PBS prepares to celebrate “Masterpiece’s” 50th anniversary on the heels of another gold celebration: that of the first book in author James Alfred Wright ’s veterinary series. Wright, who became better known under his pen name of James Herriot, released “If Only They Could Talk” in the U.K. in 1970, and that story became part of the “All Creatures Great and Small” collection. To celebrate both anniversaries, a new adaptation of “All Creatures Great and Small” from Playground Ent. is taking the tentpole PBS time slot (Sundays at 9 p.m.) beginning Jan. 10.
The stories that center on a new veterinarian who takes a job in a family practice in the Yorkshire Dales were adapted and aired on PBS before, for a seven-season series that began in 1978. But this is the first time they are under the “Masterpiece” brand.
“Our audience loves the costume dramas and I really also like shows that have something to say,” says “Masterpiece” executive producer Susanne Simpson. “‘All Creatures Great and Small’ is one of those shows that is period drama plus the humor, and I think what it really has to say is something about community and family, and how important that is.”
This new iteration of “All Creatures” was developed in the aftermath of Brexit in England and the 2016 presidential election in the United States, when “it was clear that there was this growing chasm between the metropolitan life and country life,” says Colin Callender, executive producer and chairman of Playground. “I felt that somehow ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ could bridge that rift — that the themes of community, the themes of family, the themes of people helping each other that were at the heart of the books would be a welcome relief from the really complicated world that we are living in.”
The show starts with veterinarian James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) as a fish out of water in 1930s Yorkshire. “In the opening episode when James comes to Yorkshire and he’s treating a horse and he’s in a suit and brogues and he has to walk through the mud, it’s getting a real sense of the mud-under-the-fingernails life,” Callender says. “That was a very important part of the ambition of the series — really understanding the very quaint, back-to-the-earth, primal quality of rural life.”
But because the writers and producers were cognizant of making this for a modern audience, they expanded the ensemble to allow some of the female characters to take “center stage with the men in a way that they weren’t originally, and to really give them agency,” he continues.
Other essential stylistic choices included playing up the “distinctive British humor” that was in the books, embracing the “regionality of the story,” exploring “the emotional lives and layers in the characters [to] dig deeper into their own stories and backstories,” and leaning into digital technology to film the show, Callender says.
“The original series was shot on videotape with the interiors in four-by-three and then when they cut outside, they went to 16mm film. We were able to use drones and all the bells and whistles that modern filmmaking has at our disposal to bring the audience a glorious, beautiful portrait of this part of England.”
“All Creatures” already aired in the U.K., scoring its network Channel 5 near-record ratings with an average of 3.3 million total live viewers. Now as it prepares to launch in the U.S. during the height of winter and a continued lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, expectations are high for how audiences Stateside will connect with it.
“Putting together a schedule that has recognizable titles is really important. They are those shows that, in a way, allow the other unknowns to also be in the schedule,” says “Masterpiece” executive producer-at-large Rebecca Eaton.