What The Larkins could learn about nostalgia from All Creatures Great and Small

Amy Nuttall and Nicholas Ralph in All Creatures Great and Small - Channel 5
Amy Nuttall and Nicholas Ralph in All Creatures Great and Small - Channel 5

That’s the way to do it, Pop Larkin. All Creatures Great and Small (Channel 5) put ITV rival The Larkins firmly in the shade with a finale which was damn near “perfick”. So how come the revival of James Herriot’s beloved veterinary stories have proved such a success, whereas the current adaptation of HE Bates’s Darling Buds of May has misfired so badly?

Ostensibly, the two series are similar propositions. Both are gently comedic dramas set in rural idylls, either side of the Second World War. Both are remakes of ratings hits from the pre-streaming age. Both are beautifully shot and warmly nostalgic. But while one has proved Channel 5’s biggest ever drama, the other has made viewers switch off in their droves.

Performances have a lot to do with it. Up in the Yorkshire Dales, Samuel West leads a cast who inhabit the familiar characters’ tweeds and wellies with gusto. Down in rural Kent, however, Bradley “Pop” Walsh and Sabrina “Mariette” Bartlett can’t hold a candle to David Jason and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Crucially, All Creatures is also canny enough to realise that if ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Its faithful rendering soon converted fans of the original adaptation. The Larkins has angered devotees with bafflingly clumsy changes - even binning Pop’s “perfick” catchphrase. All Creatures’ inclusive casting is sensitively done. In The Larkins, half of Littlechurch’s residents are racially diverse, which many viewers have found jarring.

In summary, All Creatures is a prize thoroughbred, while The Larkins is a clapped-out donkey. It’s a salutary lesson in how to adapt much-loved literary properties and produce crowd-pleasing TV period drama.

Tony Pitts and Rachel Shenton in All Creatures Great and Small - Channel 5
Tony Pitts and Rachel Shenton in All Creatures Great and Small - Channel 5

And so to the vintage veterinary action. History provided a background hum as the series concluded, with Pathé newsreels and radio reports following Neville Chamberlain’s fateful trip to meet Hitler in Munich. Further omens were provided by Tristan Farnon (Callum Woodhouse) reading WE Johns’ Biggles Goes to War.

The prospect of a return to war came as a timely reminder to make the most of life while one can. Siegfried (West) encouraged James (Nicholas Ralph) to propose to Helen (Rachel Shenton) with a volley of proverbs: gather ye rosebuds, carpe diem, there is a tide in the affairs of men. Someone had clearly been browsing a The Little Book of Quotations at the Skeldale House fireside.

James followed his mentor’s advice and aptly asked for Helen’s hand in a field full of sheep, overlooking a stunning tarn. Just one problem: he’d forgotten to request the permission of her father, Richard (Tony Pitts). After James successfully delivered a foal for the Aldersons, overcoming the complications of a twisted uterus, he earned his prospective father-in-law’s approval.

In a quietly affecting scene, the men drank whisky together, toasted the memory of Helen’s late mother, Joan, and Richard passed down her wedding ring. Never fear, though. This was still 1930s Yorkshire, so things didn’t get too touchy-feely. “Aye, good lad,” said Richard. “Get up, you daft beggar,” added Helen when James went down on one knee.

Tristan was at a professional crossroads, but when Irish traveller Mrs Donovan (the superb Frances Tomelty) lost her beloved terrier in an accident, he learned a valuable lesson - that sick animals might need healing but their human owners often needed care as well. The whole episode was replete with such lovely moments - even no-nonsense housekeeper Mrs Hall (Anna Madeley) took tentative romantic steps with gentlemanly Gerald Hammond (Will Thorp), while James finally faced his parents and told them he wasn’t returning to Glasgow. Darrowby was his home now.

Roll on the Christmas special. We left on a heart-warming tableau in The Drovers Arms as everyone raised a tankard to James and Helen’s engagement. “To peace and to Mr Chamberlain,” added Siegfried. Hmm, about that…