All Creatures Great and Small, episode 3, review: enter Patricia Hodge, farewell Diana Rigg

Patricia Hodge as Mrs Pumphrey - Matt Squire/Channel 5
Patricia Hodge as Mrs Pumphrey - Matt Squire/Channel 5

“The pain of parting is nothing to the joy of meeting again.” Aristocratic Mrs Pumphrey might have been talking to her pampered lapdog, Tricki Woo, about being separated from his “Uncles” at Skeldale House, but it was a sentiment which acquired poignant significance in this milestone episode of All Creatures Great and Small (Channel 5).

It was Patricia Hodge’s debut as Mrs Pumphrey after taking over the role from Diana Rigg, who died last September aged 82. Replacing any actor in a beloved show is fraught with risk, let alone one of Rigg’s stature. It’s a measure of this revived drama’s quality that the transition was handled with such delicacy and class.

Respectful nods to Rigg’s passing were everywhere. The episode opened with a sombre funeral procession, which we later discovered was local farmer Billy Dalby’s. Like Rigg, he’d died of lung cancer. There were bittersweet references to loss, grief and the fleeting nature of time. Written with skill and subtlety by Chloe Mi Lin Ewart, this was an episode about Rigg’s death without ever directly addressing it.

Viewers had to wait until the final five minutes for Hodge to make her appearance. Mrs Pumphrey had been an off-camera presence, having travelled down to London for the 1938 Ashes Test match at The Oval. Her ladyship’s overindulged Pekingese pooch (played by the scene-stealing Derek) was duly popped onto a red velvet cushion and sent to the veterinary surgery for babysitting.

After some typical Tricki Woo scrapes - annoying Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West) and terrorising the residents of a hen house - his “mummy” returned to collect her little darling. Hodge entered like a one-woman whirlwind.

She terrified the men, talked excitedly about the cricket, extolled the virtues of Fortnum & Mason’s kippers and still found time to insult the homemade biscuits proffered by housekeeper Mrs Hall (Anna Madeley). There wasn’t much physical resemblance to Rigg but the character’s spirit was captured. Hodge’s impeccable comic timing and energetic screen presence meant she made the role her own in minutes.

Samuel West with Derek the Pekingese - Matt Squire/Channel 5
Samuel West with Derek the Pekingese - Matt Squire/Channel 5

Elsewhere, James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) was called out to visit widow Phyllis Dalby (an affecting performance from Amy Nuttall) to find that her cattle herd were seriously ill with husk, which threatened to leave her newly bereaved family with nothing. The idealistic vet’s struggle to accept that there was little he could do to save the cows caused friction with Helen (Rachel Shenton).

The ever-irascible Siegfried couldn't abide “little brother” Tristan (Callum Woodhouse) not having enough to do, so presented him with a new challenge: keeping chickens. Naturally, “avian anarchy” ensued.

The bickering brothers eventually came together to listen to the wireless, cheering and applauding as Len Hutton broke Don Bradman’s record by scoring 364 in the Test. This was a script replete with treats for Yorkshire sports aficionados, also mentioning local batsman Maurice Leyland and Leeds United striker Gordon Hodgson.

Happily, James and Helen’s disagreement eventually led to a deepening of their relationship. When he visited her to apologise, they reached a new understanding. The pair kissed for the first time while sitting on a barn roof overlooking the ravishing Dales scenery. There was romance and wry comedy amid the melancholia.

As Tricki Woo departed in an open-topped Rolls Royce, his coiffure fluttered in the bracing Yorkshire breeze. If the acting roles ever dry up, canine diva Derek might find work as a stunt double for Donald Trump’s hair. Mrs Pumphrey’s parting words were: “Home please, Francois. Toodle-oo!” Toodle-oo to Diana Rigg too.