The All Creatures Great and Small Christmas special is the televisual equivalent of a mug of mulled wine. I defy anyone to be cynical about it. And yes, sure, the episode is a little bit predictable – but does it really matter when it’s all so lovely and charming? And when – in the style of Call the Midwife – it breaks and warms your heart in equal measure?
The episode opens on Christmas Eve, which is also the day before Helen Alderson (Rachel Shenton) and Hugh Helton (Matthew Lewis) are due to be married. (And don’t worry, we know all this from the official synopsis – so there’ll be no extra spoilers here!)
Quite understandably, James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) is planning to avoid the painful event by slipping off home to Scotland to see his parents on Christmas Day. But before that, it’s time for the annual Christmas Eve party at Skeldale House – and James has invited his sort-of girlfriend Connie as his plus one, despite his evidently lukewarm feelings for her. She’s nice, but she’s no Helen.
At Skeldale House, Mrs Hall (Anna Madeley) has cooked a spread of party food straight out of a supermarket Christmas ad and is excitedly awaiting the arrival of her elusive son Edward; Tristan Farnon (Callum Woodhouse) is busy hanging mistletoe to facilitate as much kissing as possible; and Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West) is trying on his Father Christmas costume in preparation for an evening of handing out oranges to small children. And so the stage is set.
James’s love for Helen is certainly at the centre of the episode. This is what we’re told ahead of time: “As the house fills with locals James receives a call from Bert Chapman who wants help with his dog who is struggling to give birth. James has to leave the party and is surprised when Helen asks if she can go with him to get away from all the wedding gossip. Up at the Chapmans’ James is faced with a puppy stuck in the birth canal, and Helen sees how much he loves being a vet.
“When it’s time to leave, James is horrified to discover the fog has descended trapping them high up in the Dales until morning. James calls Skeldale and promises to get Helen back to Darrowby in time for the wedding, meanwhile wondering if he will be able to suppress his true feelings for her.”
So the episode hinges on a few separate – but related – questions: is Helen getting cold feet about marrying Hugh Helton (Matthew Lewis)? Will the wedding go ahead? And will James finally confess his feelings for her? I certainly won’t tell you the answers to these questions. But I will say that what each of the characters does is entirely in keeping with what we know about them.
The aforementioned Chapmans are also a delight. Anne Chapman, played by Cleo Sylvestre, is a Black woman married to a white man in 1930s Yorkshire and she is full of wise words about marriage and how “you can’t help who you fall in love with” no matter what others might expect you to do. (Said pointedly, while looking at James and Helen.) She and Bert Chapman (Dave Hill) are great additions to the show, along with their lovely collie dog Suzy – and we can only hope they’ll be invited back as guest stars in future episodes.
But it’s not all about James and Helen and their will-they-won’t-they romance. Siegfried also has a will-they-won’t-they thing going on, because Dorothy (Maimie McCoy) has turned up at the party and sent him into a tizzy. Samuel West clearly loves the character he plays – and although in this episode he veers close to turning him into a caricature, he ultimately stays on the right side of the line.
And there’s another will-he-won’t-he, as in: will Mrs Hall’s beloved son Edward actually make it to Darrowby and heal the rift between them? Mrs Hall’s storyline is deeply moving, and honestly made me shed more than a few tears. It’s all the more powerful because it’s so understated.
Finally, there’s Tristan, who gets to show off the vulnerable side that lies beneath his playboy bluster and constant joking-around. We’ve seen glimpses of it before, of course, but his scenes in the Christmas special are particularly moving.
Watching this episode as a preview in November catapulted me immediately (and prematurely) into the Christmas spirit. It made me want to put up old-fashioned paper chains and mistletoe and a tree with beautiful baubles – or even candles. And bowls of oranges and a massive spread of food… and champagne… and a nativity… and a dusting of snow would be great, please. It could hardly be any more Christmassy.
But now the real world is catching up, with the episode set to air on Channel 5 on 22nd December (with a Boxing Day repeat). And with All Creatures Great and Small having recently been re-commissioned for a second season and a Christmas special for 2021, we can only hope that this show will become a staple of the festive TV schedules for years to come.