James Herriot is back – and they’re milking the 1930s nostalgia: CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews the return of All Creatures Great and Small
When I was a boy, the domineering Yorkshire vet Siegfried Farnon seemed a genial monster – irascible, brilliant but unpredictable, one of the explosive characters typical of my grandfathers’ prewar generation.
And in the bestselling books that were the basis of Sunday night’s much-loved serial in the Seventies and Eighties, apprentice vet James Herriot was the symbol of youth.
Herriot was a mere lad in a man’s world, Siegfried the grown-up ogre. The gulf between their personalities summed up the famous ‘generation gap’ of that time.
Funny thing… from this distance, that gap appears to have vanished. The plain British decency that, despite their differences, united Siegfried and James in the 1930s is largely absent in the 21st century.
The remake of All Creatures Great And Small faithfully revives the spirit of the beloved 1978 series and sticks even more closely to Herriot stories.
Pictured: Helen Alderson (played by Rachel Shenton) and James Herriot (played by Nicholas Ralph)
The first book in the series, If Only They Could Talk, opens with the eager trainee stripped to the waist on the cobbled floor of a barn, his arm up to the shoulder inside a cow, struggling to deliver a breeched calf.
In the new TV version, that scene was neatly captured at the climax of the first episode, the moment when young James proves he’s more than just a naive city boy – he has the makings of a real vet, and a Yorkshire one at that.
He’s still the fresh-faced innocent, clumsily knocking over ornaments and muddling up pets, just as Christopher Timothy played him more than 40 years ago. But newcomer Nicholas Ralph has added a layer of greater accuracy, by giving Herriot (the pen name of Alf Wight) a mild Scots accent. That baffled the Dalesmen. ‘Art thou a foreigner?’ snorted one.
The opening five minutes set the tone if not the place. Young James was living with his parents in a Glasgow tenement, desperate to put his veterinary training to use.
This was a vivid recreation of city poverty in the Thirties, with barefoot children in the streets and clothes drying in the stairwells. But a nostalgic haze hung over the memory, echoing the evocative mood of Call The Midwife.
A leisurely farewell followed, both Herriot parents dabbing their faces with handkerchiefs and muttering about grit in their eyes, as a steam train departed in clouds of soot and cinders with their bold son aboard.
This series intends to milk every drop of melancholic pleasure from the lost and gentle past. For Channel Five, the remake is a natural choice. They’ve had great success with the Yorkshire Vet documentary series, following Herriot’s real-life assistant Peter Wright on his rounds in the same Dales landscape. Bosses at the channel are so confident that this six-part series will be a hit that they’ve also filmed a Christmas special.
We didn’t have to wait long for the arrival of Siegfried – played by Samuel West, with a hefty dose of homage to Robert Hardy. ‘Mrs Hall,’ he bellowed at the housekeeper, ‘where’s the blasted paper?’
We’ve yet to meet Siegfried’s reprobate of a brother, Tristan – a floppy-haired Peter Davison in the original series, played by The Durrells’ Callum Woodhouse this time round
Hardy starred as the short-tempered, big-hearted owner of the Skeldale practice from 1978 to 1990. He poured a lot of himself into the part: a man of giant enthusiasms and great intellect, he had a way of barking at you rather than talking. I outraged him once by suggesting that someone (preferably me) should gather all his wonderful anecdotes and tall tales into a biography. Hardy, author of the definitive work on the English longbow, had no intention of ceding his credentials as a writer to anyone else, and insisted he would pen his own memoirs. Sadly, he died in 2017 aged 91 with the job unfinished.
The first actor to portray Siegfried was, in fact, Anthony Hopkins, in a 1975 made-for-TV movie that co-starred Simon Ward as Herriot. Hopkins is a grand performer, but in this role he was completely eclipsed by Robert Hardy.
Samuel, the son of another theatrical titan, Timothy West, wisely makes no attempt to escape from Hardy’s shadow. Instead, he lives up to it with flamboyant eruptions and a glint of laughter in his scowls.
Brandishing a huge pair of pliers for gelding livestock, he proclaimed it to be, ‘the emasculator… enough to bring tears to your eyes!’ He has his match in the housekeeper, Mrs Hall (Anna Madeley) who is a rather underwritten character in the books. She’s the force that holds the practice together… and ensures that James gets to bed safely on his first night, after the locals ambush him in the pub to get him drunk on home-brew.
We’ve yet to meet Siegfried’s reprobate of a brother, Tristan – a floppy-haired Peter Davison in the original series, played by The Durrells’ Callum Woodhouse this time round. Dame Diana Rigg as Mrs Pumphrey (owner of the snappish Pekingese, Tricki Woo) hasn’t appeared yet either. But we did glimpse Helen (Rachel Shenton) the capable farmer’s daughter, who… well, never mind. You’ll see.
Expect tender romance, farcical misunderstandings and lots more difficult births in freezing barns, with young James up to his eyeballs in mud and cattle. As Herriot himself liked to say, it shouldn’t happen to a vet…