcoat, picks up a cheese and pickle sandwich from his mother, and leaves for the north of England.
In a movement familiar to many, he leaves the bus very early. Unfortunately for him, there are literally no houses, people or sheep in sight. He has to walk the rest of the way to town, and of course, it starts to rain immediately. Sir, didn’t you bring an umbrella? I know umbrellas existed in Europe in the 1930s because I researched them.
Where is James going? Alright, get ready for EVEN MORE CHARM as it’s about to explode on your screen. He is in the Yorkshire Dales, which are picturesque as hell, all the hills and dry stone walls and various doe-eyed animals. I can’t think of a scene with a more escapist vibe than a series of sparsely populated farms on the slopes and a town that looks like it was designed for tourists to exclaim (and I think!). The buildings are all in limestone. Everything reminds you of Kate Winslet’s country house in The Holiday. Sure, it’s the 1930s and WWII is approaching, but now world events are completely blurry and we’re just absorbed in the events of this little town called Darrowby and its neighboring farms and sick farm animals.
James’ interview is with Siegfried Farnon, who is one of those brooding but lovable characters, who dresses well, smokes a pipe, and respects you when you yell at him Think Henry Higgins, but much nicer because he is not a furious misogynist. James currently has the resources of a confused Chihuahua, so he will need some time to get used to working as Siegfried’s assistant. Siegfried shows off his shiny green car then drives James to the assistant’s car, which is old, dirty, covered in mud, and has brakes that “sometimes” work. The terrible car is important because it marks James’ GROWTH in this episode.
What I like about this series (on top of everything) are the cheesy looks it had on English farming in the 1930s. Example: Siegfried shows a cow mowed in a field and is upset that they are replaced by Frisians. The Frisian cow is the one in the commercials for Chik-Fil-A, or at least looks a lot like it. You can call it part of the big cow, and it was popular because it produced more milk than shorthorn. Siegfried’s annoyance is due to the fact that the shorthorn was originally bred in the north of England and was very particular to that region. It’s like driving in one center instead of walking down this street full of Wendy’s, Chipotle, and McDonald’s. But the cow version. This is how we know Siegfried is in a bad mood, but he has admirable priorities.
James’ interview is actually a visit to the vet. And this is where my notes for the episode basically make me write in all caps on the majesty of the horses because they are there to see a man on a horse. A BEAUTIFUL HORSE. James gets his face kicked by this noble animal twice, but finds out the problem because although he dresses for an interview and therefore wears shoes totally unsuitable for the task (they are very shiny and are not boots )), he loves being a veterinarian.
We’re back to the terrible car, which James now has to drive through tight corners and long, steep inclines without the confidence of a working brake set. Siegfried tells James not to break so they maintain enough momentum to go up the hill, but James dodges (farm puns!) And that’s a bummer for everyone. Her entire journey in this episode ranges from fear to confidence and from learning from books to hands-on experience. This is all very bildungsroman but pushed for a TV episode.
I neglected to mention Siegfried’s housekeeper, Mrs. Hall. Mrs. Hall is a treasure and I have 0 percent doubt that people on Tumblr will create GIFs of scenes of her and Siegfried because her dynamic is very kind and charming and the person who knows they are secretly cool then one the day they kiss. This has never been their dynamic in previous versions of the story, but it is my sincere hope, as Anna Madeley (Mrs. Hall) is very good at kissing scenes (see Miss Anne Lister’s diaries). Mrs. Hall covers James when some of the local men get him drunk and she finds him on the floor feeding the cats. Mrs. Hall maintains a cricket bat to keep intruders out. Mrs. Hall is full of cardigans and I love her.
The other character who seems important in this episode is Helen. Helen is clearly James’ love interest, and she vaguely resembles Hayley Atwell. She lives on a big, beautiful farm and uses a snood, which makes her so good that I start looking for snoods to buy. I refuse to cut my hair and I’m not going to hand this responsibility over to my wife, so a strand seems like a good option to contain the hair. All right, the past.
Helen’s main role in this episode is to get along with James and assure him that Siegfried is really cool. She has them there because a calf is injured. My notes here just say “THIS IS A GREAT WINE FOR EYE OMG, LOOK AT THIS.” If you’re not watching this series for something else, then do it for the really good cow content. Plus my heart exploded again thinking of Siegfried telling the calf’s mother not to worry.
Following a few cat-related mishaps, Siegfried learns that James was drunk the night before and sends him away. But! A night call for a cow in labor gives James a chance at redemption, as he manages to push his arm over a cow for MANY hours while she is having contractions, which coincidentally is how the first book in the series begins. Did I cry when the baby cow was finally born? Yes Yes of course.
James faces Siegfried and, in response, Siegfried hires him as his assistant. And in the final scene, James is in a bad car and doesn’t hit the brakes on tight corners because he’s grown up. What low-risk drama, what vintage aesthetic, what beautiful characters. I’m all about this episode.
It’s a family drama with an unlikely family, made up of brothers and bosses and friendly associates and rivals. It’s hard not to have as much affection for them as they clearly have for each other. There are a handful of scenes that play out like a contained dance number, with each of the occupants of Skeldale House entering and exiting their various rooms (sometimes with the unexpected company). It’s only fitting that a program that takes care of animals at its core has a type of energy that feels organic, fueled by discovering what’s new in every corner.
A second season of the show has already been announced, which makes perfect sense not only because it’s a welcome antidote to our current collective uncertainty. “All Creatures Big and Small” is not a program that increases your challenges until there is no room to grow. It’s not like James first examines a ferret and, at the end of the season, finally has the opportunity to cure the prized local bull. In fact, the growth of the program is at its roots, the idea that creatures of different sizes have corresponding problems. Whatever the challenge, it’s a series that welcomes each new call with an open heart and a broad, knowing smile.