If ever the word “wholesome” made an apt description, it does now for All Creatures Great and Small, the television adaptation of James Herriot’s best-selling memoirs about his veterinary adventures in rural England through the 1930s and beyond. The drama remains low stakes, viewers instinctively warm to the affable onscreen James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph), and sweeping shots of the idyllic Yorkshire Dales make an aesthetic feast.
With season 3 now airing in the U.K. and slated for a January release in the U.S., I’m eagerly anticipating a return to those scenic hills. While looking forward to the new season, I’ve been reminiscing on the delightful sincerity that made the show an immediate hit.
In All Creatures, simplicity equals charm. No scheming villains roam the background and most relationships exude affection. That fondness features most prominently between James and the vibrant Helen Alderson (Rachel Shenton), a local farmer’s daughter who becomes James’s fiancée by the season 2 finale.
Refreshingly, James and Helen’s relationship progresses with low angst and high warmth. Their romance emphasizes the reality and attainability of good and healthy relationships, primarily because of the community that lovingly surrounds them and the simple honesty that characterizes their dynamic, even in difficulty.
Relationships Thrive in Community
Much of the charm of All Creatures comes from the close-knit community that James finds in Yorkshire. He moves from Glasgow in hopes of finding veterinary work, but he soon also finds a new home and family, and within that, Helen. The community not only brings them together but also fills a clear need for ongoing support and accountability.
The love and loyalty of the community consistently guide James and Helen. When James first arrives, Helen and her childhood friend, Hugh Hulton (Matthew Lewis), already have an understanding. In another show, I imagine James and Helen would begin a steamy affair behind Hugh’s back, casting Hugh as a mere obstacle. But such spectacle is clearly beneath James and Helen, and Hugh’s respectability and generosity make him as valued in the community as anyone else. Even as James’s feelings for Helen grow, he makes valiant efforts to respect Hugh, both for Helen’s sake as well as for peace in the wider neighborhood.
And when James and Helen are free to be together, the people around them are indispensable in bringing them to marriage. In one of my favorite scenes, James’s loud and eccentric boss, Siegfried Farnon, tells him with cheery bluntness to stop overthinking and marry Helen. James responds with a list of predictable worries, but Siegfried’s sanguine, honest advice plants the seed that James clearly needs to take the step toward genuine commitment.
Healthy Relationships Exist, Even in a Hard World
Affectionate, healthy honesty continues once James and Helen can be together. Many shows fixate on “complicated” dynamics, claiming sex or tragedy equal “authenticity.” All Creatures argues otherwise.
Many shows fixate on ‘complicated’ dynamics, claiming sex or tragedy equal ‘authenticity.’ All Creatures argues otherwise.
Is life hard? Yes. Farmers frequently wonder if the next sick animal means loss of livelihood. James wrestles with people-pleasing. Helen often anxiously overworks in the aftermath of grief over her mother’s death. But no one defines himself by hardship, and James and Helen see one another as supports amid struggle, not as extra burdens or challenges.
An example of this comes when James recognizes his pursuit of Helen necessitates deciding between Yorkshire and Glasgow as his permanent home. In the process, he fails to tell her about a job possibility in Glasgow before she hears it elsewhere. I remember bracing for Helen to give James the cold shoulder and for him to drown his sorrows. But to my pleasant surprise, they talked about it. She asked candid questions, he honestly explained his dilemma, and they promised to work it out. It felt so refreshingly simple and normal.
Difficult relationships exist. So do healthy and happy ones, even in a hard world. The real Herriot was no stranger to worldly darkness. This adaptation has so far only whispered at World War II, but if it holds true to life, it’ll see James serve as an RAF pilot. Yet amid everyday struggle and hints of coming adversity, James and Helen and their friends demonstrate the reality of close, transparent relationships and how they can serve as a beautiful defense against pain.
Do We Expect Wholesomeness?
“Wholesome” appears frequently in discussions of All Creatures Great and Small, and I’ve wondered if it betrays underlying cynicism. Are we numb to the idea that a man and woman could love one another without woeful misunderstanding first? Is it so far-fetched that good community begets good marriages?
In our self-centered world, such ordinary acts become radically beautiful.
On the surface, All Creatures can feel removed and plain. The characters live quietly in their little 1930s farming town and James and Helen’s dates take them about as far as the local cinema. But the town also consistently supports its own, and James and Helen serve each other well with affectionate honesty. In our self-centered world, such ordinary acts become radically beautiful. The Yorkshire farming folk may be simple, but in a world that glorifies selfishness and conflict avoidance, they represent far better and more wholesome examples of community and love to emulate. I look forward to visiting them again soon.