The ‘All Creatures Great And Small’ reboot wallows in rural nostalgia…and dung
If your idea of fun is watching an old-timey British guy stick his arm up a cow’s hoo-ha while tinkly piano music plays in the background, then allow me to suggest the remake of ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ on PBS.
People of a certain age, which is who watches ‘Masterpiece,’ have fond recollections of the original ‘All Creatures Great And Small,’ which aired intermittently from 1978 to 1990. They also read the James Herriot memoir series, a perfect mix of rural nostalgia and animal surgery. I enjoyed them, they were a nice transition into adult books for kids. The bucolic hills of Yorkshire were a planet away from the mall-and-cactus landscape where I grew up in Phoenix. Some people had horses, but we were Jews and didn’t know those people. We had a squirmy poodle named Cinnamon who bit joggers and would often come home bloodied after some insane tussle with a desert beast. I enjoyed escaping into the British veterinary past.
Now we return to the majestic Yorkshire Dales in the 1930s, a place between Depression and war, where hardy Brits trade barbs in the pub after long days of wading through horse shit. James Herriot, an idealistic Edinburgh lad, takes up a veterinary apprenticeship with the befuddled Siegfried Farnon, secretly haunted by grief and World War I PTSD. Meanwhile, Siegfried’s gadabout brother Tristan returns to the Dales, having recently flunked out of vet school, to make trouble and wink at barmaids.
‘All Creatures Great And Small’ is very soft-focused. Siegfried or James or whoever drive around the Dales while tinkly piano music plays. They give some milk of magnesium or whatever to a colicky cow. Someone sticks his entire arm up an animal’s vagina or butt. James flirts with a comely farm lass who wants to break free. Siegfried plays Scrabble with Mrs. Hall, his housekeeper with a heart of gold. Tristan gets into some mischief. Occasionally, there’s a little light cat comedy.
The cast mixes in veteran British TV and actors like Samuel West, as Siegfried, and Anna Madeley, as Mrs. Hall, with complete newcomer Nicholas Ralph, who plays James Herriot with the most gee-shucks earnestness since Ron Howard as Richie Cunningham. Callum Woodhouse, last seen as the gun-loving middle son Leslie on ‘Masterpiece’s’ The Durrells in Corfu, plays basically the same character here as Tristan. And Dame Diana Rigg steals the show in her last-ever performance, as a rich twit with a trifle-eating Pekingese.
The old-school ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ had interior production values closer to a British sitcom like ‘Are You Being Served?’ than a modern TV show. Tt was still mostly a show about men drinking pints and fisting farm animals. But while it definitely wallowed in nostalgia, at least it had the benefit of playing to an audience for whom the 1930s were living memory. The new version, which exists 30 years later, doesn’t have that same benefit. Its England, where farmers farmed and vets vetted, is a distant and idealized past.
No one does nostalgia quite like the British. And there’s definitely a weepy “good old days” vibe about ‘All Creatures Great And Small.’ It doesn’t try to put a multicultural respin on history like ‘The Great’ or ‘Bridgerton,’ shows with very different aesthetics and agendas. There were no Black farmers up to their hips in mud in 1930s Yorkshire, and ‘All Creatures’ won’t pretend otherwise. Though there are plenty of hardy self-reliant female characters, the show doesn’t play at being particularly progressive. The kindly patriarchs care for the beasts of the land by sticking arms up their bums, and then it’s time for tinkly piano music.
In these ultra-confusing, moronic times, ‘All Creatures Great And Small’ is a soothing, low-stakes lukewarm bath. I don’t particularly care for it, because it doesn’t contain any scenes of super-people throwing buses through skyscrapers, but my wife watches it as eagerly as a kid opening presents on Christmas morning. What’s the appeal? As Meg Ryan so eloquently put it in Sleepless In Seattle:
Harses harses harses.