A Fond Look Back at All Creatures Great and Small (1978–1990)

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With a reboot (or revival or new version or whatever) coming to PBS Masterpiece in January 2021, I figured it was a good time to revisit the original All Creatures Great and Small (1978-1990). Only the first three seasons are currently available on BritBox, but that’s plenty enough to reacquaint myself with James Herriot, the brothers Siegfried and Tristan Farnon, and James’ love interest Helen, not to mention all the animals and quirky townsfolk of the Yorkshire Dales.

All Creatures Great and Small (1978–1990)

Christopher Timothy as James Herriot.

This isn’t great costume drama, but it is awfully good comfort watching during a global pandemic, that’s for sure! No fancy clothes but lots of humor, warmth, pathos, and nothing that’ll bring you too far down. OK, there’s an occasional animal death, but it’s never gruesome and the characters are very humane about it. The bickering between Siegfried and Tristan will give you plenty of laughs to more than make up for any sad moments. Also, James and Helen’s wobbly romance in the first season is charming as hell.

Robert Hardy, All Creatures Great and Small (1978–1990)

The always delightful Robert Hardy as Siegfried Farnon.

All Creatures Great and Small (1978–1990)

Peter Davison as Tristan Farnon.

The show starts in 1937, and while it’s set in rural Britain, enough period costume details are still there. Helen’s hair is always on point, and village men usually wear hats, for example. Occasionally, James and Tristan take some ladies out to a dance, so we see everyone wearing nicer suits and full gowns. But 90% of the costuming is tweedy and simple.

All Creatures Great and Small (1978–1990)

Carol Drinkwater as Helen in the very first episode, looking perfectly proper for the period.

One thing that’s amazing to discover is how well the production team did with costuming and makeup despite filming a batch of scenes in the London studios and then go off later to location in Yorkshire to film. In her book, Dishing the Dirt: 30 Years Behind The Scenes in Television Make-Up, makeup artist Maggie Thomas said:

“Continuity pictures became so important. For instance, we would always see the vets leaving and arriving at [Skeldale House], although we never ever went inside the real house on location and the costume and make-up had to match up exactly several weeks later when we saw them arrive back in the studio set of [Skeldale House] hall.”

In All Memories Great and Small, costume designer June Hudson agreed on the topic:

“Continuity is one of the greatest challenges for a costume designer. It is one of the hardest things to get right. I would take Polaroids and stick them in my script, next to the scenes, so that when you came to do the studio, you just look at that photograph. It was the only way to do it, otherwise you were never, ever going to get it right. The smallest details, whether a top button was done up, if they wore rings on a different hand, if they had a watch on … the viewer notices, so it is a very tough job.”

All about those details! Also, there was a certain amount of realism. This was the ’70s on the BBC, so no special effects. Certain things with the animals were done live. In his book, Is There Life Outside The Box?: An Actor Despairs, Peter Davison explained:

“People think we cheated, or something. I tell them that the BBC are not going to pay for a stunt cow that I can put my arm up. … The series was set in 1937, when vets didn’t have the luxury of modern 1977 rubber gloves, so therefore neither did the actors portraying them. All we had was a bar of soap, a bucket of warm water, and Jack Watkinson, our veterinary adviser, to show us what to do.”

There’s your historical accuracy for ya!

Robert Hardy, All Creatures Great and Small (1978–1990)

When James, Siegfried, & Tristan are in the vet surgery, they swap a white coat for their tweedy jackets. That’s about it for costume changes.

All Creatures Great and Small (1978–1990)

The rich Mrs. Pumphrey pampers the hell out of her pekingese Tricki-Woo. This also lets us see one of the few dressed-up ladies of town (here, with a bit of Helen).

All Creatures Great and Small (1978–1990)

Tristan, as the younger brother, often wears sporty sweaters. Helen has a hat because she’s visiting in town.

All Creatures Great and Small (1978–1990)

And a lovely ’30s wedding ensemble when James & Helen do tie the knot.

 

Are you a fan of the original All Creatures Great and Small? Will you be watching the new version?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

35 Responses

  1. Shashwat

    This show was such a comfort watch,no wonder people were mad for it in the 20th century(the original run,if it sounds too back in time).
    I watched the series in 2012,and finally learnt that a veteran and a veterinarian were indeed different.As both of them are colloquially abbreviated to “vet”,I remained confused for an embarrassingly long time.

    Reply
  2. Elyse

    Not sure if I’ll watch the new version. This was my childhood! We watched the first 3 seasons on VHS nearly every day during the summer. (None of us liked the actress that replaced Helen in the later seasons, so we never bought the rest of the tapes)

    Reply
    • Elyse

      Also, forgot to add, Alf Wright/James Herriot, required them to be faithful to the book All Creatures Great and Small. The dialogue is practically identical, the issues with the animals are identical, names are identical. The only physical description that stands out as being different is that Sigfried is supposed to be tall and skinny, but I like Robert Hardy, so that slides. They were incredibly accurate with the first season; they were allowed to deviate after that because there wasn’t enough material in that particular book. Also, if you get the audio book, Christopher Timothy reads it and does imitations of all of the voices from the show.

      Reply
  3. Susan Pola Staples

    I loved the original series and all the cast was just perfect, especially Robert Hardy and Tricki-Woo. I’m going to watch the new one for several reasons but mainly for Emma Peel, er Dame Diana Rigg, as Mrs. Pomfrey. Don’t know too much about the cast on the new one. It looks right in pics I’ve seen.

    Reply
  4. LadySlippers

    Oh my goodness! This was something my whole family watched together. And because if the memories, I won’t be watching the reboot.

    Plus, my mom and my aunt (my mom’s identical twin) both loved how the show was so true to the books. When my Auntie died — this series was part of her funeral. 💖

    Reply
  5. Lynne Connolly

    I’ll give it a try, but I loved the original series so much! Because of contractual issues, Carol Drinkwater was replaced by Lynda Bellingham later, but she did just as good a job of Helen.

    Reply
  6. Sarah

    I loved, loved, loved this series–when I first watched it years ago, and more recently, when I watched the available seasons over again. (I wish that BBC would give we poor Yanks ALL the seasons). I therefore have a chip on my shoulder about the new version–who could possibly replace Robert Hardy, with whom I am in love? Why is the new housekeeper very young and pretty. The old Mrs. Hall was perfect? But I will certainly watch the new version. I think James looks right and the settings seem good.

    Reply
  7. Kerry

    I feel like Samuel West definitely has the biggest shoes to fill. Robert Hardy did such a stupendous job capturing the complexities of Siegfried — the temper, the kindness, the chronic forgetfulness, the generosity, the “patient” attitude that irritated James so much, and the overall decency of the man. It would be so easy to reduce the character to either a saint or a bully, and neither would be fair to him. I like the clips I’ve seen, though, and I’ll definitely be watching, because I’ve loved the books since I was about ten years old.

    Reply
    • Paul Taylor

      I loved the originals, will obviously watch but it will be strange, some big shoes to fill. I grew up in Thirsk (Darrowby) and some of my school friends had jobs as extras so it’s nice to see those episodes

      Reply
  8. Frannie Germeshausen

    I’m tearing up just thinking about that lovely, gentle series. I’ll watch the new one – like Trystan, they had be at Diana Rigg.

    Reply
  9. Orian Hutton

    The books actually convinced me to change course and train as a vet. I was looking for PhD places and decided to apply for vet schools as well. Ended up moving to England to study veterinary medicine at the University of Cambridge, married a fellow vet student and have now lived in Britain for 44 years. Such is the power of books.

    Reply
  10. Sharon in Scotland

    I have been listening to the full, unabridged readings of all the books, narrated by Christoper Timothy, on YouTube (he does a lovely job) and watching the old BBC episodes that YouTube lets me. I let out a scream of joy when I watched the trailer for the re-boot/re-make, James Herriot has a Scottish accent!!! so happy, looking forward to 1st Sept when it airs, it does look more lavish and glamorous when it calls for it.

    Reply
  11. Charity

    I absolutely adore the books but never made it through the original series. I have high hopes for the remake and hope it does the books justice — they made me laugh and cry all of last winter. Heriot was such an amazingly gifted writer.

    Reply
  12. Lily Lotus Rose

    I’d heard the phrase “all creatures great and small” over the years and had assumed it was from a book. But… I’d never heard of the TV series nor the book. All the iterations mentioned here intrigue me–book, original TV show, and re-boot. As an anglophile, animal lover, and someone in need of “good comfort watching during a global pandemic,” count me in. Thanks for turning me on to this. Now that I have live TV again, I’ll definitely look for this one on PBS in January. (And hell yes to Diana Rigg in anything!)

    Reply
    • JustaTech

      The phrase “all creatures great and small” comes from an Anglican/Episcopalian hymn, as do the titles of most of the sequel books.

      I read all the books, loved them deeply, and decided to never become a vet.

      Reply
    • Chiara Kilian

      The original series is the most lovely thing imaginable! At least, as far as tv shows go. And the books are brilliant. I definitely recommend taking a look at it all!

      Reply
  13. Frannie Germeshausen

    Sorry for double-dipping, but I just watched the preview. I’m a blubbering mess. Bring it. It’s clearly what I need.

    Reply
  14. Terry Towels

    I adore All Things Great and Small. I’ve already watched it twice. I finally got around to reading the books.

    For more comfort viewing, I suggest Monarch of the Glenn.

    Yes, I’ll give the revamp a watch. There’s so much more in the books that haven’t made it to the screen.

    Reply
  15. Rosemary

    I love the old series, but I’ll give the new one a go, esp since Samuel West (son of Timothy West and Prunella Scales) is in it and he’s brilliant (remember him in Howards End and many other roles), he’s playing Siegfried, so if anyone can fill Robert Hardy’s shoes it’s him :) . I’m not sure about the chap who plays Tristan, but we’ll see.

    Reply
    • Paloma

      Tristan is being played by Callum Woodhouse, who was hilarious as Leslie in The Durrells. He’ll make a great Tristan!

      Reply
      • Rosemary

        I must say I haven’t seen The Durrells (it’s on my list of must watch) but this has made me happier about the choice, cheers Paloma :)

        Reply
  16. Bea

    This series is why I never believed in Davison as the 5th Doctor.
    I wouldn’t trust Tristan Farnon with a newborn lamb, let alone all of time and space. ;)

    Reply
  17. broughps

    I did watch the original back when I was a teen. Not sure I’ll watch the reboot because I can watch the actual vets who took over for Harriot on Britbox’s Yorkshire Vet.

    Reply
  18. Rebecca

    Oh, yes!! Loved the books and loved this series- huge crush on Peter Davison for years because of it!!

    Reply
  19. Karen K.

    I never watched the original series but this sounds like the perfect balm. I’ll probably go back and watch the 1970s version as well!

    Reply
  20. Penny H

    I loved the original series so much! I have the feeling I watched a lot of it in black & white since I only had a black & white TV set….

    Reply
  21. Sharon in Scotland

    Just watched the first episode of the newest version. I really like James, the jury is out on Siegfried, but he may win me over. Mrs Hall is too young and pretty, but she is clearly channelling the spirit of the original, so that’s good.
    There was the wife of a farmer who wore a lovely print housecoat/apron under her coat when she was helping with a calfing. I saw some lovely vintage woolies and tweeds……..the hair looked good.
    I would move into the house tomorrow and if I didn’t live in the Highlands of Scotland, I would gladly live in the Dales.

    Reply
    • Pol

      I saw the first episode last night and I agree! I completely forgot about the original version, James was brilliantly cast and I love how Helen gets to wear her trousers :)

      Reply

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