New Love and Old Wounds Await in the Latest Season of ‘All Creatures Great and Small’

It's the spring of 1939, and Britain is standing on the brink of war, but for veterinarian James Herriot, there is something more pressing on the agenda as the heartwarming series returns for its third season

Great expectations

It’s the spring of 1939, and Britain is standing on the brink of war, but for veterinarian James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph), there is something more pressing on the agenda as the heartwarming series returns for its third season. No, the crisis in question is not James’ wedding to Helen (Rachel Shenton), even if the first episode hinges on their impending nuptials.  

Setting up a larger storyline, James gets sidetracked on his wedding day by a possible case of tuberculosis on a local farm. The dilemma is one that affects both of the newlyweds in the upcoming season. “This year’s really interesting, because Helen has one foot in both camps. She knows what it’s like from a farmer’s perspective, the ramifications of a positive T.B. case on a farm, which means possibly killing livestock and closing down the farm, but she also understands the importance of it from the vet’s side,” says Shenton. “She gets to navigate her way through those two worlds.”  

All Creatures Great and SmallPBSAnother development is having the honeymooners under the Skeldale House roof, an adjustment for Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley), in particular. “There’s that little wriggle of wanting to give the newlyweds their space and let them start their family life together, but I think Mrs. Hall just wants everyone ’round the table together,” says Madeley. “We have a little juggle, don’t we?”  

Shenton agrees that her character takes a minute to adjust. “Helen’s so used to doing everything herself. She’s been, kind of, the mother of Heston Grange, looking after her sister and dad, so to come into a new environment, there’s really a moment of feeling her way and finding out where her place is.” 

All Creatures Great and SmallPBSAll the characters go through something of an evolution in season three, according to producer Colin Callender. “Siegfried’s [Samuel West] past in World War One comes back to haunt him. Helen is trying to balance being a wife and leaving behind a previous life and Mrs. Hall is really dealing with, ‘Is there a life for her outside of Skeldale House?’ and reconnecting with her family and her past,” teases the producer. “One of the things that [writer] Ben Vanstone did when we launched the series was really give each character a real backstory so that we could explore that over the series. This season, in particular, we made a real effort to dig deep and to make these characters more complex and full-blooded.”  

For Ralph, it was the relatability of his character, based on real-life veterinarian and author Alf Wight, that drew him to the role. “What I loved was that James was an everyman character,” he says. “We saw him vulnerable. We saw him funny. And we saw him handle some of the drama and then the romantic side of things. Because it’s based on real people, he was so three-dimensional and those relationships were so strong and so intricate and multifaceted, that it was like an actor’s playground.”  

All Creatures Great and SmallPBSAs James continues to find his footing, that playground expands. “James certainly has grown into himself personally and professionally. He fills out his vet’s coat a little more now,” says Ralph. “He’s got some respect of the locals. He’s very much a part of this surrogate family now. And, professionally, he’s advanced to the point where he is challenging Siegfried and trying to direct Siegfried in certain ways to keep up with the times.”  

For Callender, whose résumé includes John Adams, Angels in America and Grey Gardens, All Creatures Great and Small represents everything the British producer wants to convey through his work. “My first interest is, ‘How does a character get through the day with dignity and deal with the challenges that they face? I’ve always used that as a starting point, because it’s a way that the audience can relate to that character,” he says. “For me, this show embodies everything I’ve ever wanted to do, because it is so human. Some of the most powerful moments are the smallest moments between characters.” 

As COVID appears to have increased the audience demand for kinder shows, Callender nevertheless wanted to make sure that All Creatures didn’t feel submerged in the saccharine. “Ben’s challenge was to embrace [the kinder tone] without it becoming sentimental or sappy. And I do think we’ve avoided that,” he says. “I think the wit and the humour of it avoids that—and frankly, the real honesty of the emotions of the characters.”  

What’s more, in these fractured times, Callender has witnessed the show bringing people together. “We’ve had a lot of correspondence and feedback from grandparents saying, ‘I’m watching this with my grandkids,’ or grandkids saying, ‘I’m watching it with my grandparents.’ That couldn’t be more glorious,” he says. “I think it is about a return to core values that everyone believes in, and, of course, the pandemic underscored that even further.” 

The third season of All Creatures Great and Small premieres Sunday, January 8 on WTVS and KCTS