New ‘All Creatures’ Evokes Old Series Without Imitating It

I think I was about 10 when I first watched ‘All Creatures Great and Small’, the 70s tv series (based on the books written by Alf Wight, about his life as a vet in the Yorkshire Dales). Mum and I would sit on the sofa, probably with a cup of tea and some cake, and watch an episode together after school. We only got to the end of series 1, and never got round to continuing them. 8 years later, we have just re-watched series 1, in light of the new adaptation that has been airing over the last few weeks!

Robert Hardy as Siegfried Farnon, Christopher Timothy as James Herriot, and Peter Davison as Tristan Farnon
in the 1978 adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small

While the old series is certainly dated in places, it still holds a cosy charm that I think can’t be replicated – which is why I’m glad that the new series didn’t attempt to recreate it. Instead of trying to attach itself to the existing world we know and love, this adaptation has built its own presence beside it, with a similar atmosphere but a slightly different tone. There’s a more modern edge without taking it out of the time period completely, and each character has more agency and purpose.

I’ll admit, I was sceptical at first.

I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to watch it. But after hearing that my Grandparents had enjoyed it, that was the seal of approval, which meant I should give it a watch – and I’m glad I did!

Rachel Shenton as Helen Alderson and Nicholas Ralph as James Herriot

Initially, I was a little disappointed that they didn’t have the original theme tune, but it was a nice touch to have it playing during the end credits of the first episode. I know some were upset that this hasn’t continued for the rest of the episodes, but I think that would have been a bit excessive; treading too much on the old series. Having it in the first one was just a subtle nod, before they made the rest their own. I now actually love the new theme – it feels unique in itself, and has motifs that evoke the old tune without encroaching on its distinctive melody.

James Herriot is played brilliantly by Nicholas Ralph:
Christopher Timothy / Nicholas Ralph as James Herriot

I immediately warmed to Nick’s portrayal, with his gentle Scottish lilt (as Alf himself had a Glaswegian accent), awkward charm and apologetic expressions. One difference I noticed particularly was how the old James (Christopher Timothy) seemed quite competent and calm in the first episode, but then comes across as quite bumbling and dopey in later episodes. While this is part of why we love him, it seems a bit inconsistent. Whereas, in the new series, we see this awkward side of him straight away – he misses a bus, struggles to become accustomed to Siegfried, and gets kicked by a cow. As well as making the character more consistent, this also beautifully highlights his characteristic determination, as he walks through the rain to his interview, puts up with Siegfried’s trials, and gets back up multiple times to continue treating the cow.

Nicholas Ralph as James Herriot

I also like how Nicholas conveys James’ strong sense of integrity in such a sympathetic way without seeming sanctimonious. Where sometimes I had found the old James a little self-righteous, I connected on a more personal level with this James. Though I will always love the original characters, I am gladly accepting these portrayals too, and they’ve done a great job of making the characters seem particularly real and accessible.

Samuel West makes a wonderful Siegfried Farnon, complementing the late Robert Hardy’s iconic portrayal:
Robert Hardy / Samuel West as Siegfried Farnon

Robert Hardy just WAS Siegfried, with his own eccentricity shining through as he had such a specific way of talking: jutting his chin out, the iconic frown, raising and lowering volume in quick succession and varying the speed of speech, all that sort of thing. However, I am incredibly impressed by how Samuel has approached the character.

Samuel West as Siegfried Farnon

As if sensitive to how beloved Robert’s version is, he subtly evokes the recognisable traits of the Siegfried we remember, with a twinkle in his eye and an air of unpredictability, but also gives him a softer edge. This goes along with his storyline in this series, where he has a closer relationship with Mrs Hall and a heavier sense of past loss attached to his character. Making him more sympathetic, he doesn’t mess James about quite so much – though his contradictory nature is delightful to watch in the first couple of episodes as he teases James, who is just settling in.

Callum Woodhouse’s portrayal of Tristan jarred with me a little at first, but that’s more to do with how the character is written:
Peter Davison / Callum Woodhouse as Tristan Farnon

Tristan was my favourite character in the old series, so I knew I’d have a hard time adjusting to a new rendition of him. Peter Davison managed to capture his mischievous, rebellious nature yet make him so lovable and gentle. He had perfected the cheeky schoolboy grin, along with the sympathy-inducing puppy dog expression he would always make when he was in trouble, with the slanted eyebrows and sad eyes:

Callum’s Tristan has the mischievous smile, but I found he was lacking the sympathy side a bit. Peter’s version was idle and rebellious, but he was dandyish and had an upbeat positivity. Instead, this Tristan gives a sense of wanting to cause trouble in an almost malicious way, and I wasn’t able to connect with him easily. It wasn’t until the episode where he spends time proving himself to Siegfried that I actually sympathised with him properly. Mostly I just found him a bit annoying, though the dynamic between him and the other characters works well – and this version is probably closer to how he was in the book/in real life. Having watched the fifth episode, I realise that I have warmed to him a lot more now.

While in the old series, Tristan and James got on well and would often tell each other things freely while keeping them from Siegfried (for fear of causing an outburst in reaction), here there is more tension between them at the start. But this works well to add more drama to the second episode. As their relationship progresses to a friendship, their dynamic has the same feel even if they don’t seem quite as close.

There’s also a sort of cyclical structure as their roles reverse – I like how they’ve used parallels and symbolic aspects to show progressions and mirroring throughout the episodes. One of them is in episode 2, when James has to pick up Tristan’s suitcase at the beginning (a nod to when this happens in the original), then at the end it is Tristan who has to pick up James’ – showing how the tables have turned. Another example is when Tricki-woo is misbehaving, and Siegfried talks about him while looking at Tristan, which creates a parallel between the younger Farnon and the dog with bad habits, so we see them improve in their ways throughout the episode… (though unfortunately it turns out that Tricki has not been so well-behaved).

Uncertain about Helen (Rachel Shenton):
Carol Drinkwater / Rachel Shenton as Helen Alderson

More so than Tristan, Helen is the one character I haven’t quite got used to yet. I know that they have consciously given the female characters more of a role and greater agency in this series – which has worked beautifully for Mrs Hall. But I haven’t warmed to Helen at all unfortunately. I understand that they wanted to make her more independent, strong-willed and self-sufficient, but she comes across as brash, dismissive and quite one-dimensional, ironically. Rachel plays her convincingly, and I like her confidence and knowing-look, but we haven’t seen much of a gentler side from her yet.

Nicholas Ralph as James Herriot / Rachel Shenton as Helen Alderson

I really liked Carol Drinkwater’s portrayal of Helen: she was slightly unnatural at first, but gradually grew into the character and exuded such a warmth and kindness that I do miss from this Helen. I don’t mind that she has a different personality here, that’s fine – it’s the fact we haven’t seen much range from her yet, and she seems to look down on James. She’s also surprisingly rude to him sometimes. For example, in one episode he offers to give her a lift home, then halfway through the journey they pass her rumoured-partner Hugh (Matthew Lewis – Neville from Harry Potter!), whom she insists she isn’t with, and she flirts with him in front of James before leaving with him! I’m honestly wondering if Helen and James will even get together at all…

Anna Madeley is a grounding presence as Mrs Hall, bringing a real warmth and sensibility to complete the group:
Mary Hignett / Anna Madeley as Mrs Hall

And then we have who I consider to be the stand-out character of the show. She’s the heart of this series, the moral compass and the voice of reason. Making Mrs Hall a main character was the best decision they could have made for this adaptation. I connected with her straight away, and she is fast becoming one of my favourite characters of all time.

Anna Madeley as Mrs Hall

The original Mrs Hall (Mary Hignett) was a minor character, but she still had a kindness about her and a sense of knowing. She had a charming relationship with Tristan, and always kept on good terms with Siegfried and James. But here, they’ve added so much more dimension to her character, given her a backstory (as a result, we see a range of emotions beneath her calm exterior), and built her relationships with the other characters. She is almost like a wife to Siegfried (though platonic, they share a close bond), a mother figure to Tristan, and a sort of sisterly presence for James. Honest, thoughtful and practical, she’s always looking out for others (e.g. helping Helen by looking after her younger sister – another addition to the character list). There’s also a few surprises about her along the way that make her probably the most intriguing character of the series.

Overall, there’s a cosiness to the setting, a sense of cohesion in the story arc so far, and a familiarity to the characters and story.
Callum Woodhouse as Tristan Farnon, Nicholas Ralph as James Herriot, and Samuel West as Siegfried Farnon

It’s fantastic that this reboot is introducing All Creatures to a whole new audience, and getting fans to return to it again. I’m also very pleased that it has been received so well! I believe there are plans for another series – so I’m hoping there will be more to come from these characters…

The 1978 adaptation with Christopher Timothy, Robert Hardy, Peter Davison, Mary Hignett and Carol Drinkwater / The 2020 adaptation with Anna Madeley, Samuel West, Nicholas Ralph, Rachel Shenton and Callum Woodhouse.

The final installment of this 6-episode season airs tonight at 9pm (6th Oct 2020).

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