W.C. Fields warned against working with kids and animals. Thankfully, “Masterpiece” ignored at least half of that advice.
As part of its 50th year on the air, the PBS staple is offering a new adaptation of “All Creatures Great and Small,” the misadventures of an adorkable veterinarian making house calls in Yorkshire, England, during the 1930s.
Compared with past “Masterpiece” series, this is a mundane affair. No one’s trying to unravel a murder or steal the throne. Its idea of a nefarious character is a spoiled doggy who steals from a picnic basket.
That gentle tone is exactly why “Small” feels like scrumptious comfort food when we crave it most. It’s bound to be popular viewing for the next few months, starting with last Sunday’s premiere on PBS.
“I remember with great affection the days as a family when we would sit down and watch television together when we were growing up,” said executive producer Colin Callender, who has previously worked on high dramas like “Wolf Hall” and “King Lear.” “My feeling was that audiences want that, and that’s clearly what’s happened during the lockdown. I think the timing of this coming out is clearly apropos.
“What’s particularly poignant about the show is what these animals meant to these owners,” Callender added during a news conference last summer. “In most of the cases, they were their livelihood. I think that relationship between the animals and their owners and the vet and that dynamic is right to the core of all the stories.”
The series is also a departure from “Masterpiece’s” habit of focusing on the wealthy and powerful.
“Something that touched me the other day is we are talking about people who aren’t very rich. We have made a lot of excellent British television stories about people who are rich,” said Samuel West, who plays the hot-tempered senior doctor, Siegfried Farnon. “But here, you lose one cow, and that’s a bad year. It is ground-level stuff. I really like that.”
PBS has taken this route before. An earlier adaptation of veterinarian James Herriot’s memoirs, which have sold more than 80 million copies worldwide, charmed audiences throughout 90 episodes that aired between 1978 and 1990. That series is now available on the streaming service BritBox.
Despite advances in technology, the new version passed on using computer-generated animals, an approach that worked for 2019’s “The Lion King” but served as a pesky distraction in the 2020 films “Dolittle” and “Call of the Wild.”
When you see rookie doctor Herriot, played by newcomer Nicholas Ralph, scamper up a wall to escape a 2-ton bull, he’s running from the real thing.
“His head was like the size of the bonnet of my car,” said Rachel Shenton, who plays Helen Alderson, a sassy farmer who catches Herriot’s eye.
But the cast said their co-stars were far from beasts of burden.
“I think when we started, we didn’t really know how difficult or easy working with the animals would be,” West said. “It is very difficult to timetable a shot with a bull if you don’t know how it is going to behave. In fact, the only days we finished early were the days we were working with animals. They were much more reliable than the humans on the whole.”
Shenton got so comfortable during a scene from the first episode, in which she’s tending to an injured calf, that director Brian Percival, who also helmed the pilot for “Downton Abbey,” had to step in.
“After we did a couple takes, Brian came over to me and whispered into my ear,” she said. “He asked, ‘Can you stop stroking her between takes because she’s falling asleep, and she needs to look stressed.’ ”
The only creatures to act like divas were the cats.
“They were like juggling with things with claws,” said Anna Madeley, who plays the doctors’ housekeeper. “They just did what they did, so I went with their idea of what the scene should be. OK. I know my place.”
One actor who had no problem bonding with her four-legged screen partner was Diana Rigg, guest-starring as the wealthy owner of a pampered Pekingese. It would be the last filmed performance from the Emmy and Tony winner, best-known stateside for her role as Emma Peel in “The Avengers.” She died in September at age 82.
“Working with Diana was an absolute pleasure from start to finish,” Ralph said during a teleconference two months before her death. “She had so much vitality, and she was keeping everybody on their toes. We’d be setting up for a take, and there’s all the people and extras, and she’s like, ‘Are we going yet? Are we going on?’ She was ready. In between the shots, it is lovely to just sit there and chat with her. She’s incredible.”
Ralph had more challenges than just acting across from a dame. The only animals he knew growing up were a pet hamster named Nip and Friendly the Cow, who belonged to the farmer next door.
While the 31-year-old Scot came with some stage experience, Herriot was his first on-screen role.
He was so green, one of his co-stars had to tell him not to bother splurging for breakfast before arriving on set the first morning.
“All this and free food,” Ralph said. “I came from the theater background. You don’t get that stuff.”
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