Column: ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ has been a disappointment. And it may be my own fault

A country veterinarian checks a cow
James Herriot, played by Nicholas Ralph, in “All Creatures Great and Small.”
(Matt Squire/Playground Television (UK) Ltd.)

Although I am part of it, there are times when I do not understand the mainstream media at all.

The groupthink rush to be all in on something that has just begun. The seemingly willful disregard for and dismissal of tradition in favor of a new, modern narrative. The arrogance of telling the world “this is just what we need at this moment,” as if people’s needs were all the same or certain people and platforms were arbiters of what serves the common good.

In other words, I do not love the new “All Creatures Great and Small,” currently airing Sundays on PBS Masterpiece. And I’m tired of people, including critics whose opinions I respect, telling me I should.


I had been very much looking forward to the series; I‘m a big fan of British television, particularly during times of crisis, and I love James Herriot’s books with the kind of fanatical love reserved for works first encountered and appreciated during childhood. I re-read them often, including during the early days of the pandemic, and while the older me recognizes a highly romanticized, white male-centric view of social history when I see one, I love them still. For their celebration of the hard, often brutal work of farming and its vulnerability to fate; their recognition of the realities of rural poverty, neglect and old age; their celebration of love, friendship and the natural world; and, of course, their dedication to exploring the deep and intricate bonds between people and animals of all types.

But above all I loved them for their panoply of vividly drawn people. Like Charles Dickens, Herriot was able to breathe life into an astounding assortment of disparate characters, often engaged in unforgettable incidents. And as with any adaptations of Dickens, I went into “All Creatures Great and Small” with the knowledge that it could not include all or even most of them. I’ve watched too many of the best minds of my generation fall into nitpicking hysteria over the necessary changes every adaptation requires, I told myself calmly, to count on a replication of the magic, pathos and hilarity of the book, especially given my bone-deep personal relationship to it.

But I did expect it to at least resemble the book on which it is based, in tone and intention if not fan-scrupulous detail. But where the literary “All Creatures Great and Small,” along with its many sequels, was a panoramic portrait of a certain time and place, this version is essentially an alternative family drama with ailing cows, suspicious farmers and a lot of pub scenes.

To be sure, there is peace and joy to be found in the wide, swooping shots of the Yorkshire countryside, the period outerwear and the variety of animals, which outnumber the human cast. Humor and gentle drama infuse the trials of this James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph), who, as the new veterinary assistant to Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West), must navigate the unfamiliar terrain of the fictional town of Darrowby in the early 1940s.

As an added pleasure, Ralph gives Herriot a fine Glasgow accent, which the books, written in the King’s English, did not, and Diana Rigg puts in one last wonderful performance as the iconic Mrs. Pumphrey, whose lavish attention to her over-pampered Pekingese provides sharp contrast with the mucky reality of farm life, where an ailing animal can ruin the family fortune.

“All Creatures Great and Small” and “Miss Scarlet & the Duke” are ideal for the long tradition of American viewers looking across the pond for cultural relief.

Jan. 17, 2021

Characters in 1940s attire
Samuel West, from left, Nicholas Ralph, Callum Woodhouse and Anna Madeley in “All Creatures Great and Small.”
(Matt Squire/Playground Television (UK) Ltd.)

Such pleasures, however, were regularly shattered by incidents that had been, as I noted to myself with growing rage, wrenched from their original context and brutally massaged into compliance with larger story lines.

And, more important, as I informed my increasingly alarmed family, by main characters that bore the names James Herriot the writer had given them and very little else.

My anxiety spiked almost immediately with the introduction of Siegfried, one of literature’s most gloriously contradictory and memorable characters. For the purposes of a television drama, it would be difficult to capture a man who, in Herriot’s description, was by turns scattered and obsessively precise, generous and suddenly fault-finding, a man who gently emphasized the importance of forbearance before flying into a temper, who was somehow catnip to women and oblivious to that fact.

But the PBS series doesn’t even seem to try. Instead, we get a glowering, judgmental, perpetually dissatisfied tyrant who, in early episodes, is perpetually on the brink of firing James and derailing his younger brother’s veterinary career.

Tristan (Callum Woodhouse), meanwhile, has been transformed from a dapper, high-spirited charmer who blithely ignores his brother’s threats while effortlessly getting himself out of scrapes into a sulky, immature shirker who, in early days, sees James as competition for the brotherly approval he so clearly craves.

Attempting to manage all this familial tension is Siegfried’s housekeeper Mrs. Hall (Anna Madley), a negligible character in the book brought now to center stage as Siegfried’s conscience, and kitted out with a back story that includes a stint in the Women’s Royal Naval Service during World War I.


Mrs. Hall went far in saving the series for me. I am always thrilled when a television adaptation explores the too-often overlooked female characters of classic fiction (see also: Mrs. Hudson in “Sherlock”), and having created a multi-dimensional character in place of a side note, narrative accommodations must be made. But I couldn’t help feeling this new Mrs. Hall could have been just as easily added to a household in which the Farnon brothers hewed a bit closer to their origins.

Adaptations always deviate from their original material to become very different, er, animals. That is as it should be. There’s no point in adapting something that you’re not interested in enhancing or exploring, and the greatest tribute that can be paid to any work is an adaptation that expands its borders while staying true to its spirit. Watching “All Creatures Great and Small,” however, it was hard not to think that the creators had downsized that spirit by taking too much license and not enough chances.

One of the reasons Herriot’s work remains so beloved is his ability to conjure a world with which most of us are unfamiliar, from the great looming fells to the wild assortment of people who lived there. In the books, James is as much a narrative guide to that world as a main character in it. Yes, he tells his own story, and chronicles the testy relationship between the Farnon brothers, but his main concern is the world around him. And whether it’s “Peaky Blinders” or “The Mandalorian,” world-building is what television does now. So why put so much effort into having James navigate some jerry-rigged family drama when you could be sending him out into the glories of the Dales?

Why not make the television series I long to see?

And there it is. The cry of every fan who has ever taken issue with an adaptation of beloved work. Herriot stans may not be as ruthless as their [name a comic book franchise ] peers, but we are just as guilty of believing our interpretation of canon is best. We come to adaptations because of our devotion to the original and then spend all our time finding fault, complaining when it is too faithful (as many found the first two “Harry Potter” films) or, as is more often the case, when it seems unnecessarily divergent. When I was a television critic, I always tried to view an adaptation on its own terms: a series could be a wildly unfaithful adaptation but still be a pretty good show.

Which turned out to be the case here.

Grumbling in perpetual outrage — Siegfried would never say that! And Tristan wouldn’t care! — I continued to devour all the episodes made available to the press until I finally realized that I was clearly happier with what I considered a very flawed adaptation of “All Creatures Great and Small” than many other television shows of my acquaintance. So probably it would be best to stop the constant comparisons and approach the series as if I had never heard of James, Siegfried, Tristan or Darrowby ever before.

Once I did that, I found all the joy, solace and gentle but effective drama that had been previously promised. And if what I really want are the stories and characters I loved in the books, well, the books are right there.


‘All Creatures Great and Small on Masterpiece’

Where: KOCE

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)