[Editor’s Note: The following interview contains spoilers for “All Creatures Great and Small” Season 1, including the ending of the finale.]
There are many ways that “All Creatures Great and Small” feels like a soothing force in the current TV world, but one might not be fully apparent until the ending moments of the Christmas special that closes out the show’s first season on PBS. The seventh chapter of this adaptation update — one that also includes some surprise sleigh bells in the breezy opening theme music and important plot points driven by the presence of mistletoe — concludes without the season ever seeing a true antagonist.
As series creator and writer Ben Vanstone explained, that was always part of the plan.
“I made a rule quite early on in the process that I don’t think there are any villains in this piece,” Vanstone said. “You have to find that drama in a different place. And I think that having that restriction, in many ways, forces you to be more inventive with how you express these characters’ conflicted emotions.”
Yes, the show’s main character James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) finds a roadblock to happiness with Helen (Rachel Shenton), and a few of the townsfolk in Darrowby are standoffish at times. But really, the closest thing “All Creatures Great and Small” gets to a malevolent force is the ailments of the animals that James is called on to cure. In that way, the show’s non-human co-stars have become some of the most memorable characters in the season.
That’s true in the Christmas special finale, with a pregnant dog Suzy becoming a key part in setting the rest of the episode in motion. Vanstone said that in order to keep the real-life puppies safe before they’d had a chance to get vaccinated — standard procedure even before last year — the actors reacting to the new Christmas Eve litter weren’t actually in the same room.
Ed Miller/Playground Television UK Ltd & all3media international
So even if Ralph was breathing air into a lifelike rubber puppy replica, that scene still made for some pivotal emotional beats. Watching Suzy pull through, sat in a living room away from the looming anxieties of the next day, James and Helen share a brief moment holding hands, mirroring the happy couple across from them. Vanstone said that finding those quieter moments is a special blend of planning at the script stage and the show’s other main contributors taking those cues and following their instincts too.
“I think the director, Andy Hay, came up with the idea of Bert and Ann mirroring them. So half of it was written in but then you’ve got other people who then bring their own thing to it,” Vanstone said. “Our mantra is always ‘The small is big.’ It’s a show where we get the biggest stakes out of small things. That’s true in real life. We always try and understate everything that we can and trust that the viewers are smart enough to read it and where it’s going.”
The last episode of the season features some of the key points that Vanstone had in mind from the outset. He said that his planned trajectory involved finale endpoints for the other people in James’ orbit, including Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley), Siegfried (Samuel West), and Tristan (Callum Woodhouse).
“If you’ve got a character who steps onto the screen into your show, then they’ve got to have an inner life and inner world. It was a lot of fun finding that extra strength in Mrs. Hall’s role,” Vanstone said. “For me, it was always that her story would end with wishing her son to come home to Christmas and her heart breaking when he did. That moment in the church, with Siegfried there to help her, was a moment that was in my mind from the beginning of working on this series.”
But again, showing that flexibility to follow the strengths of the characters and the performers alike, Vanstone recognized that some parts of the original plan would be far truer and more impactful with a slightly different approach. One key switch involved how Siegfried reacted to his younger brother Tristan’s final veterinary exam results.
“He was always going to get his results at the end of the day. But initially, when it was very first conceived, he failed and Tristan and Siegfried got into a whole argument over it,” Vanstone said. “But in the writing of it, it felt we’d taken Siegfried so far in revealing his real desire to sort of move on with Tristan that he lied and tossed it on the fire. That’s one of those rare moments where the character starts taking you and the story in a place you didn’t quite expect.”
Ed Miller/Playground Television UK Ltd & all3media international
The lead-up to Helen’s wedding — and the reveal that it didn’t happen — becomes one of the season’s big emotional crests. Vanstone said he never wanted James to break up the wedding himself. So charting a path to that solemn ending and leaving out some key scenes audiences might be expecting meant trusting in the work that the show’s writers and the performers had been doing throughout the season.
“I wanted to invert the trope of the person trying to stop the wedding of the one he loves. If we’ve done our job correctly, when James walks in and finds Helen on her own, I think we just wanted to give the audience the credit to be able to work that out themselves,” Vanstone said. “We might hear a little more of what exactly happened as you move forward to Series 2, and how it actually went down. But in that moment, it was more important to keep it focused on the relationship between James and Helen.”
James and Helen holding hands as they exit the church was another of those there-from-the-start images that helped get the rest of the show in motion. But rather than have a triumphant kiss with swelling strings and a cheery sendoff, it’s a far more somber and grounded place to leave the two of them. Part of that comes from the idea that, despite the occasional boast or misunderstanding, her intended husband Hugh (Matthew Lewis) isn’t played up to be a bad person. There’s plenty of love and understanding in this Christmas special, and it’s not ignorant of the complicated context that sometimes surrounds it.
“I think Helen really likes Hugh. She grew up with him and he was a great source of comfort for her,” Vanstone said. “It would reflect badly on her as well if he was just a mustache-twirling villain because you’d wonder why she’d been friends with him for so long in the first place. So we always tried to be as truthful as we could. If Helen and Hugh are together, he must have a decent core. It’s just not quite the right one for Helen and that’s maybe what she realizes.”
With the show already renewed and a start to production on Season 2 imminent, Valstone said that he’s eager to build on the chemistry of the Skeldale House crew and follow their individual storylines in more depth. (He also hinted at the potential appearance of a new kind of baby animal that the show wasn’t able to include in its opening episodes.)
“Series 1 is quite backward-looking for Mrs. Hall and Siegfried. I’m quite excited to see them looking forward a bit more,” Vanstone said. “It’s interesting to see James evolve, and his role in the world and where he’s going to choose to be.”
“All Creatures Great and Small” is available to stream via the PBS app.