Lately I’ve been telling anyone who will listen how smitten I am with the new TV adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small, James Herriot’s “warm and joyful memoirs” of his veterinary work throughout the 1930s and ’40s. The spectacular rolling hills of the English countryside, combined with the winning performance of Nicholas Ralph as James Herriot, go a long way towards capturing the essence of Herriot’s books. The adaptation’s true charm lies in its portrayal of the tight-knit farming community of Darrowby, however. At the heart of this friendly town is Skeldale House, which doubles as a residence and the town veterinary office.
All Creatures gives center stage to James Herriot and his partners in veterinary adventures, the eccentric Siegfried Farnon and roguish Tristan Farnon. But at the end of each day, Skeldale House and its practical housekeeper hold this unconventional family together. Fearless and gently understated, Mrs. Audrey Hall does the most to make Skeldale a home for James Herriot — and everyone else. Despite personal pain and hints of dark threats looming from afar, she resolutely builds a household in which residents, friends, and strangers alike feel welcomed and known. Through Mrs. Hall’s unassuming cheer and diligent hospitality, All Creatures Great and Small offers a compelling picture of how a home can rebuke encroaching evil and be a hopeful light amidst darkness.
Created from Scratch
Interestingly, Mrs. Hall receives little more than passing mentions in Herriot’s books. The show’s script writer, Ben Vanstone, created her character nearly from scratch. According to Vanstone, he started by envisioning someone strong enough to handle the men of Skeldale, a task not for the faint of heart. His script and the winsome performance of Anna Madeley make Mrs. Hall equal parts warm and no-nonsense. She runs a tight ship, yet clearly loves the men of Skeldale, becoming a surrogate mother, aunt, or sister, depending on the person and the day. Ever wise to their moods and mischief, she knows when to scold, encourage, or tease, and does it all with skill and gusto.
Audiences soon learn, however, that Mrs. Hall cares for others amidst substantial personal darkness. Her painful past includes an estranged son, a broken marriage, and an abusive former husband. Her son represents a particularly raw wound as he refuses contact with her. Viewers know him through his returned packages and noticeable absence from onscreen Christmases. Mrs. Hall fights palpable despair over him, but instead of surrendering to hopelessness, she pours out her love elsewhere while hoping for reconciliation.
The men of Skeldale House and the wider community become the family she joyfully serves. She may be unable to care for the one most dear to her, but she responds to the crushing grief by spending herself on those immediately before her. The home she makes becomes a refuge for all who enter, whether they live there, bring their animals for treatment, or gather for the yearly Christmas celebration.
War Planes Overhead
Skeldale House possesses what many likely envision in their ideal home: soul-enriching food, companionship at a warm hearth, and rooms crammed with knickknacks of a life fully lived. The joy emanating from the scenes of James, Tristan, Siegfried, and Mrs. Hall gathered around the fire to share a laugh and a drink, could stir nostalgia even in the most stoic of us. Townspeople visibly relax when they enter Skeldale House, often because Mrs. Hall receives them with a welcoming smile and word of reassurance that a loved pet or vital farm animal will be cared for. Her generosity makes Skeldale known for welcoming others in times of both hardship and celebration.
By the final episode of Season 2, James has realized that his true home lies in the Yorkshire Dales. The narration has also begun to hint at World War II by this time. Despite knowledge of perils ahead, audiences still can’t help but smile as James revels in his newfound family. Drinks are poured and Christmas lights twinkle, courtesy of Mrs. Hall. Conflict has yet to arrive at the remote Yorkshire hills, but regardless of circumstances, the delight and companionship shared within Skeldale House are untouchable.
In a moment of profound contrast, Mrs. Hall looks out the window to the foreboding sight of war planes buzzing overhead as merriment ensues behind her. Mrs. Hall pauses, but soon lets the curtain fall back as she resolutely rejoins the celebration. War may loom outside, but the fellowship and laughter within Skeldale House answer it with beautiful defiance, in no small part because of Mrs. Hall’s skillful, faithful care.