Review: Fight off the Sunday scaries with this pair of cozy British dramas
As if we lost the War of Independence even as we won it, America has long looked to our former British overlords and overladies for cultural relief. We turn to the U.K. as a tonic for our drab or debilitating times, looking across the water with a sort of post-lapsarian longing to a quaint land of adorable accents and alternative spellings, of village greens and stacked stone walls, of Sherlock Holmes and Bertie Wooster, mews and views and sealing wax.
The proliferation of platforms over the last couple of decades, and the slowdown of local production during the pandemic, have made British imports ubiquitous across television (including two Anglophile subscription services, Acorn TV and BritBox). But for many years they were nearly the sole province of PBS, largely presented under the umbrellas of “Masterpiece” (originally “Masterpiece Theatre”) and “Mystery!” (now “Masterpiece Mystery”); they are still in the game.
PBS is offering a Sunday night double feature of the late-Victorian female detective series “Miss Scarlet & the Duke” and a new “All Creatures Great and Small,” based on the autobiographical novels of James Herriot (pen name of James Alfred Wight), about a Scottish veterinarian getting his feet wet literally, and very muddy, in the Yorkshire Dales in the late 1930s. It is not a bad way to wind up your weekend, such as it may be, each series offering cases solved and neither demanding more from a viewer than to sink into their other worlds.
In the pastoral idyll that is “Creatures,” Nicholas Ralph plays James, who after many rejections finds himself tenuously attached to Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West), huffing, puffing animal doctor to the fictional village of Darrowby. Siegfried’s mildly wild, much younger brother Tristan (Callum Woodhouse, a good physical match for West), arrives after a while from college in evening clothes — a character who in a more dramatic drama might be bound for tragedy, but this is not that series. Wise housekeeper Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley) subtly keeps them in order; Rachel Shenton plays the farmer’s daughter who piques James’ interest; and the late Diana Rigg joins in as a very rich lady with a fat little dog. Some characters are more troublesome than others, but there are no villains here, and there is a great pleasure merely in seeing James accepted by the locals as a regular part of their life: Who does not want that validation?
From slapstick comedy to snooty stoicism, British television is a soothing escape from troubled times. Plus all those great accents.
Herriot’s books were previously adapted for television, also under the title “All Creatures Great and Small,” over several series and sundry specials from 1978 to 1990; “Young James Herriot” in 2011 depicted his college years. There have been movies too, none of which I’ve seen. (Nor, for that matter, have I read the novels.) Even the threat of animals in distress is enough to put me off, so I approached the series with some trepidation, and there are indeed some tense, even life and death moments with the great and small creatures met here. For the most part things do turn out well, and this is true too of the human drama, which for all its passages of open conflict, passive aggression, comical missteps and quiet regret inclines toward amity; the tone is more humorous than not, and even when things are a little rough between the characters, the camera and the soundtrack turn to the landscape for romance. (Even a tractor ride may bring in sweeping strings.) We are practically being instructed to fall in love with these people and this place, and it is an easy instruction to follow.
“Miss Scarlet & the Duke” is a six-part series that, in the contemporary way, mixes episodic cases with some long-arc business. Created by Rachael New, it is possibly not even the latest in a long line of stories in which an amateur or private detective joins forces and/or spars with an official member of the constabulary, and of the subset in which there is a romantic spark between them — as in “Castle” or “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”— often signified by exasperated bantering, a la Beatrice and Benedick.
Miss Scarlet (Kate Phillips, whom you may have seen in “Wolf Hall,” “Peaky Blinders” and “The Crown”), whose name comes of course from the game Clue, is the daughter of a policeman turned private detective who, like Jacob Marley, is dead to begin with but appears intermittently in his old office to advise his daughter. (He is not a ghost — this is not that sort of series — except in dramatic terms; technically, he is a figment of her imagination. “Do not be cross,” he says. “It is you putting these words in my mouth.”) Scarlet has been raised from childhood to understand the workings of crime, and so, notwithstanding the sexual prejudice, she is ready to go when it becomes necessary to take over the family business. The long arc mentioned above will revolve around questions Scarlet has about her father’s death.
British comedian Matt Berry is having an American moment in “What We Do in the Shadows,” “Disenchantment,” “Toast of London” and “Year of the Rabbit.”
The Duke is Scotland Yard inspector William Wellington (Stuart Martin, a Hugh Jackman type), hence the nickname, which isn’t much used; her father’s old associate, he is also her childhood friend and — if only for the space of a much discussed, much dismissed youthful kiss — nearly an old flame. The usual will-they-won’t-they dynamic maintains here.
Scarlet pays little regard to propriety, bustling in where she doesn’t officially belong — whether a private club, the morgue or anywhere in London alone after dark — or greeting Wellington in his own office, all of Scotland Yard powerless to stop her. At the same time, she’ll exploit her 19th-century femininity from time to time, requesting smelling salts or a glass of water to gain time to snoop around, or batting her eyelids a little when necessary; she may depend on someone stronger than herself to do some punching and wrestling, though she is the rescuer here as often as, if not more often than, the rescued.
The series takes a tour of contemporary issues (women’s suffrage) and fads (death photography) as the sleuthing progresses. There are gay-themed storylines laced around Andrew Gower’s Rupert, variously a suitor, friend and investor in Scarlet’s agency. Ansu Kabia plays Moses, a Jamaican bouncer at what we would call a strip club, who becomes a situational ally; he’s underused — you could as easily build a series around this partnership as the one in the title. And, like “All Creatures Great and Small,” “Miss Scarlet” comes with a wise, supportive housekeeper of its own (Cathy Belton, as Ivy).
It’s an easy-to-take show that does most everything well, looks good, has a lively pulse. The mysteries are suitably twisty but not so obscure that you won’t solve a few before the detectives do. There is a bit of action (one episode is a mostly cat-and-mouse game in an abandoned prison), a bit of social righteousness. If it is more melodramatic than realistic (“Stop the execution!” Scarlet will get to cry in one scene), it is also not “dark” or gritty.” A romp with murder, and bustles.
Series like these both celebrate the old times and the fact that the times are changing. “Old ways are the old ways for a reason, lad,” a farmer full of medical folk wisdom tells James in “All Creatures Great and Small.” “These modern ways have their merits too,” James replies. It’s on that fulcrum that these satisfying entertainments balance.
‘Miss Scarlet & the Duke’ and ‘All Creatures Great and Small’
‘Miss Scarlet & the Duke’
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Rated: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)
‘All Creatures Great and Small’
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rated: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
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