All Creatures Great and Small, Season One (2020)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

An idyllic balm for whatever ails you, this charming seven-episode first season of a show based on James Herriot’s beloved best-selling books is full of memorable characters, unforgettable small incidents, and enough doe-eyed Jersey cows to please even the hardest of hearts.

Fresh out of veterinarian school, young James Heriot (Nicholas Ralph) makes a long journey out of Scotland into the heart of England in the hopes of obtaining a proper position with a country vet. When he arrives, his eccentric would-be employer, Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West) has forgotten all about it, but at the urging of the housekeeper, Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley), takes James out on a call. James’ successful diagnosis of a problem in a horse’s hoof allows him to get hired on a temporary basis. His first week in service, he meets the beautiful Helen (Rachel Shenton)… and mixes up the patients awaiting care, causing Siegfried to dismiss him. Desperate to prove himself, James takes on one last, late-night case: a cow unable to give birth. After a five hour struggle, James sees the calf born… and gets his second chance.

Soon, however, Siegfried’s rambunctious and cheerful younger brother, Tristan (Callum Woodhouse) arrives. Seeing that James has become Siegfried’s favorite, Tristan jealously starts to compete for his brother’s attention… and the two take turns winning and losing Siegfried’s approval. An obese Pomeranian who gets into a basket of food, a lame calf with a broken leg, a beautiful champion racehorse with a problem, and all manner of troubled cows, along with one enormous bull, make up James’ caseload for the delightful seven episodes that make up the first season of a series destined to tug a great many heartstrings. It strikes the perfect balance between emotion and the sometimes difficult realities of farm life in the 1940s. Heriot’s novels are a pleasure to read, both outrageously hilarious at times and touchingly sad, and the series is no exception. It doesn’t shy away from loss or the sadness of a passing era (as Siegfried remarks in the first episodes, it’s sad to see the Dales lose their plow horses and the highland cattle breeds), but it has plenty of fun to go along with it.

There are some familiar cases here from the books, but the series has gone in unique directions with its female characters. Mrs. Hall has a back story and a wayward son, whom we learn more about as the season plays out. It touches on Siegfried’s personal losses, as well as his mood swings. His love of cars and refusal to admit to his mistakes play out against Tristan’s optimistic ability to turn even his losses into a personal victory – after a berating by his brother on a serious matter, he grins at James and tells James “you owe me one, for if I hadn’t shown up, he’d still be yelling at you.” The rural setting makes for a charming diversion from the modern world, and it’s a pleasure to see so many good-hearted people and likable characters in one place. Though Tristan is a proper mess-up, he also wants to do what is best for the people he cares about, and while Siegfried can rage with the best of them, when push comes to shove, he stands by his family and friends—even turning down a promotion when it demands James’ dismissal from the practice. James is the quietest of the bunch, but has a genuine kindness about him that makes him delightful.

It really is a splendid thing to sit down with my family and watch something clean for once that makes us laugh and cry together, and look forward to the next week’s installment. It can never be as good as the books, because Heriot is an unparalleled storyteller, but it doesn’t have to be – All Creatures Great & Small is its own creation, and it stands on its own two feet. It has enough of the familiar to please films of the novel, and enough originality to keep you guessing. Stream it, rent it, or buy it. If you want an innocent and sweet slice of country life, you will love it.

Sexual Content:
Helen comes across James skinny dipping in a pond, but neither she nor we see anything (she does tease him later about it); a reference to a bull that ‘isn’t performing with the cows’ and conversation about if it has impregnated the cows or not; Tristan teases James about having been out with a girl all night, and wakes up on the couch with one of his own after having fallen asleep drinking with her.
 
Language:
All of them say “bloody hell,” “bloody,” and the occasional “buggar” a lot, along with a few general profanities (“damn,” etc).
 
Violence:
None outright, other than a near-car accident (they stop before they hit a tree), but there are thematic elements involving animals that could distress very sensitive viewers – James must shoot a horse with a twisted, impacted bowel. Elsewhere, Siegfried references how awful it was to be a vet during the first war, and how rather than pay to ship all the horses home, they ‘rewarded’ the magnificent creatures’ sacrifices on the battlefield by ‘shooting them.’ We see a bull being hauled off to slaughter, and James says they need to send a cow as well. We see James perform a dangerous operation on a cow, in which he cuts through a layer of skin to expose the muscles, and then bursts a ball of puss that oozes out.

Other:
As a veterinarian, James must do rather a lot of fishing around in animals’ insides, including sticking his arm, hand, or fingers up inside them. Farmers mention rather cruel methods of treating animals (cutting off a cow’s tail, dragging a horse off a racetrack with a tractor) that the vets refuse to comply with for humane reasons. All of them do a lot of drinking, and James becomes intoxicated in the first episode.