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All Creatures Great and Small
By Nancy Brannon, Ph.D.
PBS’ Masterpiece is celebrating its 50th anniversary and the new 2021 season begins with a fresh, new look at James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. The setting is 1930s Yorkshire, and the first episodes aired in primetime on Sundays in January 2021.
Nicholas Ralph makes his television debut as the young James Herriot who comes to the Yorkshire Dales hoping to get his first veterinary job as assistant to established local veterinarian Siegfried Farnon. Herriot is book smart, but very green in applying his book knowledge to practical situations.
Samuel West has the role of Siegfried Farnon, a veterinarian with a gruff exterior but a big heart who finds relating to animals much easier than people.
Anna Madeley plays the role of Mrs. Hall, organizer, housekeeper, and general all-round CEO at Skeldale House and Mr. Farnon’s practice. She is fundamental to running the practice.
Rachel Shenton plays local farmer Helen Alderson, a hardworking woman who handles most of the farm’s responsibilities as well as raising her younger sister Jenny.
Siegfried’s errant and charismatic younger brother, Tristan, is played by Callum Woodhouse. And Diana Rigg plays Mrs. Pumphrey, the eccentric owner of the overly indulged Pekingese Tricki Woo.
For young Herriot just out of veterinary school, getting to his scheduled interview with Dr. Farnon is almost a “comedy of errors,” as first, he misunderstands that the bus stop where he exits the bus is not Darrowby, but he is on is the bus to Darrowby. So he is left on the road with nothing but raw landscape; he must hike the way to Dr. Farnon’s office and, of course, it pours rain all the way there. He arrives late and soaking wet. Greeted by Mrs. Hall, she is about to serve him a sandwich and tea, when Dr. Farnon insists they drive out to a farm call.
Arriving at the farm, we see a black draft horse who is lame. Dr. Farnon asks Herriot on which leg the horse is lame; Herriot replies he’ll have to see the horse move first. Trying to get a closer look at the horse’s front legs, the horse twice kicks out and lands young Herriot in the mud. His owner ironically tells Herriot that his horse likes to “shake hands” first. Herriot concludes that it is the horse’s “off side” (his right; a horse’s left is his “near side”) that is lame.
Picking up the leg, Herriot cleans out the hoof, finds the source of the abscess, opens it, and out pours the pus. Dr. Farnon reminds Herriot that they must apply antiseptic to the hoof. So Farnon sprinkles on some iodine crystals and then adds turpentine, resulting in purple smoke coming from the hoof.
Tommy and I remembered years ago seeing farriers and veterinarians use this treatment. It has since gone out of vogue as other treatments are available, and because iodine crystals are mostly unavailable. We both noticed the main cause of the horse’s abscess: the thick mud mire in which the horse was standing. We simultaneously commented, get the horse out of the muck!
When Herriot first meets the charming Helen Alderson, it is only after he has encountered her prize bull! Helen advises Herriot not to “look him in the eye,” and so Herriot comes down from the stone wall and proceeds to treat her injured calf. As he is leaving her farm, she advises Herriot to stand up to Dr. Farnon, who will respect him for it.
In another scene Herriot is called out in the middle of the night, in the rain again, to attend to a cow who is having great difficulty calving. After numerous attempts to help the calf be born by just using his hands and arms, Herriot has to result to using a calf puller attached to a rope. Finally, he is able to birth the calf and the cow is saved.
Watching this, I remembered being in a farm call with the late Dr. Shaul, who was the large animal veterinarian at Collierville Animal Clinic. I watched him use a similar method to help birth a calf. Dr. Shaul was a beloved member of the mid-south equestrian community, famous for carrying a tin of candy and offering candy to everyone he encountered. He passed away in 2004 at age 73.
This episode features horses, beginning with Siegfried applying for the veterinarian position at Darrowby Racecourse. Then James has a difficult task when he is called to treat a colicky Thoroughbred, the favored horse in the next race at Darrowby, Andante. The horse has a severe colic – torsion of the bowel. The twisting of the large colon is the most painful and serious form of colic. Today, colic surgery would be performed, but the situation can still be fatal.
This new adaptation of a staple of classic literature is superbly produced, filmed, and cast, as we have come to expect from high quality Masterpiece programs. There’s something about showing realistic adaptations of farm life and veterinary care that elevates the hard work that goes into animal husbandry, as well as the tenderness of caring for a variety of animals. I recommend it for the whole family.
Read more about Masterpiece at 50 and its new adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small at: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/shows/all-creatures-great-and-small/
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