Why All Creatures Great and Small is About So Much More Than a Charming Country Vet
Poised on the Ledge of WWII, the PBS Series Based on James Herriot’s Life Captures the Writer‘s Ethos
Though he served in the Royal Air Force during World War II, the veterinary surgeon turned bestselling memoirist James Herriot eschewed discussion of that conflict in his 1974 book All Things Bright and Beautiful. “Herriot might have been voicing an understandable desire,” wrote Mitzi Brunsdale in her book James Herriot, “to keep the whole bitter experience as far as possible from his home.”
All Creatures Great and Small, the latest TV adaptation of Herriot’s work (following the BBC series of the same name, which ran from 1978 to 1990) currently airing its third season as part of PBS’s venerable Masterpiece anthology, makes no such choice. Based on the lighthearted reflections that Herriot—or Alf Wight, who wrote under the pseudonym—published between 1970 and 1992, All Creatures Great and Small grapples frequently with the lead-up to the Second World War.
The show’s ensemble—consisting of James (Nicholas Ralph), his employer-turned-partner Siegfried (Samuel West), Siegfried’s impetuous brother, Tristan (Callum Woodhouse), their housekeeper, Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley), and James’s true love, Helen (Rachel Shenton), whom he marries in the third season premiere—are all confronted by signposts on the road to war. Jeeps carrying farmers’ newly enlisted sons seem to perpetually crowd James off the road as he drives out on calls, while the planes pulling his attention towards the sky presage the wartime role this fictionalized Herriot seems predestined to play.
While strolling through his sleepy English farming village of Darrowby in the season premiere, James is accosted by a recruiter. “I’m sure you’re aware of the growing tensions,” the officer says, but James passes him by at the urging of his friends. After all, he’s strolling the town green that day for the purpose of bidding Helen farewell before their wedding the next day. War may be more present than it is in the books, but love is as well, and it functions as an implicit pushback against those growing tensions.
All Creatures Great and Small is a relatively loose adaptation of Herriot’s books, but the third season roughly matches the events of All Things Bright and Beautiful (condensed for American readers from the British volumes Let Sleeping Vets Lie and Vet in Harness). This book, Brunsdale writes, “deliberately celebrates peace against the threat of war. That paradox gives the book both its unifying theme and its dramatic tension, factors that raise All Things Bright and Beautiful beyond the level of pleasant reminiscence to genuine literary achievement.”
Herriot downplayed his own love story in his debut memoir, All Creatures Great and Small (condensed from the English books If Only They Could Talk, It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet, and portions of Let Sleeping Vets Lie), depicting his courtship of Helen with a distinctly self-deprecating tone. After inviting his future wife on a date through “a hoarse croak,” he reflects, “I had done it at last. But did she really want to come out? Had she been hustled into it against her will? My toes curled with embarrassment at the thought, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that for better or for worse it was a step forward.”
By the time of All Things Bright and Beautiful, Herriot reflected on his first two dates with Helen, which consisted of trips “to a dinner dance that wasn’t on and to a cinema showing the wrong film.” When Helen invites him to tea, he presumes “this invitation is just a polite gesture.” The frequently swooning treatment granted to the televised James and Helen—an attraction so profound she broke off her engagement to another man—is barely detectable on the page, no matter how much affection Herriot clearly nurtured for the woman he would marry.
Jeeps carrying farmers’ newly enlisted sons seem to perpetually crowd James off the road as he drives out on calls.
By the time of their wedding, Herriot’s romantic impulse has been suppressed even further. “I can’t remember much,” he writes. “It was a ‘quiet do’ and my main recollection is of desiring to get it all over with as soon as possible.” Such passages form a bracing contrast to the TV version of events. On screen, the wedding is depicted as a warm and romantic affair, one that serves as a culmination to an episode’s worth of merry hijinks involving misplaced rings and a hungover groom.
This is not to say, however, that the episode goes light on discussions of true love, with Mrs. Hall coaching Helen towards the altar via reflections on her own broken marriage. “We were in love,” Mrs. Hall reminisces, though the world’s darkness does encroach on her happiest memory. “Robert were a kind and good man… the [First World] War put paid to that.”
In reality, not only was the wedding of Alf and Joan less poignant than the screen version, but it was markedly less romantic than even the brusque treatment he afforded the day on the page. “It was an incredible relief when Helen and I were ready to drive away,” Wight wrote as Herriot, and this may be due to the unspoken fact that his wedding was overshadowed by distinct notes of pain and loss. While the TV version is attended by James’s loving parents, whose only objection stems from an affectionate desire for him to remain their little boy forever, Herriot’s parents are omitted from the book, presumably because Wight’s own parents strongly disapproved of this union.
“Alf’s mother,” wrote Wight’s son Jim in his book The Real James Herriot, was “a most strong-minded and formidable lady.” During a conversation described as “tense and bitter,” Wight’s mother declared “that no one was good enough for her only son, stating, very emphatically, that Joan was taking her place in his affections… [while] Pop, the eternal pessimist, worried that his son would be unable to support a young wife at such an impecunious stage of his life and he expressed his feelings strongly, though not quite so forcefully as his wife.”
Wight, by way of obliquely defending his soon-to-be wife’s virtue and honor, described her in a letter to his parents as “just an ordinary girl” possessed of “plenty of faults,” going on to assert that she “isn’t the perfect creature” before concluding, “I couldn’t find a better wife if I looked for the rest of my life.” It seems an appropriate tactic for a distinctly humble writer—one who spent his career shirking the glory that might be afforded a bestselling author—yet this wasn’t enough to sway the elder Wights, who boycotted their son’s wedding, a choice that led his future parents-in-law to skip the ceremony as well. “They were aware of the problems between Alf and his parents,” according to Jim Wight, “and, knowing that Alf and Joan wanted a very quiet wedding, they decided to stay at home.”In Darrowby, painful details can be skipped over, replaced by a set of more meaningful anecdotes concerning life, love, and the beauty of the natural world.
If the facts of Alf Wight’s biography bend at times towards emotional strife, then his avatar, James Herriot, lives a sort of ecstatic-truth version of Wight’s life story (to borrow Werner Herzog’s term for the “deeper strata of truth” available through “imagination and stylization”). In Darrowby—Herriot’s name for the lightly fictionalized version of his real Yorkshire village of Thirsk—painful details can be skipped over, replaced by a set of more meaningful anecdotes concerning life, love, and the beauty of the natural world.
While the third season of All Creatures Great and Small is concerned with the impact of a looming war, it’s just as concerned with the impact of love. Not only do James and Helen settle into their amorous early marriage in the bed-sit above Siegfried’s practice (reestablished in the season premiere as Siegfriend and James’s practice, an effort by the elder vet to secure the attention of a younger man whose sense of duty is clearly pulling him towards military service), but Tristan puts aside his oat-sowing ways in order to earnestly court a local lass. And Mrs. Hall, separated from a husband whose onetime abuses are now discussed in franker terms than in any prior season, navigates her burgeoning love for the exceedingly kind man with whom she walks her dog.
Meanwhile, around the margins, James wrestles with his dual feelings of responsibility to his country and his responsibilities at home—in the long run, as Siegfried reminds him, veterinary work that will keep the local farms producing is just as important to the war effort as any feet on the ground could be, and perhaps more so. Yet anyone familiar with Herriot’s life story knows he’s headed away from Darrowby sooner rather than later.Anyone familiar with Herriot’s life story knows he’s headed away from Darrowby sooner rather than later.
The world grew dark around James Herriot, and while on the page, he could place blinders on that fact, to elide it in a screen representation of his work would be to elide verisimilitude. But in one sleepy village in the Yorkshire Dales, love can still abound—which renders the increasingly foreboding series an appropriate evocation of Herriot’s writing. This author was possessed of immense love for his community, and an abiding love for all the world’s creatures, that transcended plot. He didn’t need to tell his own love story in outrageously romantic terms. The very nature of his worldview implied a surfeit of existential love.
In her book on Herriot, Brunsdale identified two questions at the core of his work: “How should we treat our fellow creatures and one another—and the world we all share? How does loving contact with animals help us face the bewildering mixture of triumphs and tragedies that we call the human condition?” They’re questions that the screen version of All Creatures Great and Small can only answer via implication, but when James risks missing his own wedding just to ensure the health and safety of one animal—an essential link in the chain that keeps one farm, and so one community, and so one entire world, running smoothly—that implication is clear: we are all creatures, and to love one is to love the innate potential for goodness in every one.
If any moment in the third season of All Creatures Great and Small echoes All Things Bright and Beautiful, it’s the opening of the second episode—entitled “Honeymoon’s Over”—which sees James hurry home from an early-morning call. “Do you think we’ll make it?” he asks the dog that rode along with him that morning. “I think we just might.” He’s too late to slip into bed with Helen, it turns out. She’s up, standing at the stove, but he can still put his cold hands around her waist and spin her for a moment of newlywed bliss.
In the book, Herriot makes it in time. “As I crawled into bed and put my arm around Helen,” he writes, “it occurred to me, not for the first time, that there are few pleasures in this world to compare with snuggling up to a nice woman when you are half frozen.” He goes on to describe the hardships that face a vet, not least of all the “bone-marrow cold” that results from such pre-dawn excursions. “But since my marriage,” he concludes, “such things were but a dark memory.”
These paired prologues, one for the screen and the other for the page, attest to the slightly different priorities of these two iterations of the same story. But the gesture is the same: nothing in life could be better, and more essential, than a little bit of solid, reliable love. And it may be all we have to hold back the tides of pain that seem forever intent on rising.