Friday, August 24, 2012

All Creatures Great and Small (Series 1)


A perfectly serviceable adaptation of James Herriot's beloved semi-autobiographical books.  The books themselves are highly episodic in nature, and so lend themselves to adaptation for television.  This first series of 13 hour long episodes starts off with young James, a recent veterinary school graduate, interviewing for a position with Siegfried Farnon, the local vet in the tiny Yorkshire town of Darrowby.  The show tracks his various escapades dealing with the local farmers and citizenry, as well as the challenges of working for Siegfried and dealing with Farnon the Younger, a young veterinary student by the name of Tristan (their mother was a big Wagner fan) with a penchant for late nights, good ale, and female company.  Mid-1930s Yorkshire style, as portrayed by the BBC, though, so no seedy stuff.  Just enough to cause the occasional comic hangover or to justify coaxing James to cover for him when romance (or a good pub visit) calls.

The show started filming in the late seventies, and it looks it.  Not the set design, mind you--that's pretty consistently 1930s.  But the film quality screams 1970s.  Lots of stationary cameras and rooms that feel like sets--that sort of thing.  On the other hand, near as I can figure, Christopher Timothy (who plays James) really does stick his arm up a cow on more than one occasion.  I would be very interested to know just how much of the veterinary work he performed was staged, and how much was, well, real (or real-ish).  It certainly looked real, and it's not like they had the technology (or the budget) to fake it.

Speaking of Timothy, he's a decent enough James, albeit not quite so long-suffering and cheerful as Book James.  But then, perhaps frustration makes for better television.  His personality is a bit overshadowed by the Farnon Brothers, but as I recall they always were the larger-than-life characters in the books--James himself was rather quiet and unassuming.  Peter Davison is appropriately boisterous and carefree and unabashed as Tristan (a role that was significantly expanded after Timothy was injured in a car accident which which severely limited his ability to film any scenes outside the studio, like, say, on farms, with cows and horses and such).  Helen, the bell of Darrowby, is played by Carol Drinkwater (insert 'tall drink of water' joke here) with a quiet, luminous grace.  Drinkwater portrays Helen as an intelligent woman with laughing eyes and a streak of humor a mile long.  She is lovely enough to be believable as the town hottie, yet still looks like a real person and not something conjured up by a plastic surgeon.  Also, she manages to exude femininity while still looking, well, hardy enough to survive on a Yorkshire farm and be an actual helpmate to a large-animal vet.

But the real star of the show here is Robert Hardy as the good-natured but infuriatingly forgetful Seigfried Farnon (fans of the book will remember well Siegfried's habits and know exactly what I mean).  For example, when [SPOILER] James is dating Helen, Siegfried encourages him not to lollygag in his courtship, as a woman of Helen's caliber is not likely to be on the market long and James would be lucky to have her.  This advice is duly heeded, and the two become engaged.  However, when it turns out that the wedding will cause some inconvenience to the firm, Siegfried lectures James for being so hasty to rush into marriage.  When James protests that he did so at least in part at Siegfried's suggestion, Siegfried interrupts to graciously and affectionately 'forgive' James for his youthful foolishness.  This pattern is repeated many, many times, much to James' frustration.  As James himself notes, it's not the conflicting instructions that grate; it's the infernal forgiveness he extends when James has, in fact, been doing precisely what Siegfried himself told him to do!

Robert Hardy clearly has a blast with this character and relishes all his quirks and foibles.  After all, Siegfried is, at heart, a kind and generous man.  He is likable, honest, and in most ways a good boss and a great friend.  And even when he's being a stinker (on purpose or otherwise), you just can't help liking him.

The show, like the books, is surprisingly dark at times.  Farming in Yorkshire is hard, and illness and tragedy don't discriminate.  Hardworking farmers who are barely holding on suffer hardship after hardship; lonely people lose beloved pets; and when mad cow disease strikes in Darrowby, the effects can be devastating.  Still, Herriot is deft at inserting more lighthearted touches, so viewers don't get too bogged down in the occasionally depressing reality of Yorkshire life.

Bottom line:  It's a fun show, great for fans of the books or animal lovers in general. (Though fair warning, it's a show about vets, so many animals do die, including at least one dog.)  Given the sedate 1970s BBC pacing, I'm not sure it would be quite as enjoyable if you haven't read the books (which you should totally do, because they are great).  But I enjoyed it, and I look forward to watching the later seasons.

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