RIPON, England – Samuel West was limping.
“A cow stood on my foot,” he said. “Again!”
Wandering helmets are among the occupational hazards on the set of “All Creatures Great and Small,” the pastoral series set in 1930s Yorkshire. But on a day of intermittent sunshine here in late June, they featured a particular problem for West, who plays vet Siegfried Farnon and was preparing to film a cricket sequence.
He watched the green field, the extras imitating with bats and ball as the team prepared the shot. “I’m not sure how convincing I’m going to be in this scene,” he said.
Then West perked up. “Here comes the real star of the show,” he said excitedly. Patricia Hodge, who plays the wealthy Mrs. Pumphrey (replacing Diana Rigg, who died in September), arrived with Derek, an extravagantly fluffy Pekingese known as Tricki Woo on the show.
“I’m going to follow my lines with Derek,” said Callum Woodhouse, who plays Siegfried’s younger brother, Tristan. Hodge replied, “He’s very busy, honey.”
The cricket match, set in the fictional Yorkshire town of Darrowby, takes place at the end of the seven-part season two, which premieres Sunday on “Masterpiece” on PBS. (In Britain, it aired in September on Channel 5.)
Like much of this gracious spectacle, the contest is the setting for a series of small but important moments for the main characters: a first kiss, a sibling rapprochement, a gesture of kindness towards a rival. And as in the first season of “All Creatures”, a cheerful and optimistic tone prevails despite the distant rumors of the war. (We are now in 1938 in history).
When the first season aired in Britain in September 2020, that tone was perfect for a nation stressed by the pandemic. “All Creatures,” which featured mostly little-known actors, lots of large animals and beautiful views of the remote snowy countryside, drew more than four million viewers per episode and was Channel 5’s highest-rated show since 2016.
When he arrived in the United States in January, days after the January 6 riot on Capitol Hill, the response was similar. “Suddenly, there was nothing I wanted to see more than this gentle spectacle, with its low-stakes plot, lush landscapes, lovable animals and a fundamentally nice set of people,” wrote Alan Sepinwall in a representative review in Rolling Stone.
Season 2 comes during another coronavirus spike and in the midst of an equally deep political divide. But will you get the same reaction of appreciation now that we are no longer locked in and (perhaps) more used to the vicissitudes of pandemic life?
“I think the response will be even stronger this time because no one, a year ago, expected that we were still dealing with this in such a brutal way,” said Colin Callender, whose company, Playground, produced the series. “It will once again be a huge escape from the trials and tribulations we face every day.”
The British response to season 2 suggests that Callender is correct. “A balm for the soul,” wrote Anita Singh in The Telegraph. “Your winning formula looks even more charming,” wrote Stuart Heritage in The Guardian.
The program is based on the best-selling books by James Herriot (real name James Alfred Wight), who moved from Scotland to the Yorkshire Dales in 1937 to work in a rural veterinary practice. His placid and charming stories relate, with ironic humor and insight, the triumphs and disappointments of everyday life in small towns and on small farms. By the time Wight died in 1995, his seven books had sold more than 60 million copies and inspired a successful television adaptation and two films.
Ben Vanstone, the lead writer for “All Creatures,” said he had tried to capture the “true heart, warmth and humanity” of Herriot’s writing. The new season retains the leisurely pace of the first, in which young James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) arrives from Glasgow to join Siegfried Farnon’s veterinary practice. He lives and works in the senior vet’s house, called Skeldale House, along with Tristan and the housekeeper, Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley). And early on, James falls in love with Helen Alderson (Rachel Shenton), a farmer’s daughter who is inconveniently engaged to an eligible landowner (played by Matthew Lewis).
“Season 2 is about the next step in James’ life,” Vanstone said in a video interview. “You have to choose where you want to be; It is not just a love story between Helen and James, but between James and the Yorkshire Dales. “
In a recent phone interview, Ralph, a real-life Scotsman, said the new season finds James “growing in himself and much more assertive about moving the practice forward with the times.” Like his character, he added, he now felt much more confident about work.
“Season 2 has a lot more animals, and I loved having to do the more complex procedures,” he said, citing a scene where James helps with the difficult birth of a foal, and another where he has to put a nose in. ring on a bull. “It’s scary, but luckily James is also a bit nervous,” he said.
The new season also follows Siegfried, who has been Tristan’s surrogate father after his father’s death, as he tries to change his disapproving attitude towards the younger man.
“Siegfried would like to think of himself as the patriarch, but there is a natural decline in his authority as James and Tristan begin to prove themselves,” West said in a follow-up telephone interview. “In my own life, I have come to realize that being a parent is gardening, not carpentry; you have to let people grow in themselves, not try to mold them as you wish. Siegfried has to learn that Tristan is his own man. “
Like the upbeat Tristan, Woodhouse also had more time with animals, citing as his highlight “an amazing world-class acting budgie who knew how to play dead.” There was also a memorable cow calving scene.
Animal protection regulations allowed the cow to be on the ground for only five minutes, he explained, while the director filmed as many takes as possible within that time. “In one take, the cow sprayed urine on my neck and I had to keep going,” he said.
Vanstone said that Helen, who called off her wedding at the 11th hour in the season 1 finale, is the main focus of the new episodes. “Helen has to figure out what she wants,” she said, and “she needs time and space for herself.”
Shenton, who plays Helen, noted that in the books, women are only seen from James’s perspective. “Helen has a lot more agency here,” he said.
“I love the way women are so multifaceted,” she added. “Never mind Helen, I’m very involved in Ms. Hall’s journey!”
The restrained housekeeper, who quietly rules the chicken coop at Skeldale House, is a minor figure in Herriot’s books, but an important presence in the series, with a somewhat mysterious past life.
“This season, he meets a good man in town who is his generation and he went through WWI,” Madeley said. “They are the adults who suffered loss and trauma, but I think she is almost ready for a new adventure.”
It is Mrs. Hall and her new friend, Gerald, who talk about the rumors of the war and listen to the radio while British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain tries to reassure the public about Hitler’s intentions.
“You have to remember what the characters know and what they don’t know,” Madeley said. “They feel like they can be optimistic.”
At the cricket match, during which West honorably performed his bowling duties, despite his own bad hoof, thoughts of war were clearly far from the concerns of the characters as they batted, drank tea, and chatted.
“Our lives today are dragged by enormous forces: the pandemic, politics, governments,” West said in the subsequent interview. “But in this world, the framework is narrow and the problems feel tangible, which I think people really like.”
“Will a cow abort?” he continued. “That’s enough drama for us.”