Sunday, January 10, 2021

All Creatures Great and Small: James Herriot Begins Career with a Hoof to the Head

The return of James Herriot's heart-warming "All Creatures Great and Small" stories to American television for the next six Sundays might be just what we need to get through the winter. 

It was 50 years ago that Yorkshire, England veterinarian Alf Wight published this first of several volumes of stories about his farm-country vet practice. He used the pen name "James Herriot" and became the world's favorite -- and best-selling -- animal doctor.

Films and documentaries followed, and the BBC made a very popular series from the stories in the 1970s. The new version Americans will see were filmed with the benefit of computerized graphics, lovely costumes, precise audio, and a generous budget. 

The producers, who also brought us "Downton Abbey",  deliver a similar combination of rich production values, flawless editing, and dramatic lighting--even in a stall in the middle of the night. The filming also benefits from the liberal use of landscape-sweeping drone cameras. 

The series begins with an animated illustration of a drive through farm country, created by the illustrator Gary Redford for the HelloYes agency:

Herriot is a young Scottish veterinarian, a recent graduate of the University of Glasgow who is having a hard time finding a job in an economy decimated by the Depression, and handicapped by the shrinking number of horses in the countryside. When a chance comes for an interview in rural Yorkshire, England, he hops on the first train. 

The first horse the new vet examines has a hoof abscess, and no one but Herriot seems surprised when that hoof heads his way. In the 1930s there were no disposable baby diapers and no duct tape, standard supplies used for an abscess today.

Americans will enjoy watching the young British actors slog through the mud, huddle together in the pub, and drive antique cars through winding country roads in rural Yorkshire, England. The barn in the background of the hoof abscess case is extraordinary architecture for any barn, anywhere. 

Meet the real star of the show: Clive. His real name is Jester.

In Herriot-land, there's no internet, no television, and barely a telephone. Farmers don't text the practice, they knock on the veterinarian's home door at all hours. A big night is a game of darts at the pub, and that might be precisely what this show can teach us: How to get back to the things (and people) that matter, by giving an example.

I'm not sure when the last time was that either shorthorn cattle or a horse with a hoof abscess were written into the script of a tv show I watched, or when I last saw an actor hold a live chicken. And there's always a horse in the background. 

Veterinarians often say that the Herriot stories--and the earlier version of this tv show filmed in the 1970s--influenced their decisions to join the profession. On the other hand, I have seen some grumbling in the British press from vets who resent the sentimentality and lack of practice management portrayed on the show. They protest that television -- even fiction like this -- should not convey veterinarians as kind, gentle, and eccentric souls who come out in all weather and at all hours, wait patiently to be paid. One message voiced multiple times is that veterinarians and farmers are effectively in business together, as well as in their own individual endeavors. 

A racehorse with colic features in a future episode.

Given what our country has been through in the past year or so, and particularly the last week, this is just what the (horse) doctor ordered. And, it is suitable for the whole family to watch, as long as you can answer children's questions about animal diseases--or what those giant nippers are for. 

And the feel-good meter creeps higher still: the black cats in tonight's episode are from a shelter. The golden retriever isn't even an actor-dog; he belongs to a local family and just seemed to fit the part.

Here's a preview trailer, provided by PBS:

UK veterinarian Andy Barrett, MRCVS acted as the veterinary advisor. Also on the credits as they roll by is Jody Gordon, whose title is "animal welfare consultant". 

While all the animals appear well cared for and healthy, there are animal welfare laws in the UK that prevent actors who are not veterinarians from imitating veterinary-like actions, such as appearing to be helping a cow with calving or coming to the aid of a horse writhing with colic, so some scenes include some lifeless--but lifelike--animal prosthetics.

Clive steals every scene he's in. Before turning to acting, he reigned in the show ring.

If you like the show, you can still find some episodes of the original series on youtube, and reading the original book should be a requirement for everyone who loves animals. Macmillan publishers has a new audio book of the stories, ready by Nicholas Ralph, the actor who plays Herriot, so you can listen to the stories, too. 

Good news: Episode 1 of "All Creatures Great and Small" is available as a free stream at any time on the PBS website. The other episodes are there, as well, but you need to be a PBS donor to view those. Click the colored link to watch Episode 1 live online.

By the way, Nicholas Ralph opted to film the entire scene with the abscessed hoof flying at him. He offered not to have his stunt double do the muddy scene for him. Watch for the magic moment when the vets do the old iodine crystals and turpentine trick to impress the client.

This show has been a big hit in the UK, and you'll soon see why. Your whole family can watch it together. Watch it because you know there's more to life than what we've been living through these past long months and because we all need to have our eyes melt from something other than tears right now.

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