Watching “All Creatures Great and Small” feels like gripping a warm cup of tea and settling inside a very cozy, extremely British snow globe. Based on the immensely popular novels by Alf Wight (aka James Herriot), the series follows a 1930s veterinary practice in a sleepy Yorkshire town where farmers and vets alike gather every evening over foaming pints at the local pub after a long day’s work. The impossibly green hills roll into an endless horizon, dotted with stone barns and braying livestock. There are always animals to help, challenges to meet and kind words to be found along the way. Even when life presents cruel twists, there’s never a doubt that the good doctors tending to them have only the best intentions at heart.
The first television adaptation of “All Creatures Great and Small,” which ran from 1978 to 1980 and again from 1988 to 1990, had a sly wit and quiet charm that made it a cornerstone of British period drama. In revisiting the story for seven episodes — with more to come, following an early renewal — producer Colin Callender, writer Ben Vanstone (“Merlin”) and director Brian Percival (“Downton Abbey”) are betting that a new generation is ready to have its own versions of doctors James Herriot and Siegfried Farnon — and more importantly, that a modern “All Creatures Great and Small” doesn’t have to be more obviously “modern” to work just as well. (It also has Dame Diana Rigg in her final on-screen role, playing the fussy owner of a fussier Pekingese, so really, it doesn’t get much more British and beloved than that.)
Following in the original series’ footsteps, the first episode opens with young James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) leaving his native Scotland for the Yorkshire Dales in hopes of landing an assistantship at the veterinary hospital headed up by Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West). It’s not spoiling much to say that even in the face of Siegfried’s reluctance, James does, of course, get the job. Meanwhile, Siegfried’s gregarious younger brother, Tristan (Callum Woodhouse), returns home after failing his vet exams, much to Siegfried’s impotent frustration.
In the 1978 series, Robert Hardy’s Siegfried was a firm boss but also a bit of a jolly eccentric. West’s, by contrast, is gruff and stubborn, cracking only when Mrs. Hall catches him doing his best not to emote and sets him straight. This characterization really works, especially opposite Madeley’s Mrs. Aubrey Hall and Ralph’s bleeding-heart optimist James. West’s a veteran who knows his stuff and is unsurprisingly great as Siegfried, but Ralph deserves special mention here; “All Creatures” marks his television debut, not that you would know it from how quickly comfortable he is in the role. He’s particularly good opposite Woodhouse, whose Tristan is something of an unexpected new brother to James, giving him as much trouble as support.
Though Siegfried unquestionably runs the vet, his friend-slash-housekeeper Mrs. Hall runs the home as a makeshift matriarch in the absence of any other women keeping permanent residence in the lives of the three bachelor vets. (In this version of the story, Siegfried is a widow, his wife having died four years before James reaches his doorstep.) James, Tristan and Siegfried tend to drive the stories, as they do in Wight’s novels. But the most noticeable update in this iteration of “All Creatures” is how much more it gives to its women characters outside their relationships with the men. Mrs. Hall isn’t just an efficient matron but a loving woman whose estrangement from her son makes her determined to nurture everyone around her. Farmhand Helen (Rachel Shenton) has always been an admirably pragmatic character, but more so a love interest for James. So even if Shenton and Ralph have adorable chemistry, it’s refreshing that this first batch of episodes works to make Helen stand on her own, whether as a de facto guardian to her young sister (Imogen Clawson), a partner to her rich childhood friend (Matthew Lewis) or a woman trying to figure out what she actually wants for herself.
Naturally, all of the above unfolds before that gorgeous Yorkshire backdrop, which seems to have only gotten greener in the decades since “All Creatures” first aired. The show even re-creates the crossroads James constantly finds himself driving to no matter which rendering of his story he happens to be in.
So fans of the original can take heart in knowing that this decade’s “All Creatures Great and Smell” doesn’t aim to reinvent its source material; in fact, the show is a downright love letter to it. And yet, even as it introduces many of the same stories and character dynamics, the PBS Masterpiece “All Creatures Great and Small” finds key ways to distinguish itself from depictions past, especially as it makes the most of a handsome budget and embraces a welcome, earnest warmth in its storytelling. This iteration has no interest in shattering its historical roots or flipping its genre’s tropes on their heads, but it also is open to making the kinds of adjustments that make an update of a beloved property worthwhile.
“All Creatures Great and Small” premieres January 10 on PBS Masterpiece.