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Cinema

PBS’ “All Creatures Great and Small” Aims to Be Timely Tonic

LOS ANGELES — "All Creatures Great and Small," a beloved TV series of yore, is back as a reboot because producer Colin Callender saw the seriocomic adventures of veterinarians in a close-knit rural community as tonic for a politically divisive era.

Then the pandemic arrived, and a series knitted together with vivid characters, engaging stories and the beautifully filmed British countryside — and, of course, lots of animals, farm and otherwise — provided more reason to revive the world depicted by author James Herriot.

Herriot was the pen name for James Alfred 'Alf' Wight, who began working as a novice vet in northern England's Yorkshire area in 1940, kept at it for five decades, and drew on his experiences for his 1970s and '80s semi-autobiographical works.

"I first thought about revisiting the books after the Brexit vote in 2016 in England and the Trump election sort of happened back to back," Callender said, events highlighting what he termed a "schism" between city and country dwellers in both the U.K. and the United States.

Viewers might embrace a show that reinforced values of cooperation and collaboration — whatever one's "political persuasion," Callender said — and provides an escape from the "very complicated and messy and disturbing world that we're all living in."

Enter the new take on "All Creatures Great and Small," the title of Herriot's first bestselling book published in America and of the original series of 90 episodes that aired from the late 1970s to 1990. 

The seven-part series debuts Sunday (check local listings for time) as part of PBS' "Masterpiece" from GBH Boston and marks the start of the showcase's 50th season. Set in the late 1930s, its cast includes newcomer Nicholas Ralph as Herriot and oft-seen actors including Samuel West ("Darkest Hour," "Notting Hill"), who plays Herriot's mentor, and Anna Madeley ("Deadwater Fell") as housekeeper Mrs. Hall.

Diana Rigg made one of her final screen appearances as Mrs. Pumphrey, the wealthy and devoted owner of frequent patient Tricki Woo, her overfed Pekingese played by the expressive Derek. A decision about how to handle the loss of Rigg, who died in September 2020 at age 82, has yet to be announced. 

Filming wrapped in February 2019, with production completed during last spring's COVID-19 lockdown. The series aired first in Britain and was a hit, with critics lauding it as a worthy remake; it was quickly renewed for a second season.

For Ralph, a stage-trained actor who grew up in Scotland, it's a pinch-me start to his screen career.

"I went to drama school because I wanted to be surrounded by the best and I wanted to train in that way," he said. "You just can't help but get inspired by that. And then when you meet these people like Samuel West, Dame Diana Rigg, they're really lovely, and so helpful and open with any advice."

Ralph turned to Herriot's books in approaching the role and came away impressed by the author and his work.

"What hit me immediately was his intelligence, his compassion for the animals and his dedication to his practice of veterinary, and also his compassion and patience in working with people — the farmers and Siegfried, his older, eccentric boss," the actor said. "It's also a complete culture shock for James as well. He gets thrown in the deep end about the politics and the people of this little village, and he comes from the big city."

For Callender, going back to Herriot's work revealed to him ways to make the new series differ from the original and boost its appeal to a contemporary audience.

"The books were much funnier than I remembered when I first read them many years ago, so humor was very important," he said. "The fish-out-of-water story, the fact that the James Herriot character is from Scotland and going to Yorkshire, was really center stage in the way we told the story."

There's also more attention to women and, with the help of technology, better scenery.

"What we wanted to do was bring to life the female characters more fully" than they are portrayed in the books, Callender said. "So characters like Mrs. Hall have been given real backstories and real agency in the story this time." 

And with digital cameras and drones now available for taping, the richly green and open landscape of the Yorkshire Dales comes to life as a place that "we, the audience wanted to be or want to go back to," he said.

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