Late to the Party: All Creatures Great and Small (1978)

I watched the reboot of All Creatures Great and Small when it aired on Masterpiece in January and February, mostly because my wife wanted to watch it and I had no specific objections to remaining on the couch while she did so. I had never watched the original 1978-1990 series, but I was aware of its existence from public television growing up. All I knew is that it involved animals somehow and looked like the pleasantest, most boring thing imaginable. Yes, I was a middle-schooler who watched British television shows on PBS, but I was a hip middle-schooler who watched it because they carried caustic comedies like Red Dwarf, Blackadder, and Fawlty Towers. You know, cool stuff!

Despite my preteen misgivings about the original show, the adult man I have grown into was utterly charmed by the new one. I do have to suspect that external factors contributed to it hitting me quite as hard as it did: in the darkest, bleakest part of Pandemic Winter, isolated from friends and family and with toxic political unrest churning outside, who could refuse the call to escape to the 193X English countryside, where the hills are green, the sky is blue—altogether a more consistently sunny Britain than I have been led to believe exists—and the community pulls together for market days, Christmas parties, and a pint at the local? I am not made of stone.

But after seven weeks, it was over, and there was still a foot and a half of accumulated, unmelted snow in my backyard. I checked BritBox. The thought occurred: maybe I could could get my fix of droll veterinary antics from the old show?

What a kickass theme song! Why does the new show not use it?

Having finished the first season, I’m enjoying the original show, and it broadly scratches the same itch as the new one. Like the new show, it’s the story of young Scottish veterinarian James Herriot, who takes a job in an English village in the employ of the feisty Siegfried Farnum and assisted by Siegfried’s academically disinclined younger brother, Tristan. But it is a very different show.

If I asked a modern viewer to describe the sense of conflict on the rebooted show, I would expect the word “gentle” or “mellow” in there somewhere. That’s been the appeal of the show for so many in stressful times. But compared to the original, the reboot is positively taut and humming with tension. Because the reboot is a modern dramatic television show, it operates the way we expect modern dramatic television shows to operate and to feel. It’s written by people who have read all the modern screenwriting books and follow all the modern screenwriting rules, who know how to arrange their plots such that all the characters have dramatic arcs based on clearly laid-out conflicts that develop over the course of a season.

The original, on the other hand, is extremely loose. Characters’ conflicts are a little more sitcomlike in nature, where characters spark off each other because of their personality differences, and even those are fairly mild. Most of the “business” of James dealing with different animal cases in each episode does not directly contribute to his overall character arc. In some ways, it resembles a procedural—and it’s actually quite shocking how graphic and real some of the animal scenes are in the original show compared to the special effects of the new one; that’s an actual cow and the actual actor’s really got his arm up its ass!—but it’s not laser-focused in quite the same way modern procedurals are. There’s a real “day in the life” feeling to most of the episodes; some episodes just seem to kind of end because time’s up this week.

The 1978-1990 All Creatures is, to use a term my wife hates, a hangout show. You watch the show to see what your veterinarian pals are up to this week and enjoy their interactions without necessarily feeling like this is building to something narratively greater.

I think the clearest illustration in the difference in approaches comes from a storyline that occurs in both versions of the show. In the pilot of the original series, James determines that a race horse has a painful torsion and must be put out of its misery. The horse’s wealthy owner objects to losing such a valuable animal and wants to get a second opinion from the more experienced and familiar Siegfried. The animal’s suffering his only concern, James ultimately does what he feels is necessary without waiting for the second opinion, incensing the owner, who demands an autopsy. Ultimately, Siegfried’s autopsy bears out that James’ diagnosis and course of action were correct.

This is also the plot of the third episode of the reboot, but if you’ve seen the episode, you know that the writers baked extra tension into the plot at every possible point. The horse’s owner is not just any local rich guy but specifically the rich guy who is dating James’ love interest. Siegfried gravely makes it clear that James’ job hinges on the autopsy bearing out his diagnosis, which is a primary source of tension in the episode; in the original, Siegfried already seems fairly confident that his assistant made the right call but performs the autopsy as a matter of course. The social ramifications of putting down a prize racehorse stick to James and ultimately cost Siegfried a cushy gig at the racing club when he takes a principled stand, a plot point that does not appear in the original at all. James is emotionally distraught at having to put the horse down, whereas he is more businesslike in the original. It’s the same story, but the reboot has tightened it up, doubled down on the stakes and then doubled down again.

I thought it would be interesting to compare each of the main cast across versions to really highlight the differences in approach, with the overall thesis being that in every instance, the new series has ratcheted up their character traits to generate stronger and clearer drama that modern television viewers have come to expect.

James Herriot – Nicholas Ralph (reboot) vs. Christopher Timothy (original)

Both versions of the show begin the same way, with James coming to town and adjusting to his new life in Farnum’s practice, but the reboot has made this the central arc of the character in the first season. Nicholas Ralph is constantly striving to prove himself, always convinced he’s one mistake away from being given the boot and driven from town.

Christopher Timothy, by comparison, settles in his new role much quicker, and the townspeople embrace him as one of them with much less reluctance. While he is full of self-doubt and recrimination in his relationship with Helen (more on that later), in his professional duties he’s generally quite confident and self-assured. But I think the key difference is this: Original James does not speak with a Scottish accent.

James is still supposed to be a Scot, in that there is a reference to him being so every now and again, but Timothy was apparently asked not to use an accent in the interest in being more relatable to the English viewer. Because while James is the viewer-identification figure in both versions, Reboot James is an Outsider and Original James is an Everyman. Ralph’s Scottish accent is a constant reminder that he is Not From Round Here, and we can relate to his feelings of not belonging, his internal conflict. Original James’ conflicts are mostly externally driven and are meant to be relatable in a very English “Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if this happened to you?” way.

In short, Nicholas Ralph is plagued by self-doubt and must learn to trust himself. Christopher Timothy trusts himself already but frequently finds himself in situations where he finds himself on the wrong foot.

Siegfried Farnum – Samuel West (reboot) vs. Robert Hardy (original)

Samuel West is the archetypical prickly mentor figure: tough and abrasive on the outside but ultimately fair, with a heart of gold. This makes dramatic sense, in the reboot; when your protagonist’s central conflict is struggling with self-confidence, it amplifies the tension for the character’s boss to be difficult to work with and difficult to please. It then makes it more dramatically satisfying when James proves himself and wins Siegfried over.

I was really quite surprised to find how comparatively toned down Robert Hardy is. He’s less tempestuous and more merely erratic; James never quite knows where he stands with Siegfried at any given moment, but he never has to worry that Hardy’s Siegfried will up and fire him the way West’s Siegfried might. He’s far chummier and trusts James much more easily. They are friends in a way that the reboot characters are not.

West’s Siegfried is hiding the pain of his wife’s passing and struggles to re-enter the world of romance. Hardy’s Siegfried is occasionally shown to be a bit of a ladies’ man out on the town. He’s an old rascal and he loves life! Original Siegfried is an endearingly eccentric second lead for a hangout show, but pivoting him to a much more caustic character was a natural move for a modern drama.

Tristan Farnum – Callum Woodhouse (reboot) vs. Peter Davison (original)

Tristan is probably the least drastically changed character between versions. They’re both underachievers who would rather carouse at the pub than study for exams, but Reboot Tristan is just given a little more depth and shading that suggests there is something more to his behavior than just high spirits.

Mrs. Hall – Anna Madeley (reboot) vs. Mary Hignett (original)

You know all that stuff you find compelling about Mrs. Hall in the reboot? The way she hides her pain at the estrangement from her son, how she can push back against Siegfried when she has a mind to and does her best to encourage James and Tristan? None of this is in the original show, at least from what I’ve seen so far. She’s a purely functional character: Siegfried would have a housekeeper, so that character must exist. She’s there to make breakfast and tea and do all the stuff a housekeeper would do without bothering you by having any sort of inner life. I don’t know if she is a more well developed character in the books or if all the business Anna Madeley is playing was made up out of whole cloth.

Helen Alderson – Rachel Shenton (reboot) vs. Carol Drinkwater (original)

The James/Helen romance is the least compelling part of the reboot, I think. It feels perfunctory, like something the writers are being forced to play through because The Protagonist Must Have a Love Interest. Protagonist meets Love Interest. They seem to share a spark, but oh no! Love Interest is already involved with another man. This keeps them apart for all of Season One! It looks like Love Interest is going to get married, but then it doesn’t happen, thus paving the way for her and Protagonist to grow closer to each other in Season Two. It feels like it was plotting according to an elementary How to Write a Television Show book.

The original’s version of the James/Helen romance is even simpler than that. He asks her out, she accepts; they go out on dates, and some of them don’t go well in humorous ways; there is another man vying for her affections, but it’s never very serious; James eventually proposes and she accepts. There’s not much to it, but there’s not really supposed to be, and that’s why I think I find it somewhat more palatable than the reboot. In the reboot, you are supposed to feel that James and Helen have some kind of connection, that they immediately seem to understand each other on a deep emotional level, that they inherently belong together and that Helen marrying some other guy would be a great loss for both of them. And I never feel it, because again, it feels perfunctory to me; the only thing that’s really connecting them is that they’re the leads on a television show that I like and I guess I should want them to get together because that’s what leads on a television show do. The original series’ romance subplot isn’t sweepingly romantic either, but at least it’s not pretending to be.

Of course, Rachel Shenton’s Helen is a more rounded character, as you’d expect. All the internal conflict Reboot Helen feels with her sister and farming life just isn’t there (and it’s not even clear that Original Helen even has much to do with farming). Carol Drinkwater is mostly just called on to smile to indicate that she finds Christopher Timothy’s bumbling attempts at intimacy charming.

It is not a television show made in the modern mold, but I wholeheartedly enjoy the original All Creatures Great and Small and would recommend it to anyone whose idea of a good time is broad enough to include a low-key hangout show about chummy veterinarians. If you like the reboot but thought at times it was on the edge of being too light and fluffy, however, you’ll probably want to skip it.