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All Creatures Great and Small, Christmas episode, 2021 (closing scene … )

Friends and readers,

A long while ago, a new subgenre emerged — it may have occurred before TV, but certainly with TV: the Christmas special. At first the kind was a variety show, comedy and songs, with our weekly host/hostess, but didn’t take long for the filmed drama, serial style, to enter our lives directly into this holiday season everyone (seemingly) in the northern (and now even the southern — witness Australia) hemisphere seems determined to act out. In all the Christmas blogs I’ve done over the years, I have among the classic movies (1951 Scrooge, 1946 It’s a Wonderful Life), ghost, romance (Poldark), and popular Christmas movies, probably “done” a Christmas special. Indeed I remember writing about Downton Abbey in Scotland. There’s no use condescending, for some of these hours are brilliant and sustain us today still, for example, the early Sesame Street Christmas, the one where Mr Hooper and Bert and Ernie played out the O.Henry story, and Big Bird talked of Santa “stacked over Kennedy”.

Though James Herriot’s books have now provided at least one fine movie (1974, with Anthony Hopkins as Siegfried Farnon), and I’m told of eight entertaining years of British TV, beginning a few years after that (1978-90, with Robert Hardy as Farnon, and Christopher Timothy as Herriot, Peter Davison as Tristan), and last year was an unexpected hit (“Snuggling down in the Yorkshire Dales to save a few cows turned out to be just what the doctor ordered last winter.” , — I don’t know if anyone paid any special attention to Episode 7. I wasn’t inclined to until I started watching it. This evening I helped myself loosen the tightness I feel as I work at being cheerful under the prolonged strain of Covid — the isolater — by watching it twice!


Opening scene with James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) opening gate in fence to move on through the beautiful countryside to a worn old house where an aging couple, white farmer with a black English wife, have called him because she is worried over a dog having trouble producing her puppies


Matching first scene with Mrs Hall (Anna Madeley, superb in the part), far more than housekeeper, to one side, and Siegfried Farnon (now Samuel West) to the other of a perfect tree: she is urging him not to open Tristan’s veterinarian test results, for looking won’t change them, and knowing (he’s failed once again) may spoil the days to come

By this time or as of this evening, I confess to having watched this new and third iteration of a first season (2021) through twice, its second season (2022) once (minus the Christmas episode which has not been played yet on British TV), a segment on YouTube of the 1974 movie once, and about 8 episodes of the first season of the 1975 version, once each. At first I was slightly hostile, instinctively alienated by the self-conscious pastoralism of the paratexts (please no meretricious Arcadias was my thought):


In the Christmas episode underneath the refrain associated with, framing the series, could be heard lightly Christmas bells …

Then the events occurring seemed dismayingly predictable.  But as I became involved with the animal care, and then the developing relationships and personalities, especially that of Mrs Hall, I was drawn in, and then amiably addicted. I remembered the paratexts from the 2016 Durrells and how I learned to love that series, and eventually bought the books by Gerry, a group biography, then a wonderful travel meditative book on Corfu, and before you know it, I was reading another of Lawrence Durrell’s travel books with different eyes, understanding where they came from far more. I am a fan of Keeley Hawes for life now.

As the first season went on, not only did it move beyond its kind conventions, the film-makers defied, went against the way the comic-emotional tropes are usually developed. This Christmas episode outdid itself. Most Christmas stories end with the characters getting some version of their heart’s desires, having clearly become life’s winners, not quite here. We learn eventually in fact Tristan (the puzzlingly marvelous Callum Woodhouse — also an unexpected mainstay of The Durrells) has not passed his exams, but when Siegfried opens the letter and reads pass/fail, he lies and then puts the letter in the fire. He will (at least for now) treat his younger brother insofar as he can as a certified veterinarian.  During this episode we watch Tristan learning on the job, not only to care for animals (a donkey requisitioned for the Christmas pageant) but the human being who is its caretaker and is in as much need of alert attention if any good is to be done for the donkey.


Tristan (dressed in the elf outfit to please his brother, Siefgfried) congratulating a small boy dressed as a wise man on telling that he fed the donkey mistletoe – now Tristan can try to figure out how to help the creature’s obvious pain

All episode long Mrs Hall is expecting, waiting, watching, eagerly anticipating the return of her son, Edward, to her (after a jail sentence in which her evidence helped convict him), only to about 3/4s through realize he is not coming. We see her hold up in church, the singing forcing her to control her crying (Siegfried holding her hand over the song book), and while appearing to accept, still in that last still not forgetting him. Because this is the way most Christmas stories end, like her I kept expecting him, but no miraculous forgiveness and reconciliation, only a growing awareness of the hardness of what his reality might now be.


The subtitle, Repeat the sounding joy, functions ironically

Most striking of all, after all Helen Alderson (Rachel Shenton) does not marry Hugh Hulton (Matthew Lewis). Several episodes seem to have brought them together, and now a main motive of this episode is her coming wedding, complete with bachelor’s party for him, the beautiful dress, the congratulations, the ceremony to be performed tomorrow as a key community event. But she cannot face it, and has apparently herself understood she loves Herriot; she urges Herriot to take her with him as he returns late in the evening to the the aging couple and their distressed female dog. The birth takes several hours, fog comes in, they cannot return until morning. We learn of how this couple came to marry, how they loved and have been true to their love against much prejudice and ostracizing.


A Black English woman was always an outsider says the wife, Hattie Edkins (Hetty Rudd)

First Helen and then James settle down to sleep on separate couches. With real difficulty he manages to start the car (it is very cold) and return her to her waiting dress, father. Then taking the kindly meant but conventional advice of Mrs Hall and Siegfried, James starts to drive away back to Glasgow (for Christmas with his parents), but at a symbolic crossroads, reverses and drives back. He discovers that Helen did not go through with the wedding, and now sits on a bench, alone, maybe waiting for him?


James sits next to her, and we watch them from the back, gradually talk, and hold hands, walking out of the church, the right couple at last

Hugh vanishes from the stage after his brief appearance at the party, on his way to a bachelor’s party — he has lost a lot of money as well as pride and his heart’s desire.

Of course it’s not all quiet trauma and doubt. The actresses are all very pretty, Helen especially in her melancholy and strong stasis


Helen brooding at a window (same posture seen in Anna Maddeley as Mrs Hall), standing in front of the car on the cold morning, enduring the coming wedding still

There are two other romances, which while moving at glacial paces, seem to be getting somewhere. Lovely ceremoniousness between Siegfried and an older woman friend of Mrs Hall, Dorothy (Maimie McCoy); like my present hero, Christopher Foyle (who knows not Michael Kitchen?), Siegfried says he is having difficulty forgetting his deceased wife. Tristan is perhaps more than flirting with Maggie (Mollie Winnard).


James and Helen with Connie (Charlie May-Clark) who has hopes of Herriot and finds everything so festive


Preparations for the coming feast — Siegfried overlooking what Mrs Hall has set out in the kitchen

Throughout the episode there is much happy activity, Christmas party, Christmas dancing, Siefried as Santa in green and white; the farmer’s market, Mrs Hall’s food, her shopping for Brussel sprouts. The dog does give birth finally and we watch the first puppy struggle for life and survive. Christmas carrolling in church (de rigueur in such films). Scenes of people eating together, drinking, just (as at the end) being together. All well-meaning. That does seem to be a universal tendency of these Christmas stories; when we meet a genuine evil man, like Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore) in It’s a Wonderful Life, he is hated by all and thwarted, to the great satisfaction of all viewers, including this one.

If you are like me, home alone, you can vicariously join in to a Christmas that is believable. I do most days need some cheering up, so often so sad that right now my movie-watching includes this year’s All Creatures Great and Small, the set of DVDs sent me by my friend Rory. They still my heart with the strong projection of love, understanding, kindness between one another. I am especially fond of the direct emphasis on the animals the Vets and everyone else too are caring so tenderly for. That the first episode of the second season (about to start on US TV on PBS) opened with an temporarily ill but still adorable cat being taken care of by James was perhaps overdoing it …


Mrs Pumphrey (Diana Rigg) and Tricky-Woo — alas they are not in the Christmas episode

A few words about the differences between this 21st century version and the 20th: The 1978 serial is realer, its pastoral qualities quieter or not so determined, for money comes up right away, people have vexed and unforgiving temperaments.  The housekeeper is not so pretty or obliging and motherly (she keeps her distance, is a paid servant). There is far less depth of emotion. The literal events are much closer to the book.  This 21st century version has added characters (Helen’s sister for example, Herriot’s mother), usually a sign of strong change. I’m glad to see the overbearing dictatorial mother of the 21st century is not in the book. The women in the first series simply go to work, and are less self-conscious about it — dare I say the 20th century version is more quietly feminist? The 1978 series makes no strong effort to be pro-family the way this new series does — everyone does not become a honorary family member somewhere. Hugh’s role is smaller; he is simply preferred by Helen’s family for his higher rank and money. Much less is made of Mrs Pumphrey (Diana Rigg in the new iteration) and Tricky-Woo, the pampered pug. It seems in the 21st century the film-makers assume we long for imagined strong communities where people live up to some social obligations they usually don’t in real life. The 1978 is quicker in pace; I don’t feel it’s more comic though it’s trying to be. We might say the 2020/21 is a more romantic familial series (following in the steps of the 21st century The Durrells?)

Both series show the characters caring for the farm animals and pets, but as far as I watched of the 1978 version (I stayed only for a trial week) the cameras don’t come up as close to them, and I feel at more intensely caring approach is felt in the 2021 episodes. The wikipedia articles tells you that Nicholas Ralph had to do quite a bit of training to enact his role. Mrs Hall (Audrey) is centrally involved in all the veterinarian business too (all personal and professional issues). The impersonal minor presence on the typewriter, in the kitchen in the old 1978 series in this 2021 version holds up the light by which Herriot performs a dangerous operation on a cow.

I would say the 2021/2 version of All Creatures Great and Small is far more theatrical than any of the previous (including the original movie)

Gentle reader, you could do far worse than spend one of these holiday evenings watching the Christmas episode of the 2021 All Creatures Great and Small.

Ellen

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