I’m still working through exactly how I feel about this, but the thing I have found most comforting in these wild and disorienting first few weeks of 2021 is a show where a gentle, loving veterinarian in 1930s England sticks his hand up large animal orifices over and over again. He does it to cows, generally because they’re struggling to give birth to a calf in a bad position. He does it to horses to figure out why they’re in pain. He does it carefully and compassionately because he loves animals and wants to help them and their owners, but his face always registers an unmistakable grimace of discomfort every time he once again has to roll up his sleeves and get mucky.
The show I’m describing is the new PBS Masterpiece and Channel 5 adaptation of the James Herriot series All Creatures Great and Small, based on Herriot’s semi-autobiographical novels about his life as a veterinarian in the Yorkshire Dales. (Herriot is a pen name, by the way. The vet’s real name was Alf Wight.) It’s not the first Herriot adaptation — there is a much-beloved BBC series that ran for several years beginning in 1978, there’s been a stage adaptation, and there was a Young James Herriot project in 2011. But the familiarity of the material is part of what makes it so immediately appealing to me. I read the Herriot books in middle school, and we had a picture-book adaptation of one of his stories when I was growing up. The cozy, well-known contours of this story are a feature, not a bug.
Still, the new series is completely charming on its own, entirely apart from whether you grew up with Herriot as a nostalgia figure. Nicholas Ralph plays Herriot as he sets out for his very first job as a veterinarian. It’s his first time living away from home, his first time working with farm animals who actually live on farms, and it’s also his first time trying to negotiate a working relationship with a boss, the head veterinarian Siegfried Farnon, played by Samuel West. West is just fantastic as Farnon, and when Farnon’s younger brother Tristan (Callum Woodhouse) shows up, the series really kicks into gear as the three very different personalities all bounce against one another. One of the new series’s biggest draws, and one of the few noticeable departures from the original books, is that it gives the vets’ housekeeper Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley) a much larger role. She gets her own narrative arc, and she also helps tie together all the separate veterinary cases into a more unified story.
The beats of the first few episodes are so instantly predictable. Things go right but then wrong but then right again in exactly the rhythms you’re imagining, and young Herriot is obviously capable while also being impressively naïve. Horses kick him and he falls backward and gets covered in manure. He gets scared by a massive bull. His shoes are wrong. There are so many awkward new-to-the-job tropes that you could imagine being frustrated by just how little Herriot seems to know, except that the direction and score of the series constantly signal that he’s going to be all right.
There’s a scene early in the new series that I remember vividly from the books. Although his mentor Farnon comes with him on several of his first cases, Herriot’s made a huge mistake (which I will not spoil) and is trying to get back into Farnon’s good graces. So when a phone call comes in the middle of the night that there’s a cow struggling to give birth to a calf, Herriot decides to go out himself rather than wake up Farnon. He gets to the farm and starts working, but hours later he’s still there, exhausted, sore, filthy, freezing, and really despairing that this calf is stuck beyond saving. He’s nearly in tears lying there in the dark barn, with his arm up to his shoulder inside this cow as he tries to maneuver this calf out. It just won’t come. The head’s gotten twisted backward, and Herriot just can’t shift it enough to wiggle the head into the right position. As a last-ditch effort, he tries to loop a length of cable around the unborn calf’s teeth, hoping that if he can get the cable into place, he can use it to pull the head in the right direction. If he can’t, both the cow and the calf will likely die. So he’s in this barn in the middle of the night with numb fingers, trying to force a cord between a fetal calf’s teeth, and everything about it seems impossible.
As much as anything, this was what impressed me when I first read the books, and what impressed me again watching the series. Large animal veterinary work is so physical — often literally crushing — and there’s something so lonely and Sisyphean and also very, very simple about this young man doing backbreaking work for hours trying to help this calf be born. The drama of All Creatures Great and Small is life and death, and it’s also remarkably tiny. It’s one man, maybe one or two anxious farmers, and one very tired cow. And yet in spite of the job’s brutal bodily bluntness, Herriot’s descriptions of himself in the book and his depiction in this new series are incredibly tender. It is one of the gentlest, sweetest depictions of masculinity I ever encountered in my young reading life. Herriot is not brooding, not wounded, not thorny and dangerous, not distant or unemotional. He’s practical and patient. He loves the animals he cares for so much (even the ones he finds ridiculous or frightening), and he never confuses directness with harshness. He hates it when he can’t save an animal, but he is not afraid of helping animals die peacefully when there’s no other choice. He’s not infallible, and when he does make mistakes, he admits to them without defensiveness or anger.
As an adult, it strikes me watching All Creatures Great and Small that its kind, softhearted masculinity is allowed because animals are like a get-out-of-jail-free card for male crying. Blatant emotion that gets framed as weakness in other contexts is suddenly allowable when it’s a man beside himself when he has to put down an animal. In that way, Herriot’s books and this new series might look like dodging the issue a little; male weeping is fine for horses, but not for humans. But that’s not the case. If the animals help open the door to male tenderness, All Creatures Great and Small provides all kinds of other outlets for Herriot to direct that same sensibility into his human relationships. It’s there in his love for his colleagues, and it’s most obviously there in a gloriously slow-burn romance story that happens over the season. He can cry for horses, be forthrightly vulnerable with other people, and still be the hero of the story.
I hesitate to tell you whether Herriot manages to help that first calf. Part of what makes the series so effective is that he often heals his patients, but it’s very clear that he can’t save every one of them. There’s always a real chance that he’s not going to be able to help an animal, and All Creatures Great and Small would not work without knowing those stakes. At the same time, the foundation of the series is the rock-solid confidence that Herriot and his colleagues are competent and deeply compassionate. They will do the very best they can. In a hard winter after an already hard year, it feels like such a humane, loving thing to promise.