When Channel 5 decided to revive James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small – first broadcast between 1978 and 1990 – it could not possibly have known what sort of a world the new version would crash into. It debuted last September to a viewing audience that had grown cowed and fearful due to the pandemic. The evenings were drawing in, and the glorious summer weather – the only thing that kept many of us buoyant – was starting to give way to the murk of autumn. Think back to this time a year ago: your brain was so busy trying to fend off the anxiety of the unknown that the last thing you wanted was to be challenged by prestige TV. You fell back on old favourites, or sitcoms, or cartoons, or anything to distract you from the shape of the world.
And then All Creatures … landed: a sweet, gentle, deliberately mild remake of a programme you can vaguely recollect watching all those years ago. Following a trio of vets in the Yorkshire Dales, nothing of note happened in any given episode, but it was gorgeous to look at and everyone was polite to each other. Switching it on was the television equivalent of taking your brain out and dunking it into a bucket of warm tea (Yorkshire, obviously). It was a back rub, a tin of shortbread, a beautifully rendered screensaver. If Morpheus from the Matrix ever convinced your grandmother to take the blue pill, this is what she would have seen. It did not, as with so many remakes, even vaguely attempt anything edgy; Channel 5 had, gladly, not gone “full HBO”, recasting Herriot as a wisecracking depressive who harvests the organs of unwitting livestock to pay his divorce bill.
As such, viewers fell upon it in unprecedented numbers. Debuting to positive reviews across the board, it quickly became the most-watched series on the channel in five years. But that was a year ago. The pandemic has moved on, and lockdown is now a distant memory. Now that the world has started to open up again, is there really a place for All Creatures … in our lives?
Based on the first episode of series two, which airs tonight, the answer is a resounding yes. From the very first scene, in which Herriot gently bandages up an adorable fluffball of a cat, it is resoundingly clear that we are still going to need All Creatures Great and Small. Nothing much has changed since the Christmas special. The Yorkshire Dales are still breathtaking. The problems faced by the characters remain minimal and easily resolved. Everyone, even the most overt of villains, still operates with an abundance of pleasantness. Embargoes forbid me from going into much detail about the episode, but even then the list of spoilers I’m instructed to avoid are so unbelievably quaint they gave me toothache.
In short, the show is as soothing as it ever was, and the rest of television is scrambling to keep up. It seems unfeasible that anyone was planning to remake The Darling Buds of May, for example, until they saw the pitch-perfect execution of All Creatures Great and Small. Now, a new series of The Darling Buds is in the pipeline, starring Bradley Walsh at his absolute twinkliest. I wouldn’t be surprised if more like it were to come.
Make no mistake, this is not easy television to make. It helps that the production had a series of books and a beloved programme to work from, of course, but it takes effort to remain this relentlessly agreeable. One wrong turn – one lapse into sarcasm, or parody, or self-awareness, or clumsy contemporary social commentary – and the illusion would be shattered. All Creatures Great and Small has to be small and stoic and sincere by design, and that vastly limits the ground it can cover. The fact that it can move so effortlessly within these confines is a joy to behold. The BBC version of All Creatures Great and Small ran to 90 episodes. If it stays as good as it is now, C5’s remake should easily eclipse that.
• All Creatures Great and Small airs at 9pm on Channel 5 on 16 September