A storyline of wayward refugees looking for a home became the latest example of the PBS show finding historic and modern parallels.
[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for “All Creatures Great and Small” Season 3 finale, including the ending.]
“All Creatures Great and Small” continues to arrive at a point in world history where every new season has been able to draft off of something greater. The search for something warm and inviting in the latter part of 2020 led many viewers to the show. Now, it’s become a years-long process to integrate the real world so that the town of Darrowby doesn’t become a fantasy.
For the PBS series’ head writer Ben Vanstone, “All Creatures Great and Small” has been a chance to embrace the world at large, rather than pretend it doesn’t exist.
“When we were getting into shooting [Season] 3, Ukraine was invaded by Russia. We were in-pandemic a bit when we were writing it. We were doing episodes about TB testing, where it’s all about the greater good. With the looming war on the horizon, it all felt that it was speaking to the world we’re living in. Not in an absolutely direct way, but it was certainly part of our conversations. Even if inadvertently, we were bringing things from our real life into the making of the show.”
The rhyming of history became less abstract and even more real when the series was filming a scene involving the arrival of World War II refugees to Darrowby.
“We were shooting Episode 6. There’s a scene in it where a group of refugee children arrive off a bus,” Vanstone said. “On that day, the local primary school came down to watch some of our filming as a bit of a day trip. They had a Ukrainian refugee child with them, who didn’t speak English. She had an iPad, which they translated things on. She was wondering what was going on with all these refugee kids. 80 years later, we were telling the same story. There were refugees in the Dales escaping a conflict. That really brought home to all of us the truth of what we were doing.”
Season 3 ends with a traditional Christmas episode and the arrival of Eva (Ella Bernstein), one of those new children in Darrowby. The usual crew at Skeldale House, including James (Nicholas Ralph), Helen (Rachel Shenton), Mrs. Hall (Anna Madeley), Siegfried (Samuel West), and Tristan (Callum Woodhouse) have a cultural exchange of sorts, including celebrations of both Christmas and Hannukah.
Helen Williams/Playground/Channel 5 Television
“It was actually based on a true story of Colin Callender, our executive producer at Playground. His mother, who’s Jewish, was evacuated. She’d never experienced Christmas before and just thought it was great, with all these weird traditions that she’d never come across. To experience Christmas as perhaps people who aren’t Christian experienced it, I thought, was good fun as well,” Vanstone said. “And it was great to have little Eva in the house. Having a child within the episode, there’s a danger that episode could have got really down. Having everyone trying their best to have a good Christmas for a kid who’s away from their parents is filled with a lot of sort of heart and joy and warmth. But also, there’s inevitably some sadness there as well.”
“Lovely Ella Bernstein came along and she was so good, and so professional and so worked so hard. She was absolutely brilliant,” Madeley said. “It’s also really fun because it’s somebody who’s got fresh eyes on it. You see your environment again through their eyes, all the new things they’re learning every day about about the work and how to do it. It just makes everybody rally around when you’ve got somebody on set and you want them to have a great experience. It reminds everyone that they love what they do and they want to pass that on to that person and infect them with it.”
Another source of joy amidst the heartbreak is a long-awaited first kiss between Mrs. Hall and longtime strolling partner Gerald (Will Thorp). It’s a soft Season 3 bookend to go along with the James and Helen wedding that began it. And it’s also something of a tradition for these season-capping Christmas specials to have a big romantic breakthrough, this time involving someone other than James.
“In a way, Mrs. Hall had got a very clear, thought-through idea of what she should and shouldn’t be doing. Perhaps she’d been slightly trying to have her cake and eat it and then realize she couldn’t do that and she needed to be honest with Gerald,” Madeley said. “The idea that war might come and someone might move away and you never see them again, suddenly being confronted with that provokes a response. And I think she is able to act without thinking for a minute. It makes it more complicated and messy and more sweet and fun and instinctive.”
“Gerald’s the only person that you ever see doing anything for Mrs. Hall, I think he’s the only one that makes her a cup of tea or brings her a glass of something. Otherwise, it’s her running around after everyone else. He’s very grounded and sweet and very open as well. He’s straightforward and reliable, which she might not have had in the past,” Vanstone said.
That change in Mrs. Hall and Gerald’s relationship is also tied into the ongoing relationship between Mrs. Hall and Siegfried. There’s long been a warmth between the two, as the pair have grown to be confidants and comforters. It’s Mrs. Hall that provides a reassuring hand as Siegfried’s memories of The Great War begin to resurface. It’s Siegfried that offers a sympathetic ear after Mrs. Hall returns from a complicated reunion with her estranged son.
Helen Williams/Playground/Channel 5 Television
Calibrating that dynamic as the series goes forward will continue to be a balancing act as the show goes forward.
“It’s a constant conversation and it has been from the get-go,” Madeley said. “It’s a delicate dance of working out what point and what moments they are being friends at what moments they’re being family. They’ve gotten to know each other more and know a bit more about one another’s history. It’s rather touching that they give each other that space and privacy at the same time as being able to recognize someone’s needs.”
“Inevitably, when you have male and female characters as close as they are, it feels inevitable that there will be a romance. We’ve resisted pointing it either way, quite deliberately. Neither of them particularly have been a place to be with anyone, in any sort of meaningful sense. Mrs. Hall is still coming to terms with who she is. She’s still a married woman, and works for Siegfried. I think there’s more pushing them apart than pulling them together in many ways, but it’ll be interesting how they evolve as well.”
After a year of uncertainty and upheaval, it only made sense that the end of the season also brought a significant change to the makeup of Skeldale House. As Siegfried and James find ways to continue their practice in the face of the coming war, Tristan joins the ranks of the Darrowby enlisted.
It’s a bittersweet end to the season, one that finds Tristan with a bittersweet smile on his face. It still leaves open some potential significant changes as the show’s creative team plots the course for Season 4.
“You land with an in-built story motor already. It’s not a problem to fix but a shift in all the dynamics. How is Siegfried going to be without Tristan? What does James do? Who does Siegfried take it out on when he hasn’t got Tristan to beat up? Automatically, we’re landing in a place that has a natural momentum, rather than feeling, ‘What’s the story this year?’” Vanstone said. “We’re still at war, but in some ways, everyone’s come to terms with that a little bit. It’s not to say there won’t be difficult times in it and while there may be a slight shadow hanging over us, but we’re also at a stage where people are just getting on with their lives as well.”
“All Creatures Great and Small” is available to stream via the PBS app and the PBS Masterpiece Prime Video channel.
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