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The Secret Meanness in TV’s Nicest Show

For all its warmth, All Creatures Great and Small has a serious nasty streak.
  • Samuel West and Anna Madeley in All Creatures Great and Small (Photo: PBS)
    Samuel West and Anna Madeley in All Creatures Great and Small (Photo: PBS)

    There are a lot of jerks in All Creatures Great and Small. There are some world-class manipulators, too, and more than a few fussbudgets. These rabble rousers pop up at least once an episode, hurling their insults and raising their voices, and they force the nicer characters to respond. So even though it deserves its reputation for incredible kindness, it’s not entirely accurate to characterize the series as some kind of weighted blanket, wrapping us in the warmth of pastoral beauty and small-town geniality. In fact, the meanness keeps the show chugging along.

    Take “Honeymoon’s Over,” the second episode of Season 3, which aired January 15 on PBS. (The full season aired late last year in the U.K. and is currently available for subscribers to PBS Passport.) Intrepid veterinarian James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) starts his day with a snotty rebuke from Siegfried (Samuel West) after he notes that he’s making less money as a partner than he did when he was just an employee of Siegfried’s practice. The big guy sniffs that it’s part of doing business, then waves James on to the farm of Kate Billings (Lydia Rooke), whose cows are getting sick. When James gets to her place, he’s barely out of the car when she comes clomping over to crossly observe that she was expecting Siegfried to come help her, not whoever James might be. And when James introduces himself, she notes that the only other Herriot she ever knew was a “mean little bugger.”

    These are two of the show’s main ingredients: Siegfried’s hatefulness and the farmers’s distaste for James. To begin with the latter, the farmers have laid into him since the pilot, rarely missing a chance to let him know they think his so-called scientific training is a load of bollocks compared to the practical wisdom that’s been handed down for generations on their land. In the Season 3 premiere, there’s even a teenager who has the temerity to mock James to his face for not doing more to help a sick cow. He’s part of a legacy that includes farmers pretending James’ treatments don’t work, just to save face; villagers getting him drunk so he’ll make a fool of himself; and an actual mob yelling at him because he won’t let them bend the rules for a livestock judging contest.

    This behavior doesn’t make one yearn for days gone by. Instead, it highlights the anxiety that any rural village might have felt in the late 1930s, when the series is set. This was the last gasp of 19th-century culture, in a time when technology and industrialization were changing the Western world forever. For folks scrabbling to maintain their land, James and his city boy education represent an existential threat. If they accept him, then they might as well hand over their identity.

    Siegfried represents a similar tension, but on a more intimate level. He actually wants the people of the Yorkshire Dales to embrace new scientific methods, but being a fallible human being, he also wants to remain in control of everything around him. It’s his way of coping with the horror of serving in World War I and the grief of losing his wife, and while that’s all very understandable, it doesn’t make him any more pleasant. He’s the kind of person who chides James for multiple episodes about taking a week off for a honeymoon. After he offers James that partnership in the veterinary practice, he bristles when James wants a say in how things are run. And all this pales to the way he berates his younger brother Tristan (Callum Woodhouse). Again, we know that he’s hard on the kid because their father died and he now feels tough love is the best way to support him, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s almost ritualistically cruel. He insults his brother so often that a therapist might call it a pattern of abuse.

    It is a pattern, of course, because All Creatures Great and Small is formulaic. Story after story uses the same narrative form, meaning Siegfried always has to stir something up and the farmers always have to be suspicious. If these things didn’t happen, then there wouldn’t be a chance for characters like James, his new wife Helen (Rachel Shenton), and Siegfried’s housekeeper Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley) to smooth things over with their compassion, patience, and wisdom.

    That’s why the show is ultimately so comforting, despite the bile that so many characters spew. Inevitably, James does something to earn a farmer’s respect, whether that’s saving an animal or being honest when the old-timers know better than he does. Likewise, Mrs. Hall almost always has a stern talk with Siegfried about his behavior, which softens the old bear and gets him to treat James and Tristan with the love and respect he really does feel for them. Structurally, this isn’t far from what happens in a sitcom, where everyone plays their appointed role and weekly misunderstandings are resolved by the end of the episode.

    In fact, a sitcom like Parks and Recreation provides a helpful comparison. That show was also justly touted for its fundamental optimism, yet one of the running jokes was how terrible the characters were to their colleague Jerry (Jim O’Heir). They mocked him, yelled at him, and even called him by the wrong name. With just a few tweaks, the series could’ve been a dark drama about a nice man being ground to dust by his co-workers. But by the final episodes, the other characters appreciated that Jerry (or Garry, really) lived a meaningful life full of love, joy, art, and public service. In a way, that only reinforced Parks and Recreation's hopeful spirit, because it suggested anyone can endure ostracism and still turn out okay. Similarly, the meanness of All Creatures Great and Small is important because it puts the power of decency in sharp relief. When Jim and Mrs. H remain their good-hearted selves, when Siegfried softens, or when a farmer finally appreciates the vets for what they do, the show’s gentleness becomes an earned victory instead of an unchallenged given. Kindness becomes more powerful when it has something bitter to overcome.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: All Creatures Great and Small, Parks and Recreation, Anna Madeley, Callum Woodhouse, Jim O'Heir, Nicholas Ralph, Rachel Shenton, Samuel West