This week’s episode of All beings, great and small – the third episode of the third season, titled “Surviving Siegfried” – offered something rare for this series: flashbacks.
The show, based on the internationally best-selling series of memoirs by veterinarian Alf Wight, who wrote under the pseudonym James Herriot, was set in the late 1930s in the sleepy English farming community of Darrowby, a fictionalized corner of the Yorkshire Dales, where 21st century viewers can run away for an hour a week and have their troubles replaced with friendly tales of rural animal care. The series revolves around veterinarian James (Nicholas Ralph), who toils under the watchful eye of fastidious Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West), whom he struggles to please – though not as much as Siegfried’s good-for-nothing brother Tristan (Callum Woodhouse). .
All these figures are known to readers of Herriot’s books. But they first became staples of the TV landscape in 1978, when the BBC released the first serialized adaptation of All beings, great and small. It would be inappropriate to call the new series a remake of the previous one, as both are taking their own liberties in adapting Herriot’s books. But in Siegfried’s awareness of war traumas, the two series do show remarkable echoes. Two iterations of the same man are both beset by the same righteous world-weariness, one that would have resonated as clearly four decades ago as it does now.
“Surviving Siegfried” takes the viewer to Belgium in 1918, a schism in the typical operations of the series that underscores how present the First World War still remains in the consciousness of characters now facing the Second. There, a younger version of the typically jovially eccentric Siegfried – played in these segments by Andy Sellers, and now seen as a solemn captain in the Royal Armed Forces around the time of Armistice – is tasked with caring for his major’s wounded horse.
“Physically, he will make a full recovery,” this younger version of Siegfried remarks of the animal. But there’s another, perhaps even bigger, wound: “the damage we can’t see.”
In the show’s present, a new war looms, casting a shadow over a series that has previously struck a comforting note of escapism. Jeeps pass the car as Siegfried commutes between Darrowby and the outlying farms; the previous season concluded with his housekeeper, Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley), watching a hothead blast the sky. Now Siegfried has been called upon to care for another traumatized horse – River, who won’t be ridden – and while the impending brutality hasn’t touched these particular creatures yet, his ghost dominates the season.
“Is everything alright?” Tristan asks the wayward vet as he drives him back to see River. Siegfried himself has been thrown off his horse so many times that he can barely walk, let alone drive a vehicle.
“That’s a stupid damn question!” Siegfried snaps. ‘Of course I’m not! None of us are! Neither should we be! State of the damn world – something would be wrong with us if we were! The line suits the character and story, but may also strike a chord with contemporary viewers. How many of us can actually feel good considering the state of our own goddamn world? So the gentle antic All creatures Big and small must strike a balance between his status as a comforting tonic for a messy and painful 21st century and his awareness of the fact that the world has always been more complex than anyone would like.
The world was no less complex and painful this month, 43 years ago, when the BBC premiered the third season of the original television show. All beings, great and small. The season aired less than a year after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister (the original series’ run would correspond to her 11 years in office within a year), amid a time of massive turmoil in the United Kingdom, a country still reeling after a year of unprecedented strikes, the culmination of which would retroactively be dubbed the Winter of Discontent.
That season’s fifth episode, titled “If Wishes Were Horses,” serves as a parallel to, if not the basis for, “Surviving Siegfried.” Once again we see Siegfried (here played by Robert Hardy) tending to a horse, though this time it’s the infection of the hoof, as opposed to River’s spiritual illness. Siegfried is in his element when dealing with the creature, even leaving the operation feeling giddy. “Summer morning in an English village,” he beams. “There’s nothing like it.”
“Not if you have time to appreciate it,” agrees James (Christopher Timothy).
But the bliss is quickly shattered by the news that two local lads are off to join the RAF. “I think it’s their duty,” the boys’ father remarks, but Siegfried is visibly shaken. “The politicians have failed,” he mutters as the boys set off to enlist. “Now it’s up to people like them… to pick up the pieces.”
“If Wishes Were Horses” aired in January 1980, just a few weeks after Britain’s steelworkers left their jobs for the first time in over half a century. That strike would last for 13 weeks, ending just a few days before the third season of All beings, great and small did, the wintry discontent of the world once again provided an invigorating contrast to a gentle sequence. The finale, which bid these characters farewell for the eight years that passed before the fourth season, ends with Siegfried and James signing on as well. “Nothing is certain anymore,” Siegfried mutters towards the end of the episode.
The same can be said of the world in which the third season of All beings, great and small has premiered as we enter the fourth year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and amid a rising tide of global fascism that is normalizing with shocking speed. The series premiered in September 2020, less than a year after the pandemic, and while it might be a little helpful to suggest that during these moments of widespread desperation, James Herriot and his comedic entourage emerge to lead us to something like hope… Well, if the horseshoe fits.
In Belgium, we learn, Siegfried was forced to oversee the mass slaughter of horses deemed essentially worthless after they finished carrying soldiers into battle. Now summoned by his former commanding officer to do the same with River, a racehorse who won’t race (“Good for nothing but dog food,” an onlooker grumbles as Siegfried tries to tame the wild thing), Siegfried puts his foot down. .
“Surely we don’t have to repeat the mistakes and cruelties of the past!” he begs this man he still calls Major. When the older man gruffly asks how many times he is willing to be thrown off the field, Siegfried firmly replies, “As many as it takes.”
Siegfried refers to his determination to help River, but his determination is more general. When asked to break the horse, he informs the major that his job is to put the animal back together. It’s the same task we all wake up to every day: the need to play as small a part as possible in reassembling a world that feels like it’s breaking so fast the pieces could crumble in your hands .
“We’re going to have to agree, Siegfried,” James tells his partner in the original series. “It really can’t be any other way.”
“You’re right, of course,” Siegfried agrees. “The human animal is the most wonderful adaptability of all.” It is unclear whether Siegfried believes his own words. He seems very close to tears when he says it. But “Surviving Siegfried” ends on something closer to catharsis: River lets himself be ridden. The Major’s horse has been rescued.
In a flashback segment found halfway through “Surviving Siegfried,” we learn that only one horse returned from Belgium: the major’s personal steed. The writers chose to call the horse Orpheus, and their reasoning seems clear. Like Siegfried himself, this creature – so big and yet so small – has walked into hell. Now it’s his job to re-emerge without looking back.
All beings, great and small is available to view on PBS Masterpiece.