It’s almost impossible to convey now just how beloved All Creatures Great and Small was in its day (based on James Herriot’s bestselling books about life as a Yorkshire vet, the series ran on the BBC from 1978 until 1990). People talk about Doctor Who, and the effect its title sequence had on their youthful hearts (thump, thump, thump), but memory tells me that the All Creatures Great and Small theme – a tinkling, then soaring affair in which a piano was made to sound vaguely like a beck after rain – had just as dramatic an effect in its way. If you didn’t have (ka-boom, ka-boom, ka-boom) major hots for Tristan Farnon (Peter Davison in a fair isle tank top), either you didn’t have a telly, or you were probably dead.
Anyway, the big news is that Channel 5, currently the nation’s leading purveyor of televisual Xanax, has remade All Creatures Great and Small (1 September, 9pm) for the Call the Midwife generation. How to feel about this? Even before I started watching it, I was preparing for PTSD. Would there be canal boats? (Channel 5’s commissioning editors are obsessed with barges, caravans and Wallis Simpson; if they could commission a series called “Celebrity Royal Divorcees on Staycation” – well, they would). How floppy would Tristan Farnon’s hair be? Above all, could Mrs Pumphrey, owner of the pampered and endlessly windy Pekingese, Tricki Woo, possibly live to see another day? When I was nine, Tricki’s toxic emissions were pretty funny (OK, I mean hysterical). But now? I know we’re in the middle of a culture war, but surely we’re not going to fight for the right to tell fart jokes.
Perhaps, though, we are. Mrs Pumphrey (she’s played by – yes, really – Diana Rigg) is indeed in All Creatures 2.0, where she remains an avid feeder of her obese pooch: Tricki must have his morsels. So far, he hasn’t released any noxious gases, not even when James (Nicholas Ralph) was (ugh) draining his glands, something for which “Uncle Herriot” was rewarded with a personal invite from Tricki to one of “mummy’s” parties. But I sense we’re only one piece of Turkish delight away from a serious nose-wrinkler. Meanwhile, I must also report that Tristan (Callum Woodhouse) is not sexy at all, his hair being completely immobile; that Mrs Hall (Anna Madeley), who keeps house for James and his boss, Siegfried Farnon, is no longer an old bat, but a pert young woman; and that Darrowby (now filmed in Grassington) is so neat and non-Thirties looking, you’d hardly be surprised to find Mrs Hall strolling the aisles of Daylesford organics in search of a geranium candle for James to deploy in Tricki emergencies.
And what of Siegfried? Last time around, he was played by Robert Hardy (sidebar: as a young reporter, I once had to find male actors who’d pose for our newspaper’s magazine naked, the better to make some kind of feminist point; Hardy, then 70, was the only one who agreed). What was exciting about him – it still is, if you look at old clips – was that you never knew when he was going to go off, like a firecracker (he and his brother have Wagnerian names for a reason). In the remake, Samuel West has the role. The series’ writer, Ben Vanstone, has made the character far less temperamental, and too obviously misty-eyed when it comes to his feckless little brother, Tristan. But Siegfried/West is still the best thing in the series, by a mile. When he smokes his pipe – that little clack against the teeth! – I rather adore him.
Still, this is mushy stuff, even for one like me, who aches for Swaledale as for a lover. Siegfried and James (who’s too often soppy where he should be sardonic) have no chemistry, and the rackety-ness I remember is all gone, replaced by something very Toast catalogue. Even the animals seem styled; they use prosthetic cows’ backsides nowadays, so there’s nothing too squidgy on show either. Who’s it for, this show? Those for whom the words “Ow do, vitnry!” (translation: greetings, veterinary!) still have the power of a magic spell – or, perhaps, a sleeping tablet – will be disappointed. Everyone else, meanwhile, will be as baffled as the permanently flustered young Mr Herriot.
All Creatures Great and Small