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‘All Creatures Great and Small’: Lockdown Writing and Great Dog Performance Create Perfect S2 Ending

Series writer Ben Vanstone dives into the PBS hit's latest Christmas special and Season 2's supersized romantic highlight.

MASTERPIECE“All Creatures Great and Small” Season 2Sundays, January 9 - February 20, 2022 on PBSEpisode SixSunday, February 13 at 9/8c on PBSJames solves both medical and romantic emergencies. Meanwhile, Siegfried, Tristan, and Mrs. Hall also face hurdles.Shown from left to right: Tristan Farnon (Callum Woodhouse), Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West), James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph), Helen Alderson (Rachel Shenton), Jenny Alderson (Imogen Clawson) and Richard Alderson (Tony Pitts)For editorial use only.Photographer: Helen Williams

“All Creatures Great and Small”

Helen Williams

On the list of things you theoretically shouldn’t do in a Christmas special, “a last-minute wedding cancellation” and “coming very close to killing off a beloved pet” are pretty high.

Yet, “All Creatures Great and Small” has done each in consecutive years and still delivered cozy, season-capping holiday episodes. It’s one of the show’s enduring charms that it can present such a happy atmosphere without skipping over some serious issues.

“We’re trying to find a story that’s heartwarming, but also the emotionally layered story for Christmas that sort of lifts you up,” series writer Ben Vanstone said, also acknowledging, “For me, there’s always a slight sadness associated with Christmas.”

That sadness was enhanced somewhat during the 2020 Christmas season when, like many during that time, Vanstone was unable to visit his family. Working during that time, he wrote a storyline for veterinarian protagonist James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph), channeling those complicated feelings about being separated at a festive time. It’s a culmination of season-long feelings of being away from family for James’ fiancée Helen (Rachel Shenton) and Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley), too. The former faces a new married life away from her widower father and kid sister, while the latter still nurses the pain of a past life with which she’s lost contact.

“At the time I was writing, everyone was kept away from their families and having to make quite hard decisions about who they go and see. I was thinking about Mrs. Pumphrey as well. She loves that dog so much probably because she’s not got anybody else,” Vanstone said. “There’s a lot of people that are lonely at Christmas and I wanted to tell a story about people coming together, especially for us all when we we’re probably not able to be together.”

The logistical challenges of filming a Christmas episode in the heart of summer means that this Season 2 “All Creatures Great and Small” special became self-contained and intimate by its nature. Vanstone explained that scenes that aren’t filmed high up in the Yorkshire Dales or in an easily dressed Darrowby town square gradually get constricted to more controlled spaces.

MASTERPIECE“All Creatures Great and Small” Season 2Sundays, January 9 - February 20, 2022 on PBSEpisode Seven (UK Christmas Special)Sunday, February 20 at 9/8c on PBSJames and Helen question their future together in the run up to Christmas Day, while things look grave for one of Darrowby’s most beloved animals.Shown: Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West)For editorial use only.Photographer: Helen Williams

“All Creatures Great and Small”

Helen Williams/Playground Television (UK) Ltd

It’s an interesting counterpoint to the more overarching elements of the Season 2 ending, one that previews a coming conflict that extends far beyond Northern England. Again balancing the joy and the melancholy of Christmastime, the episode’s brighter new beginnings play out against the looming specter of World War II.

“That image of Mrs. Hall looking out the window at the bomber was an end-of-series moment that was planned five years ago,” Vanstone said. “We always knew that we were going to go into 1939, when the war breaks out. That’s inevitable and that will affect our characters. The thought was that we would slowly seed it through Series 2, and it’s against that backdrop that we have James and Helen deciding what they’re going to do with their lives. You can see that decision to get married and find stability in their lives.”

Those James and Helen discussions are set up by a trio of pivotal moments in the episode prior. Rather than draw out their courtship, Season 2 ends with the happy couple taking a flying leap into a combined future. One would expect that the show would only get one shot at a proposal, but Vanstone found a way to split that moment into some key emotional stages.

“I kind of did three proposals in that episode. The first one where James just sort of blurts it out. That’s what I did. I sort of accidentally proposed. It just felt very real. If you want to be with someone, you just say it. And then once you’ve said it, you can’t really unsay it,” Vanstone said. “For me, the most moving proposal in a way is Helen’s dad, passing the ring to James and asking if he would use it in that sort of father, future son-in-law moment. That’s my favorite of the three. The final one where he does the slightly cheesy, on-the-knee, we always love the swoon moment, but we also like to cut through it. It’s like, if you’ve got sauce that’s too sweet, having something with a bit of sharpness in there. Anything that’s getting close to being too cheesy, we always try and find the truth and humor in it.”

Knowing that a wedding was decidedly not in the cards for the Season 2 Christmas special (“From a character perspective, we said that there’s no way Hannah’s getting married at Christmas”), Vanstone helped to fashion a holiday story of survival for Skeldale House’s most VIP patient. Tricki Woo’s brush with mortality ends up being the basis for some of the episode’s most dramatic moments. Leaving those pivotal sequences up to the acting prowess of a Pekingese seems like a risky proposition, but Vanstone had confidence in his canine cast member.

“My attitude is I always write what I want it to look like, and then trust people to deliver it. If there are things we can’t do, they’ll come back and say, ‘We can’t get the dog to walk from two legs.’ But Derek, who is Tricki Woo is just incredible. He always does what’s in the script. The moment when he woke up, he just did it in one take and that was it,” Vanstone said. “It was so bizarre watching the rushes because he just did it. I thought, ‘How have they done that?’ Tricki, almost on his deathbed, and Derek just goes to sleep. I don’t know if they stroked his paw in the right way and he just went off. But yeah, he’s outstanding. There’s not many like Derek.”

MASTERPIECE“All Creatures Great and Small” Season 2Sundays, January 9 - February 20, 2022 on PBSEpisode SixSunday, February 13 at 9/8c on PBSJames solves both medical and romantic emergencies. Meanwhile, Siegfried, Tristan, and Mrs. Hall also face hurdles.Shown: James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph)For editorial use only.Photographer: Helen Williams

“All Creatures Great and Small”

Helen Williams

Animals continue to be a key part of the both the show’s success and its slightly unconventional production process. Like any projects filming over the past two years, “All Creatures Great and Small”  went through the same rigorous protocols and testing processes in order to ensure everyone’s health and safety. Compared to other TV dramas, that wasn’t quite as much of a change, considering the amount of work the show was already doing to protect its on-screen animals.

“Because of the way we had to look after the animals and look after the farms that we went to, we already had quite stringent biosecurity measures in place so we weren’t taking Foot and Mouth from farm to farm. So we already had some of the infrastructure to our our processes that we would need for for COVID,” Vanstone said. “We had segments on set, and there was a very tight red area where only certain people were able to go in. It’s always difficult with big animals, pigs, cows and getting them where you need to get them. It was just another layer.”

That care that goes into health measures also goes into the way that the on-screen veterinarians use the tools at their disposal. If it seems like James and Siegfried (Samuel West) and Tristan (Calum Woodhouse) are using instruments straight out of the 1930s, it’s because they are.

“The most amazing thing is there’s a Herriot Museum in Thirsk, the town in Yorkshire. You can go into the original Skeldale House. It’s three stories, and it’s full of all their old equipment. Absolutely full. So we’ve raided most of it, and we’ve taken loads of it out there. We’ve got original equipment from from the actual time,” Vanstone said. “Our veterinary advisor, Andy Barrett, he worked with Donald Sinclair, the person that Siegfried is based on. On Samuel West’s first day of filming, he actually gave Sam Sinclair’s hoof knife, which had his name engraved on it. Still, so Sam was kind of suddenly holding the actual tool the personal secrets based on news. It’s fun to think that almost all those medical props would have been handled by Alf Wight, the real James Herriot. There’s a few bits that we have to recreate. But on the whole, those bits are taken from the museum.”

It’s a key part of making the show feel at home. But it’s also a key example of how the “All Creatures Great and Small” relies on those tiny additions and adjustments. The cast and crew is preparing to film Season 3 in the coming weeks. With a Season 4 renewal already locked in, Vanstone and the writing staff have even more runway to work with as they plan out their version of Skeldale’s future.

“it’s a difficult show in that it’s very hard to write compelling stories where there’s so little happening, in a way. It’s all about the character, it’s all about the small things, and getting the tonal balance takes a lot of work,” Vanstone said. “With our stories, we always say that small things are very, very big.”

“All Creatures Great and Small” Season 2 is now available to stream in the PBS app. 

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