“All Creatures Great and Small” is pastoral to the point of pastures. The show—based on a show, based on a movie, based on a series of memoirs—tells the story of young veterinarian Nicholas Ralph. He moves from urban Glasgow to rural Darrowby, Yorkshire, for an assistant job to country vet Samuel West.
Except Ralph thinks he’s just going for an interview. And he doesn’t know West didn’t actually want to interview him or hire him at all. West’s stubborn, mercurial, and big-hearted, trying to manage the expectations of his patients’ owners. The practice is mostly farm animals, though they see house pets.
Anna Madeley plays Ralph’s housekeeper, and since the house is also the practice, she is his de facto office manager. Sending for Ralph was her doing.
After a quick but thorough setup, West takes Ralph out on rounds. At this point, “Creatures” becomes a veterinary procedural and doesn’t look back. The show’s set in 1937, so there’s still a lot of excitement about various technologies, whether automobiles or medical discoveries. There’s quite a bit of driving, actually, because the scenery’s so pretty and Ralph and West both enjoy motoring around it so much, one of them yelling out “toot toot” wouldn’t be inappropriate.
The episode’s got a fairly standard structure. After initially proving himself, Ralph then runs afoul of West through questionable fault of his own. The show’s too genial to dwell on whether or not West’s trying to set Ralph up for failure. Will Ralph be able to prove himself in time or have to go back home to Glasgow, where the show’s already established he’s no veterinary prospects. All he’s got in his future there is working on the docks, like dad Drew Cain had to do (before giving up his dreams, like Ralph will have to abandon his own).
It’s a little different—Ralph’s a trained veterinarian, whereas Cain was a musician. Also, mom Gabriel Quigley being gleeful at Ralph’s imminent failure’s an odd way to start. While it may be based on fact, the episode rushes through it way too quickly. Luckily, Madeley quickly offsets everything; while she’s arguably got the least to do in this episode—fetching farmer’s daughter Rachel Shenton is the one who gives Ralph the necessary insight to breakthrough to West—Madeley makes the whole thing seem reasonable. Only through her capableness can West function at such a high level.
The show is Ralph’s first work as an actor (complete with an “introducing” credit, I think), and he’s got great timing for the fish out of water humor. In addition to being a city boy, he’s never professionally worked with farm animals, which leads to some funny moments.
And also the serious ones. While Ralph’s got the book-learning, he doesn’t have the practical experience with the animals or the professional experience with their owners. Professionalism is a very big deal to West, which the episode contextualizes beautifully. Ralph does a fine job toggling between comedy and drama.
The resolution’s appropriately suspenseful. It balances the inherently sympathetic animals in distress with Ralph’s experiences trying to relieve that distress.
It’s a really good first episode. Toot toot indeed.