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Is This the Most Powerful Dog on TV?

Tricki Woo has everyone’s number on All Creatures Great and Small.
  • Derek the dog as Tricki Woo, on his customary fancy pillow (Photo: PBS/Masterpiece)
    Derek the dog as Tricki Woo, on his customary fancy pillow (Photo: PBS/Masterpiece)

    He may have the silliest name, but Tricki Woo is the most powerful dog on TV.

    Consider this clip from “What a Balls Up!,” the Season 3 episode of All Creatures Great and Small that aired January 29 on PBS.


    Clip provided by Masterpiece

    Those who watch the series, about a countryside veterinary practice in 1930s England, know that Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West) is a stern taskmaster who happily insults people when they fail to meet his standards. Even when he reveals a softer side, he strives to project competency and dignity. Earlier this season, for instance, he advocates for the life of a rambunctious horse, and he spends hours trying to coax it into accepting a rider. He’s gentle-eyed and gentle-voiced, totally devoted to the animal’s well-being, but he’s still in control. He’s still very much the boss.

    But when Tricki Woo shows up, he’s on his hands and knees, begging the imperious Pekingese to accept a piece of Battenberg cake. He even uses a baby voice, which is as disorienting as seeing Mount St. Helens spew a river of cotton candy. Siegfried would never be this servile with his brother Tristan (Callum Woodhouse) or with James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph), his partner in the practice. Like everyone else, however, he’s powerless before Tricki’s majesty.

    The series has been revealing the dog’s magnificence by degrees. In Season 1, it seemed he was just the pampered pet of the wealthy Mrs. Pumphrey (played by Diana Rigg until she passed away, now played by Patricia Hodge). She fed him such rich food that it made him sick, and when she sent him for treatment, he arrived on a little pillow carried by a footman. This was funny, of course, but it was misleading. As further seasons have proved, Tricki doesn’t get this treatment because he’s spoiled, but because he’s got an X factor that ensorcells everyone around him.

    Take the Season 3 premiere, when James finally marries his sweetheart Helen (Rachel Shenton). Just before the wedding, Rachel and her father Richard (Tony Pitts) are greeted by one of Mrs. Pumphrey’s servants, who has brought Tricki Woo on his customary pillow. The servant explains that Mrs. Pumphrey cannot attend the nuptials, but she knows Tricki Woo will tell her all about them.

    What happens next is very important: Richard says Tricki Woo is a “funny-looking thing,” and the servant furiously demands an apology. After a weak protest, Richard bends down and tells the dog he’s sorry to have caused offense.

    First of all, please note that nobody questions the idea that this dog will be able to provide Mrs. Pumphrey with a report on the wedding. It’s accepted that Tricki Woo not only comprehends what’s around him, but also has opinions about it. It’s the same in the Season 2 finale, when he’s so ill that he almost dies. The characters gather around to comfort him, and it’s implied he understands them. Earlier, when James attends a party at Mrs. Pumphrey’s mansion, he’s expected to make small talk with the dog, as though Tricki has been noting everyone’s fashions for the evening and would like to share his notes.

    Second, notice that Richard becomes just as deferential to Tricki as Siegfried does. He apologizes and bows, even though he makes his living by controlling the fates of farm animals 10 times bigger than this smushy-faced dog. Sure, some of the characters giggle about it, but it’s fair to assume they’re laughing because they know Richard has been caught making a mistake, not because it’s bizarre to see a grown man beg a dog’s forgiveness.

    All Creatures Great and Small is a complex show. It blends gentle kindness with secret meanness to create an engrossing look at the long-gone culture of the Yorkshire Dales — and with Tricki Woo, it sprinkles in the surreal. In an otherwise realistic universe, this little beast controls everything the light touches, and the series never acknowledges it might be strange. It’s a welcome dash of wit that helps keep the show from becoming treacly.

    But then again, maybe it’s not a joke. Tricki Woo is played by a dog known simply as Derek — last names are for lesser celebrities — and on the PBS website, both Derek’s trainer and the entire cast describe him as a diva. Elsewhere, the website reveals that Tricki Woo is based on an actual dog named Bambi, whom the real James Herriot met during his travels as a vet. So perhaps there’s something about this particular Pekingese and all who embody him that tilts the balance of power in his favor. If that’s true, then this writer apologizes for any hurt this essay may have caused. To make amends, a Battenberg cake will be delivered in the morning.

    All Creatures Great and Small airs Sundays at 9:00 PM ET on PBS. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    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, PBS, Samuel West, Tony Pitts