All Creatures Great and Small

What I think I’m doing here: Passing along my enthusiasm for the recent TV adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small and feeling some feelings.

When I was little my mom would read me stories from the series of illustrated books James Herriot wrote for children. Memories of Blossom the runaway cow or Gyp the silent sheepdog are symbolic shortcuts back to the safe harbors of bedtime stories. My mom passed away a number of years ago, shortly after I graduated from college, but when I had children of my own I bought used copies of Only One Woof and The Market Square Dog and Blossom Comes Home, hopefully creating new memories, new harbors. To be an adult is to live a life where “everything has to be parried” says Knausgaard in Spring. If you’re lucky, like I was, you have opportunities as a child to simply accept and take in, and part of what I took in were stories of a vet at work in the Yorkshire Dales.

So, I am the sort of person primed for what the recent television adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small has to offer – a certain nostalgia for a place I’ve never been, long tracking shots of rolling green fields, the comfort of knowing that James will always do the honorable thing (always), and the web of family and community that Skeldale House promises (a safe harbor for its characters, and for its readers/viewers). Even if it was absolutely terrible, I would probably tune in – my adult defenses are no good here (so fair warning for what follows). But, I’m pleased to say it is actually quite good – strong performances, excellent production values, good writing – it works.

The season finale, a Christmas holiday episode, provides some illustration of how the show creators have managed to produce a fundamentally warmhearted show that avoids becoming overly saccharine. Specifically, there are two scenes in the village church, one off screen, one on, involving Mrs. Hall (Skeldale House housekeeper) and Helen (local farmer’s daughter – James’ love interest), that demonstrate attempts to thread the storytelling needle.

The church scene that ends the season, which actually isn’t a scene at all as it mostly happens off screen, is when Helen jilts her fiancé at the altar. Anyone who is familiar with the story knows that James and Helen will eventually get married (and, let’s be honest, anyone with any exposure to television at all knows that’s going to be the ultimate outcome of the story after watching the show for more than ten minutes). The writers avoid the temptation to turn James’ rival into a mustache twirling villain, and the climactic moment of rejection happens off-screen (but in front of the entire town), with James arriving on the scene in the aftermath as the villagers pour out of the church. The rejection at the altar scene is a cliché, and the writers wisely leave it blank, so viewers are left to fill it in with their own imagination. No tearful confessions of love follow, but instead the final image is James and Helen walking silently out of the church (which spins the storyline out for another season, at least, and foreshadows what’s to come). So, instead of raising the volume with tears and drama, the creators went for quiet and subdued, trusting the narrative bones of the relationship they’ve already established on screen.

The other scene, the one where I think the writers are managing to do something more than just fill in the blanks of the template Herriot’s stories provide, is Mrs. Hall in the church on Christmas Eve. Mrs. Hall stands alone in her pew, singing along with the rest of the congregation to “Joy to the World” and has a slow motion breakdown, trying and failing not to cry (her estranged son has not come to Darrowby for Christmas Eve as promised). Siegfried slips into the pew and takes her hand (being British, of course they don’t make eye contact) and they share their hymnal. Mrs. Hall’s turbulent inner life, for a brief moment, breaks through her stiff-upper-lip exterior (although this isn’t an isolated moment, just a climactic one) and we are reminded that she is “Audrey Hall,” with history, dreams, and desires, and not just “the housekeeper.” It takes a quiet private moment and puts it under the spotlight (in contrast to taking the big dramatic public moment of the wedding and moving it offscreen). It’s a nice bit of acting, a nice bit of writing. Despite my attempts to parry it, it slipped its narrative knife between my ribs.

Part of why it works is that Mrs. Hall, in this updated series, is more than a cardboard cutout, more than simply a functionary cog in the Skeldale House machinery. She is someone with an inner life and the little scene in the church helps give dimension to it. More than just a producer of packed lunches for the vets on their rounds, she is a fully rounded character – it’s just relatively rare to see this sort of thing in stories (or in life).

There’s this wonderful and brutal scene in Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, where the book’s protagonist Fritz, (better known to history as the Romantic poet, Novalis), comes home and meets his mother at night in the garden. He has sent a letter proclaiming his love for an unsuitable match. Fitzgerald shifts perspective for a moment: “An extraordinary notion came to the Freifrau Auguste, that she might take advantage of this moment, which in its half-darkness and fragrance seemed to her almost sacred, to talk to her eldest son about herself. All that she had to say could be put quite shortly: she was forty-five, and she did not see how she was going to get through the rest of her life. Abruptly Fritz leaned towards her and said, ‘You know that I have only one thing to ask. Has he read my letter?’” The mother, who thinks for a moment she might have the previously unimaginable opportunity to finally “talk to her eldest son about herself” finds her hopes smashed, for he has “only one thing” – himself and his concerns – that he could possibly want to talk to his mother about. A few lines later Fitzgerald writes, “Thoughtfulness can be more painful than neglect. The Freifrau, however, had had very few opportunities to learn this.” Attention, in stories and in life, is rare for the Mrs. Halls of the world, as Fitzgerald (who for many years could be counted among them – an unpublished, poorly paid, overworked teacher in a difficult marriage) knew well. The scene in the church on Christmas Eve makes someone visible who too often is invisible.

It seems obvious, now that I’ve come to the end, why I found writing this post more of a struggle than I expected. Why exactly do I find that scene with Mrs. Hall in the church so moving? Part of it is the associations with childhood, the way I feel the loss of my mother in remembering Herriot’s stories. But, it is more messy than that. I, of course, have played out versions of the scene of Fitzgerald’s “The Freifrau in the Garden” many times over the years, as many sons do – rushing to my mother with my own concerns, self-absorbed, never considering the inner life and desires of the woman I was leaning on for support. Not until the end, in the final stages of her illness, did I perhaps manage to shift perspective, to try and give opportunity for her to finally have a chance to “talk to her eldest son about herself” and it was, of course, too late. That scene with Mrs. Hall brought to mind those childhood memories of safe harbors my mom gave me, but also of my own failures to grant space and attention, the mistakes that cannot now be corrected. My mother would have liked the show, and I wish I could have shared it with her.