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Pop CultureNovember 16, 2020

All Creatures Great and Small will make you nostalgic for uncomplicated nostalgia


The original series about a Yorkshire vet was a late-70s television phenomenon. Could the rebooted version scratch a similar itch for recovering Anglophile Linda Burgess?

There’s something about TV programmes that start with someone running. It not only depends on where the camera is – at foot level? uhoh… the camera’s a voyeur and we’re following the runner, getting closer and closer, and this doesn’t bode well. But then there’s the soundtrack. No music, ragged breathing…. you can assume that the next time we see the character, they’ll be lying on a slab with a ticket tied to their toe.

All Creatures Great and Small, the 2020 version, starts with a runner. But there he goes, in a singlet, his hair combed, an immaculate side-parting, pounding along the cobblestones, sweating somewhat neatly, and then there he is, towelling himself down in front of his parents, in an ee bah gum sort of household, except it’s Glasgow rather than north England. It’s definitely more Chariots of Fire than Silence of the Lambs.  There’s slick exposition, enough conversation between him and his parents for us to know that it’s the Depression, he has a vet degree, but to what avail? Will he have to go to the docks? Like his dad did? But hang on… isn’t that… a… letter? He’s got a dream so he has to chase it. His mum says that, in the way mothers do on television, if not in real life. Any minute he’ll be on one of those trains that Harry Potter uses to travel to Hogwarts.

The stars of the original All Creatures Great and Small, L-R Christopher Timothy, Robert Hardy and Peter Davidson

Anyone who was allowed up after 7pm 40 or so years ago will remember the original series of All Creatures Great and Small, based on the compulsorily loveable books by James Herriot. I’ll give you a minute to remember the theme music and download it as your current earworm. It started on TV1, I assume, in 1978 and went on ad infinitum, seven series, three Christmas specials, appointment viewing, making you feel the world was a regular place, where country folk were decent, babies were born upstairs in the cottage before the midwife made it (…wait…camera looks up the stairs…waaah….whaahhh!!) and farmers might be surly but only because they worked so damn hard.  You loved them, I loved them, our mothers, our grannies, the people next door loved them, the publishers of endless coffee table books loved them too. So you’ve bought all Herriot’s books? Would you like a calendar? A diary? Charming landscapes of North Yorkshire?

Herriot was the pen-name of a vet from Yorkshire who decided that writing of his experiences would nicely augment what he earned from spending much of his time up to his armpit in a bovine bum. Little did he know that those books would lead him to the undisputed role of national treasure. To his credit, Wikipedia notes that even though he made a killing from his books, especially after the American market got a taste for them, and TV bought them, he kept spaying cats and taking stones from horses’ hooves till he was quite old.

Rachel Shelton as Helen Alderson and Nicholas Ralph as James Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small (2020)

The director of the latest version of the series declares that it too is based on the books, not the original series. So other than storylines, core characters, and just a hint of referencing the original theme music, all it has in common with the first series is tweed-jacketed blokes who appear bumbling but have flashes of competence, 1930s cars (MGs if you’re posh, Austin 7s/Morris 8s with questionable brakes if you’re not), brisk, capable young women who can run a farm, be a love interest, peel a spud, and change a tyre all on one day, house-keepers whose tough-talking ways hide hearts of gold, damn fine dogs with not a hint of -oodle in their name, and entitled semi-toffs with names like Siegfried and Tristan who the viewer in the 2020s could well feel like throttling because actually there’s more than a hint of Boris Johnson.

Ahhh, and there’s the rub. Populism in politics, Brexit, pandemics, have the habit of changing nostalgia. Crazily, now it’s possible to feel nostalgic about nostalgia. I was big on loving the UK; for decades I’d have swapped being a minor writer in New Zealand for being just an aerogramme writer if I could only live in Hampstead. Low-level thatched cottage envy hung on in there. So sit me down in front of Upstairs, Downstairs, Brideshead Revisited, Call the Midwife, and I’d be happy.

Now that Britain is in such a mess, and we’re not, it’s hard to want to be there, even in the imagination. I watched the first episode of this new series with interest, and with pleasure, and of course went straight to good old YouTube to find the original to compare it with. I can report that the comparison is favourable. In both, the hero looks strangely like Ashley Bloomfield, who also has a neat side parting, and who it’s easy to imagine wouldn’t balk at realigning a cow’s uterus should need arise. Pleasingly, in both versions, the heroine could pass for Chlöe Swarbrick.  This new series hits the same chords as the original, and I leave it up to you to decide if you want to immerse yourself in England in the olden days. It’s not the tone of the programme that has changed, but the tone of the world from which we watch it.

All Creatures Great and Small starts at 8.30pm tonight on Vibe.

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