All Creatures Great and Small
Hello and welcome to the balm of 2021, a show about pastoral scenes, sweater vests, and men getting kicked in the face by horses.
The soothingness of this show. Everything in this first episode is as charming as a television program can be. The greatest moment of stress is when you don’t know if a cow will survive — although part of you knows it’s definitely going to because that’s the kind of show this is. It’s not going to kill a cow in the first episode. That’s the kind of drama you reserve for episode three.
All Creatures Great and Small is based on a series of books written by James Herriot about his nearly 50 years as a veterinarian in Yorkshire. If you grew up watching PBS, you might have seen the previous BBC adaptation, which was similarly low-key and involved a lot of picking things out of animal’s hooves (a trend continued in this series!).
Right off the bat, you have an idyllic, illustrated intro with some wind instruments there to let you know you’re in for some low-stakes, calming television. James Herriot, who lives with his parents in a dingy building and tucks his undershirt into his elastic-waistband running shorts, finally gets an interview for a veterinarian job. It’s weird having his dad be like, “you and your pipe dreams,” because it’s not like he wants to be an influencer in 1930s Scotland. He wants to be a veterinarian, which feels pretty stable? James pulls on a sweater vest, gets a cheese and pickle sandwich from his mom, and sets off to the north of England.
In a move familiar to many, he gets off the bus too early. Unfortunately for him, there are literally no houses, people, or sheep in sight. He has to walk the rest of the way into town, and it of course immediately starts raining. Sir, did you not bring an umbrella? I know umbrellas were around in 1930s Europe because I looked it up.
Where is James going? Okay, get ready for EVEN MORE CHARM because it’s about to explode all over your screen. He’s in the Yorkshire Dales, which are picturesque as hell, all undulating hills and dry-stone walls and various doe-eyed animals. I can’t think of a setting with a more escapist vibe than a series of lightly populated hillside farms and a town that looks like it’s designed for tourists to exclaim over (and I do!). The buildings are all made out of limestone. Everything reminds you of Kate Winslet’s cottage in The Holiday. Sure, it’s the 1930s and World War II is right around the corner, but right now, world events are completely out of focus and we are only absorbed in the happenings of this small town called Darrowby and its surrounding farms and ailing farm animals.
James’s interview is with Siegfried Farnon, who is one of those grumpy but lovable characters who dresses well, smokes a pipe, and respects you if you shout at him. Think Henry Higgins, but much more likable because he’s not a raging misogynist. James currently has the wherewithal of a bewildered chihuahua, so he’s going to need some time to get acclimated to working as Siegfried’s assistant. Siegfried shows off his shiny green car and then refers James to the assistant’s car, which is old, shitty, mud-covered, and has brakes that “sometimes” work. The terrible car is important because it marks James’s GROWTH this episode.
Something I appreciate about this series (besides basically everything) is the nerdy asides it has about English farming in the 1930s. Example: Siegfried points to a shorthorn cow in a field and is upset because they’re being replaced by Friesians. The Friesian cow is the one from the Chik-Fil-A ads, or at least it very strongly resembles it. One might call it part of Big Cow, and it was popular because it produced more milk than the shorthorn. Siegfried’s upset-ness is because the shorthorn was originally bred in the north of England and was very much particular to that region. It’s like driving through a unique downtown versus driving down that street lined with Wendy’s, Chipotle, and McDonald’s. But the cow version. This is how we know Siegfried is grumpy but has admirable priorities.
James’s interview is, in fact, a vet visit. And this is where my notes for the episode basically become me writing in all caps about how majestic horses are, because they are there to see a man about a horse. A BEAUTIFUL HORSE. James gets kicked in the face by this noble animal twice, but he figures out the problem because although he dressed for an interview and is therefore wearing shoes that are wildly inappropriate to the task (they are very shiny and they are not boots), he loves being a vet, goddamn it.
We return to the terrible car, which James now must drive around sharp curves and down long steep hills without the confidence that a working set of brakes provides. Siegfried tells James not to apply the brakes so they’ll maintain enough momentum to make it up the hill, but James chickens out (farm puns!) and is a disappointment to all. His entire journey this episode is from fear to confidence and from book-learning to practical experience. It is all very bildungsroman, but shoved into one television episode.
I have been remiss in not speaking of Siegfried’s housekeeper, Mrs. Hall. Mrs. Hall is a treasure and I have 0 percent doubt that people on Tumblr will be GIF-ing scenes of her and Siegfried, because their dynamic is very much the lovable grump and the person who knows they are secretly nice and then one day they kiss. This has never been their dynamic in previous versions of the story, but it is my sincere hope, because Anna Madeley (Mrs. Hall) is very good at kissing scenes (see The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister). Mrs. Hall covers for James when some of the local men get him drunk and she finds him on the floor feeding the cats. Mrs. Hall keeps a cricket bat to ward off intruders. Mrs. Hall is full-up on cardigans and I love her.
The other character who seems important this episode is Helen. Helen is very clearly James’s love interest, and she reminds one vaguely of Hayley Atwell. She lives in a big beautiful farmhouse and wears a snood, which becomes her so well that I start searching for snoods to buy. I refuse to cut my own hair and I won’t put that responsibility on my wife, so a snood seems like a good hair-containing option. Well done, The Past.
Helen’s main role this episode is to get along well with James and assure him that Siegfried is actually nice. She has them out there because a calf has a hurt leg. My notes here just say “IT’S A BIG-EYED CALF OMG LOOK AT IT.” If you watch this series for nothing else, do it for the extremely good cow content. Also, my heart just burst again thinking of Siegfried telling the calf’s mother not to worry.
Through some cat-related mishaps, Siegfried finds out James was drunk the previous day and he fires him. But! A call in the night over a cow in labor gives James a shot at redemption, which he attains by shoving his arm up a cow for MANY hours while it’s having contractions, which coincidentally is how the first book in the series starts. Did I cry when the baby cow was finally born? Yes. Yes, that for sure happened.
James stands up to Siegfried, and in response, Siegfried hires him as his assistant. And in the final scene, James is in the terrible car and doesn’t apply the brakes on the tight turns, because he has GROWN. What low-stakes drama, what vintage aesthetics, what likable characters. I am all about this episode.
Items for Pondering
• Can the episode be narrated over a shot of a baby cow just hanging out in a field? Because I would also watch that.
• Should we all start wearing sweater vests and snoods?
• Is it really impressive that Siegfried’s dog likes James if it is, as it appears to be, a Golden Retriever, aka the most friendly dog of all time?
• If I start building a moss-covered, dry-stone fence on my street, will the neighbors notice?