This week’s episode of All creatures great and small – The third episode of the third season, titled Surviving Siegfried – offered something rare for this series: flashbacks.
Adapted from the internationally bestselling series of memoirs by veterinary surgeon Alf White, writing under the pseudonym James Herriot, this show is set squarely in the late 1930s in the sleepy English farming community of Darrowby, a fictional corner of Yorkshire. Dells, where 21st-century viewers might hide away an hour a week and let their troubles be replaced by cute stories about rural animal welfare. The series centers on veterinary surgeon James (Nicholas Ralph), toiling under the watchful eye of Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West), who struggles to please him — but not nearly as much as Siegfried’s regular brother, Tristan (Callum Woodhouse). .
All of these characters are familiar to readers of Heriot’s books. But they first became staples of the television landscape in 1978, when the BBC premiered the first serial adaptation of All creatures great and small. To call the new series a remake of the previous series would be inconvenient, as both take liberties with adapting Heriot’s books. But in Siegfried’s awareness of the traumas of the war, the two series have remarkable echoes. Two iterations of the same man experiencing the same righteous world-weariness that resonated just as clearly four decades ago as they do today.
“Surviving Siegfried” transports the viewer to Belgium in 1918, a rupture in the typical operations of the series that underscores how present the First World War is in the consciousness of the characters now facing the Second. There, a younger version of the usual eccentric Siegfried—played in these clips by Andy Sellers, now seen as an imposing captain in the Royal Armed Forces around the time of Armistice Day—has been assigned to tend to his pioneer’s wounded horse.
“Physically, he will make a full recovery,” is Siegfried’s younger version of the animal. But there is another wound, perhaps even greater: “the damage we can’t see.”
In the show’s present, another war looms, overshadowing a series that previously struck a reassuring note of escapism. Jeeps drive by as Siegfried shuttles between Darube and outlying farms; The previous season ended with his housekeeper, Mrs. Hall (Anna Madley) watching a fire bombard the sky. Now, Siegfried has been invited to care for another traumatized horse—River, who won’t ride—and though the upcoming brutality has not yet touched these very creatures, her specter haunts the season.
“Are you well?” Tristan asks the stubborn vet as he drives back to see River. Siegfried himself was thrown from a horse so many times that he could hardly walk, let alone drive a car.
“That’s a bloody stupid question!” Siegfried snaps. “Of course I am not! How many of us can really feel okay given the state of our damn world? And so, gently antic all creatures Big and small He must balance his status as a relaxing tonic for the chaotic and painful 21st century with his awareness of the fact that the world has always been more complex than any of us would prefer.
The world was no less complex and painful 43 years ago this month, when the BBC premiered the third season of the original TV series. All creatures great and small. The season aired less than a year into Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister (the original series run would match 11 years in office within one year), amid a period of massive upheaval in the United Kingdom, a nation still reeling from a year of unprecedented strikes, which The climax will be called the Winter of Discontent in retrospect.
The fifth episode of this season, titled “If Wishes Were Horses”, serves as a parallel to, if not the basis for, “Surviving Siegfried”. Once again, we see Siegfried (played here by Robert Hardy) tending to a horse, though this time the infection is from the hoof as opposed to River’s spiritual illness. Siegfried deals with the creature, even letting the process feel dizzy. “Summer morning in an English village,” he said cheerfully. “Nothing like it.”
James (Christopher Timothy) agrees: “Not if you have time to appreciate it.”
But the bliss is quickly shattered by the news that two local boys will be joining the RAF themselves. “I think it is their duty,” said the boys’ father, but Siegfried was visibly shaken. “Politicians have failed,” he mutters as the boys head off to enlist. “Now it’s up to people like them…to pick up the pieces.”
Wishes Were Horses was broadcast in January 1980, just a few weeks after British steel workers left their jobs for the first time in over half a century. This strike will last 13 weeks, ending a few days before the third season of the show All creatures great and small In doing so, the winter discontent in the world once again forms a strong contrast to the nice series. The finale, which introduces these characters for the eight years that elapsed prior to the fourth season, ends on the image of Siegfried and James recruiting as well. “Nothing is certain anymore,” Siegfried grumbled at the end of the episode.
The same can be said about the world in which the third season is located All creatures great and small It made its debut, as we enter the fourth year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and amid the rising tide of a global outbreak that is becoming normal with shocking speed. The series premiered in September 2020, less than a year into the pandemic, and while it might be a bit apt to suggest that James Heriot and his comic entourage show up during these moments of pervasive despair to guide us toward something like hope… well, if it Fits a horseshoe.
We learn that in Belgium, Siegfried was forced to oversee the mass slaughter of horses deemed essentially worthless once he finished carrying soldiers into battle. Now told by his commanding officer once to do the same to River, a racehorse who doesn’t race (“Good for dog food,” an onlooker grumbled as Siegfried tried to tame the wild thing), Siegfried puts his foot down.
“We certainly do not need to repeat the mistakes and brutalities of the past!” He pleads to this man who still calls him Major. When the older man gruffly asks how often he would like to be rid of her, Siegfried answers with certainty: “As often as it takes.”
Siegfried indicates his determination to help River, but his determination is more general. When told to break the horse, he tells the major that his job is, in fact, to put the animal back together again. It’s the same task we wake up to every day: the need to play the small part we can in putting back together a world that seems to be breaking so fast the pieces may fall apart in your hands.
“We’re going to have to come to terms with it, Siegfried,” James told his co-star on the original series. “Actually, there is no other way.”
“You’re right, of course,” Siegfried agrees. “The human animal is the most amazing adaptation of all.” It is unclear whether Siegfried believed his words. He seems very close to tears when he says that. But Surviving Siegfried ends with something akin to catharsis: a river allowing itself to get stuck. Pioneer’s horse is saved.
In one of the flashback clips found near the middle of “Surviving Siegfried,” we learn that only one horse has returned from Belgium: the major’s personal horse. The writers chose to name the horse Orpheus, and their reasoning seems clear. Like Siegfried himself, this creature – both very large and very small – entered Hell. Now, his mission is to resurface without looking back.
All creatures great and small Available to watch on PBS Masterpiece.
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