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Classic TV: All Creatures Great and Small

Based on the best-selling books by James Herriot, All Creatures Great and Small was one of the BBC's most popular drama series of the late 1970s and 1980s, and helped to set the format of the Sunday night drama on British TV.

The series documents the adventures of James Herriot (Christopher Timothy), a newly qualified vet in 1930s Yorkshire. He arrives in the market town of Darrowby, to begin working for the practice of Siegfried Farnon (Robert Hardy) and his much younger brother Tristan (Peter Davison). The inexperienced but irrepressible Herriot faces a steep learning curve, treating farm and domestic animals in the straightened circumstances of rural Yorkshire in the '30s. The veterinary work involves cats, dogs and other pets, but is mostly focused on the local farms, which means lots of sick horses, pregnant cows and sheep with mysterious maladies, as well as tight-fisted and difficult to please farmers, and eccentric locals.

Siegfried Farnon (Robert Hardy) and James Herriot (Christopher Timothy) in All Creatures Great and Small
Siegfried Farnon (Robert Hardy) and James Herriot (Christopher Timothy)

The James Herriot books were semi-autobiographical stories written under a pen name by a Yorkshire vet, Alf Wight. First published in 1970, the books were already popular by the time they were adapted by the BBC. In fact, when the TV series of All Creatures Great and Small first appeared in 1978 it was in danger of looking superfluous. There were already two recent film versions of the stories, All Creatures Great and Small (1974), with Simon Ward as James Herriot and Anthony Hopkins, no less, as Siegfried Farnon, and It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet (1976) (released in the US as All Things Bright and Beautiful) with John Alderton and Colin Blakely.

But despite this, the TV series was a huge success, ran for seven seasons until 1990, and became the definitive screen version of the James Herriot stories. Watching the series now, it's not hard to see why it was so phenomenally successful, or why it retains so much popularity and affection. Everything about the series is so perfectly judged, and All Creatures Great and Small is a series of great warmth and charm. The scripts are beautifully adapted, and faithful to the original stories. The tone is right, the settings are lovely, and the casting is spot on. Christopher Timothy is fine as James Herriot, making the character likeable and human. But the real star of the show is Robert Hardy in a magnificent performance as Siegfried Farnon, the slightly eccentric and irascible senior vet, but a man who is also ultimately warm and wise. Siegfried was probably Hardy's best role and he grabs it with both hands, and makes him a wonderfully layered character. A lot of humour is drawn from Siegfried's eccentricity and unpredictability, with a running joke in the early series about his continual dispensing of contradictory advice to James, and his constantly setting rigid standards that he has no hope of meeting himself.

Also memorable is Peter Davison as fun-loving eternal student Tristan, whose main interests are playing pranks, chasing girls and failing his veterinary exams. Tristan is frustratingly hopeless, but is played with great charm and likeability by Davison. Tristan was originally intended to be an occasional character, but when Christopher Timothy was involved in a car accident, the role was beefed up and some of James Herriot's scenes re-written for Tristan, turning him into a regular part of the ensemble.

Peter Davison as Tristan Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small
Reluctant vet Tristan, played by an up-and-coming TV actor of the 1970s, Peter Davison

The episodes are very well balanced between the dramatic, the heart-warming, the humorous and the sad. The series does deal with animal sickness and animal, and occasionally human, suffering. Some patients can't be cured, some are mistreated by their owners and some animals do die. But the series is essentially warm and ultimately upbeat. Some of the humour comes from the recurring supporting characters, especially the extravagant Mrs Pumphrey (Margaretta Scott) and her ludicrously pampered pooch Tricki-Woo, as well as her lugubrious and long-suffering chauffeur/gardener Hodgekin (Teddy Turner). The beautiful scenery of the Yorkshire Dales adds to the appeal, with its patchwork of small farms, fields, drystone walls and rolling hills, and the series makes attractive use of its period settings without being overwhelmed by them or turning into a simple exercise in nostalgia. 

While there's a lot of humour in the series, there's also honesty about the hardships faced by farmers in poor economic times and the unglamorous life of country vets. The series is set at a time when veterinary work was moving from mostly working with farm animals to increasingly dealing with domestic pets. It also documents the rise of new techniques and medicines and changes in farming practices, including the movement from horsepower to mechanical power. The actors carried out some of the veterinary work for real, and the scenes of Christopher Timothy with his arm up a cow's backside became a running joke. While the other actors managed to escape type-casting, Timothy became so strongly identified with the part of James Herriot, and the character of a vet, that he found it difficult to get other television work for years.

Robert Hardy, Carol Drinkwater, Christopher Timothy
Robert Hardy and Christopher Timothy with the original Helen, Carol Drinkwater

The production values of the series are good and it is filmed in the traditional manner of 1970s/80s British teledrama, with taped studio work for the interior scenes mixed with location filming shot on film. The series was initially produced by BBC Birmingham, so much of the studio filming was at the city's Pebble Mill Studios, supplemented by filming at Television Centre in London. Recreations of some of the sets can be seen at Alf Wight's former home in Thirsk, which is now The World of James Herriot Museum. The theme music for the series, a tinkly piano tune by Johnny Pearson, was originally a piece of library music, but is perfectly suited to the series and it's hard to imagine it without it.

All Creatures Great and Small originally ran for three seasons, from 1978 to 1980, until the BBC ran out of James Herriot stories to adapt. But the producer, Bill Sellars, eventually managed to obtain Alf Wight's permission for the writers to create new stories in the same vein as the originals. So after two feature-length Christmas specials set after World War II, the series returned for another four seasons, running from 1988 to 1990, with all-new stories, approved by Alf Wight. The cast in the last four series is slightly different from in the original three. Carol Drinkwater is replaced as James's wife Helen by Lynda Bellingham. Drinkwater played the character as a sexy, earthy, country girl, but the husband-wife relationship is a lot more strait-laced between Timothy and the more matronly Bellingham. Peter Davison's career had taken off in the 1980s with lead roles in Doctor Who, A Very Peculiar Practice and Campion, and his character comes and goes in the later series, being packed off to Ireland to carry out TB testing at one point to explain his absence. The producers introduce a new character, Calum Buchanan, played by John McGlynn, who falls into the stereotyped Scotsman trap a bit (yes, he does play the bagpipes). A couple of episodes also get bogged down in Calum's very uninteresting relationship with Scots girl Deirdre (Andrea Gibb) who works at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.

Not all fans are quite as enamoured with the later series, but I like them. They are very close to the quality of the original three, even if some elements are different. Like many long running series, All Creatures Great and Small settled into a comfortable groove, and the later series re-jig familiar elements without obviously repeating themselves too much. The earlier episodes were very honest about the hardships, lack of money and lack of opportunities for vets at the time, but the later ones do sometimes err more towards comfort viewing, with the characters owning swanky new cars, everyone seemingly much wealthier, and Siegfried able to buy himself a second house and buy a car for James when he feels like it.

Christopher Timothy, Robert Hardy and animal
Christopher Timothy and Robert Hardy with bovine co-star

While James is allowed to have a wife and children, Tristan and Siegfried are kept in aspic a little and not allowed to develop any further as characters. Siegfried does actually get married in one of the Christmas specials, and later in the series we are told he has children, but they are never seen and his wife disappears almost as soon as she arrived. The writers do remember to mention her in a couple of episodes, but it's clearly as an afterthought, and what kind of relationship he has with his wife and family is anyone's guess. As the series ran for so long, you do also occasionally see the same actors reappear in different roles. Jack Watson appears as two different characters, while Geoffrey Bayldon appears in three different episodes, playing a different part in each one.

But generally I think the later seasons are comparable to the earlier ones, and the series retains its character and charm. The writing and acting are still mostly very good and the later episodes have the benefit of more location work. The series never finds a satisfactory replacement for Tristan during his absence, but Peter Davison returned as the character for the final season and for the last ever episode, the 1990 Christmas special.

All Creatures Great and Small stumbled onto a successful formula that British television has frequently returned to. It ticks all the boxes of classic Sunday night TV; relatively light stories with comic elements, a setting in a beautiful, rural part of the British Isles, eccentric supporting characters, and preferably a period setting. Even better if the heroes can be medics of some kind, and if you can work loveable animals in there somewhere, then so much the better.

All Creatures Great and Small, of course, has all of these elements, making it the ultimate series of its kind. That might make it sound a little cynical, but it isn't. The series never set out to create a winning formula, it just happened that all the right elements came together, the stories, the writing, the casting, the direction, the settings and the performances, to make something that was a bit special. And if that isn't the definition of a classic, then I don't know what is.

All Creatures Great and Small

Years: 1978-1990
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Country: UK
Episodes: 87 x 50 mins, 3 x 90 mins

Cast Christopher Timothy (James Herriot), Robert Hardy (Siegfried Farnon), Peter Davison (Tristan Farnon), Carol Drinkwater (Helen) (1978-85), Lynda Bellingham (Helen) (1988-90), John McGlynn (Calum Buchanan), Margaretta Scott (Mrs Pumphrey), Teddy Taylor (Hodgekin), Mary Hignett (Mrs Hall), Andrea Gibb (Deirdre McEwan), John Sharp (Biggins), Jean Heywood (Mrs Alton), James Grout (Granville Bennett), Pamela Salem (Zoe Bennett)

Writers Johnny Byrne, Brian Finch, Anthony Steven, William Humble, Terence Dudley, Terry Hodgkinson, Alfred Shaughnessy, Roger Davenport and others, based on the stories by James Herriot  Producer Bill Sellars  Music Johnny Pearson

Production company BBC; in association with ABC (1988) and A&E (1988-90)  Original network BBC

This post is part of the Small Screen blogathon hosted by Maddylovesherclassicfilms.


  1. Terrific post, Jay. I love this series so much. I have been to the museum too. I really enjoyed being in the real house that the real men who inspired the series worked in. I love how the series mixes comedy and sadness and has a good balance between animal and human storylines. Robert Hardy steals the show in the every scene. This is my favourite role of his.

    I love the friendship between James and Siegfried, it's the sort of bond everyone wishes they had in their own life. My favourite relationship in the series is between Siegfried and Tristan. I love how they bicker but love each other so much. The episode where war is declared and Siegfried signs up is a favourite of mine. I love the scene in that one where they say goodbye.

    Thanks so much for taking part. Maddy

    1. I think part of the appeal is that the characters are recognisably human, but they're also likeable people we want to spend time with. That scene between Siegfried and Tristan really shows the affection between them, despite their often testy relationship. I also like the scene where they're diagnosing sick sheep and it's Tristan who has the breakthrough. You can see how proud Siegfried is.

  2. I had almost forgotten how fond I was of this program until reading your wonderful article. I am off now to see if any of the paperbacks are in quality reading form. Thank you!

    1. Always glad to spread enthusiasm for this great series.


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