Here’s good news: The revival of a classic British series arriving this weekend is a pure joy. Not an ounce of the original’s charm, beauty and wit has been lost. It is glorious escapism.
All Creatures Great and Small (Sunday, PBS, 8 p.m. on Masterpiece) is a new take on James Herriot’s books, the basis for a movie and a beloved series on BBC TV running off and on from 1978 to 1990. Here we get more than a mere remake. The producers went back to Herriot’s books and mined them for a more mature, sensitive storytelling. There is less buffoonery and in particular the key women figures are more complex and intriguing. But, oh the enchantment is still there; the whimsy and the celebration of the spectacular landscape. Plus, of course, those adorable animals.
Newcomer Nicholas Ralph stars as Herriot. It’s the 1930s and although he’s just qualified as a veterinary surgeon, he can’t land a job. His mother tells him to take a job on the docks and give up his foolish dream. But an invitation to a job interview in a tiny village in Yorkshire gives him hope, and off he goes. Of course, he gets lost in the vastness of the hills and valleys and the village vet who wants an assistant, Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West), is deeply skeptical that he can hack it. The young man’s entry into this remote, vast but insular world is fraught but filled with humour. You are beguiled from the get-go.
The series pays lavish attention to the scenery, with today’s technology allowing a real visual feast in the sweeping vista of green and craggy moors. Herriot’s adventures as a rural vet also allow for a deep appreciation of farm life, whether the young James and Siegfried are dealing with a recalcitrant bull or a mix up about the tiny house cats who need treatment. As dominant as two male figures are – Siegfried’s brother Tristan (Callum Woodhouse) soon appears – the women are finely drawn, significant figures. Anna Madeley as Mrs. Hall, Siegfried’s housekeeper, is less the fussbudget and now many sided. Then there is the glorious figure of Helen Alderson (Rachel Shenton, who also won an Academy Award for her live-action short film The Silent Child), the strong-willed and witty daughter of a local farmer. This Helen is utterly enthralling, bewitching and somehow earthily glamorous marching through mud in her overalls and wellington boots. The whole production – there are six episodes – is as fine an antidote to these grim contemporary times as you can find.
Also airing this weekend
The Nature of Things: Searching for Cleopatra (Saturday, CBC NN, 8 p.m., and streams on CBC Gem) is Susan Teskey’s lovely and fascinating look at the great mystery that surrounds Cleopatra, from her ability to rule a vast empire, to the nature of her death and the location of her tomb. It’s a nifty blend of debunking the pop-culture myths and the archeological work to find her burial place. It rather cleverly manages to be a mystery story and a rebuke of the male-created legends that surround the once-mighty Queen of Egypt.
Tiger (Sunday, HBO/Crave 9 p.m.) is the first part of a two-part look at the life and career of Tiger Woods (continuing next Sunday.) Its appeal rests in your curiosity about Woods, because he does not participate, remaining as famously guarded as ever. What we get then in the program, made by Oscar-nominated documentarians Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamachek, is a series of perspectives from outside, with some old clips of Woods speaking cautiously about his life. It’s mainly based on a 2018 biography of Woods by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian and often concentrates on the golfer’s relationship with his disciplinarian father, Earl Woods. One of the few genuine insights comes from his high school girlfriend, Dina Parr, who liked the laidback Woods but also says of him, “he had no life skills.”
Les Misérables (Sunday, CBC, 8 p.m., two episodes) arrives on CBC after airing on PBS in 2019. Note, this isn’t the musical, but a multipart British adaptation of Victor Hugo’s original novel, about the have-nots and why revolutions happen. It has a formidable visual sweep that starts with a stunning overhead shot of the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo. All the dead, all the killing, and for what? Our central antihero Jean Valjean (Dominic West doing a wickedly robust, stoic man of the people) is breaking rocks in prison. Because he stole a loaf of bread. And, back in Paris, naive seamstress Fantine (Lily Collins) is being seduced by upper-class rogue Félix. Visually breathtaking, as drama it leans toward the earnest.
Finally, note that The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth (Sunday, Crave 10:30 p.m.) returns this week. The docuseries that always illuminates a lot about American politics has a rather momentous week to report on.
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