I’m still struggling to get my reading head together, so I thought I’d put together some ponderings on a series of books I haven’t read that are the basis for two tv adaptations that I’ve watched and loved. Just a bit of randomness to while away a moment. I’m also going full ‘blocks’ with this post, rather than relying on the safety of the ‘classic block’. Hopefully it will look okay when I post it.
BBC Four started repeating the first series of its 1978 adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small last week. It’s a tv show from my childhood that I have fond memories of, and I’m happy to say that watching the repeats doesn’t disappoint.
Channel 5 made a new adaptation that was broadcast last year. This version has a few differences to the BBC adaptation, but is equally as good.
Both tv shows are based on the books by James Herriot, which was the pen name of real life vet Alf Wight. I’ve never read the books, which is remarkable because I watched the tv show avidly as a kid, my mum worked in a library and would have had access to the books, and I wanted to be a vet for a while (vet, nurse (inspired by the Sue Barton…Nurse series of books), or archaeologist were my main choices when adults asked that age old question ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’). I’m going to remedy my lack of knowledge of the books soon. They might be the antidote to the indifference I’m currently experiencing in my reading.
The newest tv adaptation is imbued with a warmth that I found comforting during these bizarrely isolating times, and as a result I was surprised at how bolshy the 1978 series felt in comparison. Perhaps we were a less coddled lot in the 1970s. The other striking thing, normal at the time, of course, is the lack of incidental music in the earlier adaptation. It’s literally a play on the television with an ensemble of actors bringing the story to life, the action cutting from scene to scene, and a complete lack of the modern conceit of musical cues to tell you how you are supposed to be feeling. The absence of syrupy strings, doom laden piano and the like is refreshing. The 2020 adaptation, because it’s now and not then, is chock full of emotional cues and infinitely cosier. It’s not a bad thing, but I wonder what Alf Wight would have made of it.
The other surprising thing was what a bastard the 1978 version of Siegfried Farnon could be. Robert Hardy plays him in a very muscular way, entering into his colleagues’ personal space and grabbing hold of them at every opportunity. He flips between moods, one moment expansively gracious, the next grumpy and visceral in his disapproval. It’s a brilliant performance. Christopher Timothy as James is young, precocious and swaggering. Apparently, Alf Wight wrote to him to say that he portrayed James Herriot exactly as Wight had written him. When I was a child, Tristan was my favourite character and I loved Peter Davison in the role. In comparison with the physicality of Hardy and Timothy, Davison is a much more relaxed screen presence and plays his character well – charming and louche.
The 2020 Channel 5 cast take an altogether different approach. Sam West as Siegfried has a depth of sorrow that stems from a backstory that isn’t present in the 1978 version. While still cantankerous at times, his exasperation is less threatening, drawn more from disappointment than from fury. Nicholas Ralph portrays James as a wide-eyed ingenue, eager to please, and not quite as cocksure as his earlier equivalent. Callum Woodhouse as Tristan initially presents an altogether less likeable version of the younger Farnon brother, more obviously a waster than the Davison version, which sets up the transformation into a better version of himself nicely.
The Mrs Halls are different, too. 1978 Mrs Hall is largely a background character, making dour pronouncements, cooking food and casting withering looks. 2020 Mrs Hall is more central to the action. Not just the woman who keeps the home going, she has a life and cares of her own, and even joins the vets in the pub from time to time.
And what about Helen? After Tristan, Helen was my next favourite character in the 1978 show. She was played by Carol Drinkwater for the first three series, and I thought she was mysterious and glamorous, a cool character who is a good foil to Timothy’s James. Rachel Shenton plays Helen much more feistily in the recent adaptation, and I like her portrayal a lot. She makes a different kind of sense to the 1978 Helen.
It will be interesting, when I do get round to reading the books, to compare the two tv adaptations with what Alf Wight wrote in his books. If you’re in the UK and are casting around for something to watch on tv that distracts you from everything else that’s going on at the moment, you can watch the 1978 series weekly on BBC Four on Thursday nights (catch up with episodes you’ve missed on iPlayer), and the 2020 series is on the My 5 player (currently showing on PBS in the US, I believe).