PBS Makes Reboot of TV Golden Oldie, All Creatures Great And Small, into a Feel-Good Screening Hit with Characters You Like and Admire
-- By Elyse Sommer
We continue to be barraged by deeply disturbing events close to home as well as far away. Consequently, many of us, yours truly included, often turn it all off for a few hours of escape from reality with enjoyable, soothing entertainment.
As always, PBS Masterpiece has provided us with just what we need, at the right time: A Masterpiece reboot of All Creatures Great and Small. The hugely popular stories written by British veterinarian James "Alf" White under the pen name of James Herriot were previously published as books, filmed and televised.
While I'm old enough, I did not see the All Creatures TV adaptation that aired between 1978 and 1990, nor did I read any of the Herriot books. But previous familiarity is not needed to tap into all the pleasures of this long-ago favorite. If you never knew the three veterinarians around whom the stories revolve, this latest permutation stands on its own with its smart blend of proven old pleasures plus a full awareness of the times during which we are watching it now.
That present is actually deepened and enriched now as the reboot smartly allows a darker mood to nudge its way into Christmas dinner during the Season 3 finale. In short, this is exactly the right way to make a new version of an established hit fresh and successful again.
The gorgeous cinematography, script and performances won the first two seasons of seven episodes each enough enthusiastic new fans to seed two more seasons. By the time, Season 3 ended, I too was hooked. I can't wait to see what happens at Skedale House when Season 4 arrives next year, especially after Season 3 nudged this update towards the more problematic aspects of the veterinarian household, the farmers' reliance on their animals' well being and the actuality of the Second World War bringing its painful memories and uncertain futures. The chief reason you don't need to be familiar with the original series is that in order to let some more painful events to darken the constantly feel-good subplots, the characters needed to be reinterpreted. That is especially true of the women, who are very important here and add strong emotional resonance.
And so, we do know some of what to expect next year: Ben Vanstone, head writer and executive producer, is again in charge and the same outstanding cast will be back on board. That's the fictionalized James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph), Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West), Siegfried's brother Tristan (Callum Woodhouse), Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley), Helen Alderson (Rachel Shenton) and Mrs. Pumphrey (Patricia Hodge). Hodge replaced Diana Riggs, who died, and thus added another touch of sadness to blend with all fun and positivity. Tristan took off for active duty at the end of Season 3 and while we know he survived, we don't know how the war might have changed him.
If watching the series has made you curious to know more about its history, you can spend some time with Herriot on the page as the books have never gone out of print. The digital edition I borrowed has a biography of the author that alone is worth a look. The 1978-1990 TV series is available on BritBox.
Naturally, there are plenty of grittier stories to watch on screen courtesy of Netflix, HBO and other streaming platforms. And Broadway is doing its utmost to lure audiences back to theaters.
Unsurprisingly, the re-openings on Broadway include some golden oldie revivals. The most common lure back to live theater means a musical. Yet, when it comes to golden oldies here, the lead characters are often not nearly as likeable as the Masterpiece reboot. Unlike the veterinarians in All Creatures who always do the right thing, some of the most popular shows count on ear-pleasing tunes and ticket-selling stars to fill the seats, even if their characters are hardly kind and caring.
Thus, the murderous Sweeney Todd is back. The ultra immersive Here Lies Love, about Imelda Marcos, the wife of the corrupt Philippines president, has finally made it to Broadway (ironically, a real Marcos is actually back in power). The dishonest Professor Hill of The Music Man does reform, but it's Hugh Jackman, not his character's do-the-right-thing DNA, that will secure the show's ranking with golden- era classics. For me, the one musical that also has consistent depth and fresh relevance whenever you see it -- not to mention its musical riches -- is Fiddler on the Roof. In fact, another way to pass the time meaningfully and enjoyably is to watch the wonderful documentary about that show, which is still available to Thirteen's Passport members: Fiddled on the Roof--Miracle of Miracles.
Before I leave, a word about the first names of the Farnon brothers in the All Creatures Great and Small that I highlighted in my blog post: Yes, their father was a Wagner opera enthusiast!