All Creatures Great and Small (2021) Review
Dear kindred spirit,
I'm delighted you could join me today. It's no secret that my penchant for heartwarming, wholesome stories and days of a bygone age led me to discover the world of James Herriot earlier this year, which I wrote on rather fully here. Reading the Herriot books this year was a gift at a needed time, and one that I know I will continue to treasure with a lifelong love. I consider myself a Herriot devotee now, and smile to think I hadn't any idea who that was when the year began! While I will admit, it was my first hearing about the new All Creatures Great and Small series on PBS that led me to look into these books, it wasn't until just recently that I finally watched the new series. I'm so glad to finally be reviewing it now.
I feel incredibly grateful that my first experience with James Herriot's world was directly through reading the books, as, having never seen an adaptation prior, I feel I was able to appreciate the beauty and warmth of his stories without comparing it to anything else. I then watched the original All Creatures Great and Small series from 1978, which I completely fell in love with. Again, I wrote a lot of this background in my post here! But it truly was a gem uncovered—and I was reminded of the truth I seem to keep learning through the years: that all the treasures I will come to love one day have already been written, and are only waiting for me to happen upon them at the right time. (What a comforting thought that is!)
I want to clarify that this was my initial experience with James Herriot before seeing the new PBS series because this significantly influences my review. Had I gone into this without having read the books or seen the original series, my opinions would have been entirely different.
My take on All Creatures Great and Small (2021)
I'll start, appropriately, at the very beginning. The opening titles alone left me rather teary at first watch, admittedly! The theme music feels very reminiscent of the 1978 series, and there are a few nostalgic touches that I thought were lovely additions—such as, the music for the end credits of the first episode is actually the closing title music of the original series, and the opening credits of the season finale end with the same motif of the original theme as well. The visual design of the title sequence also looks very similar to the book editions I've been reading from, which was a nice touch (though not one made on purpose, I discovered! The artwork from the opening titles is actually inspired by the cover art of Brian Cook's Hidden English Village series. I still think these editions look similar though...)
The new series is beautifully made, and the marvelous scenery, filmed on-location on the Yorkshire Dales, is utterly breathtaking and a complete standout. The late 1930s are beautifully portrayed; the period-drama standard of quality felt high, and reminded me how odd it is that there aren't more 1930s dramas being made. I truly adore this period, and many of the costumes in this series looked genuinely from the era.
I wish we had more shows like this available to watch, so full of light amid so much darkness on the usual program list. That is what I primarily must uphold about this adaptation: the fact that it was being made at all, showing us that there is indeed a very great need for families to gather together again and enjoy a program simply so wholesome and good for the soul. There's something for everyone of all ages to take away from the Herriot story, and I'm so glad this adaptation has prompted more and more readers to visit the book series, too.
However, I do have a few qualms...
From the first scenes I had to adjust a bit quickly to the fact that this wasn't, after all, going to be a genuine "remake." I had been warned by many other fans of the books that this adaptation would be more of a "fresh take" on the Herriot story, and wasn't going to be necessarily book-accurate. I know a lot of people had differing opinions on this—some favoring the fresh outlook, while others found the newer storylines unnecessary. Having heard as much going into this, I really tried to embrace this series, fresh outlook and all, and judge it on its own merits without reference to the book or the original tv series.
I found this quite impossible, actually...
It's merely the general idea of the plot of the Herriot story that seems to stick through this series, but it became clear to me quite soon that (in my humble opinion) this adaptation cared more about not being the 1978 series than it did the legacy of the real James Herriot (James Alfred Wight). I acknowledge that it's often a wonderful opportunity to remake a beloved show and recreate a familiar story with new motifs and deeper character arcs—but this is simply far more than that. It isn't just a new show in place of an old one—and it isn't even just an adaptation of a beloved book series, which is more important—it's the fact that these memoirs have an entire legacy around them. The real James Wight wrote so much based on his real vet experiences, on the real "Siegfried and Tristan," and one has to remember and revere the lives that made these books what they are.
I think I would have adored this series if I hadn't read the books—and probably would have then decided to read the books and subsequently discovered that they're vastly different. It's truly a lovely show, full of the wholesome beauty that is genuinely so needed today and so little seen, which I admire and uphold—but I just don't feel that Herriot's life (and books) were dealt with reverently. James' character arc is entirely different—his romance with Helen is even more hugely different, and these stood out to me even more than the changes made to Siegfried or Tristan. When one looks back on the real story, it seems little is left of Helen Alderson (in real life, Joan Anderson) and her all-important place in James' life. Her indecision in marrying the entirely-made-up-character Hugh seemed to weaken her character quite a bit, in my opinion, and I can't help but wonder how the surviving Herriot children think of their mother's story being portrayed so...
As for the cast, I think some truly lovely choices were made, and I do like Nicholas Ralph as James. I didn't quite feel that the made-up storylines depicted for him necessarily reflected his character very well, and I confess I didn't see very much character development throughout the season—that seems to go entirely to Tristan, funnily enough. It will always be a hard thing to cast new actors to replace others who were so beloved so many decades ago, and I will confess I'm definitely biased towards the beautiful, book-accurate, endlessly heartwarming 1978 version, but I reiterate that I did like many of the casting choices made here. The biggest surprise for me in this whole series was actually Mrs. Hall, portrayed by Anna Madeley. I was a bit shocked at first that she was rather younger and seemed to have an entirely new storyline given to her—but I was even more shocked to realize that she was my absolute favorite character of this series. It seems to me that her story was better handled than that of the main characters, if I'm honest! Madeley's performance was truly heartfelt and sincere, and the complete standout of the series for me.
All in all, my favorite episode of the series was actually the Christmas special, which seemed to me to have a tone closer to the heartwarming, sweet-souled stories that the 1978 series always focused on. Mrs. Hall is quite wonderful (as she has been through the whole run), and I admit I do like Siegfried's budding relationship with Dorothy.
Another point I wish to make is that there were really very few actual animal cases shown in the series. It seemed to be "one main case per episode" (contrasting to the original series, which would see James, Siegfried and Tristan handle several cases per episode). However, the series is not to blame for this! In 2019, a law was actually passed stating that the use of animals in TV dramas could not subject the animals to procedures they do not require. As such, less animals could be used in this series, and those that were used were not really examined—and it was quite obvious a lot of the time that James' arm was not really inside an actual cow. I digress!
All in all, I enjoyed this series, and while I do look forward to seeing season 2 when it arrives to PBS Masterpiece in just a few months, I can guarantee that in the meantime I will be rewatching the dear-to-my-heart 1978 adaptation and turning to the rest of the books in the series. If you're new to James Herriot, or you're interested in seeing this PBS version, I think you'll still enjoy it. Perhaps you have seen this version and are hoping to read the books now—in which case I would say, go into the books with the knowledge that it's quite a different thing to the show. Either way, I'd like to restate that this is a lovely, well-made series that I think families will dearly enjoy—but it's absolutely worth it to read the Herriot books and find out about the real story. And if you're waiting for season 2 to come out and need more content to watch, I wholeheartedly recommend you see the first three seasons of the 1978 series, available to watch on Britbox.
I'm rather curious to hear from you, dear kindred spirit, and your take on this adaptation, if you fancy sharing! As always, you can leave a comment below and get the conversation started. :)
Until next time,
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