Chanukah is one word you wouldn’t expect to hear in a Christmas television special.
But tonight’s episode of Channel 5’s remake of the period veterinary drama All Creatures Great and Small, which has been a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic, has a storyline about the Jewish Festival of Lights.
It features Jewish wartime evacuee Eva Feldman, who experiences her first Christmas while staying in the Yorkshire Dales. And in the spirit of exchange, you could say, Eva teaches the young vet James Herriot and his manic mentor Siegfried Farnon about Chanukah.
The idea came from the show’s award-winning producer Sir Colin Callender, whose South London-born mother Lydia was evacuated to the Oxfordshire countryside during the war.
“My mother came from an Orthodox home and there was always an interesting tension between her Jewishness and the non-Jewish families with whom she was placed during those years,” he told the JC.
“Our writer Ben Vanstone was very taken with this, and really ran with the idea. And because this series is set at the start of the war, we have long wanted to have a character who was an evacuee.”
Sir Colin auditioned Jewish girls in Manchester for the role of Eva, and the charming Ella Bernstein, 11, was hired. This is her first television part.
Ella Bernstein in All Creatures Great and Small
“I don’t have strong views on whether only Jews should play Jewish roles but in this instance I thought it would be a good idea if we had someone who could give some input,” said Sir Colin who was the programme’s Jewish adviser.
“At one point Eva sings a blessing as she lights the candles on the makeshift chanukiah that James and Siegfried make for her after she tells them about the festival. We thought we’d get a more authentic performance from someone who really was Jewish.
“From the moment she walked on set, Ella really embraced the fun of it all. It was as if she’d been acting for decades.”
Part of that fun lies in the fact that because the figure of Santa Claus has no cultural resonance for Eva, when she sees the festive icon for the first time, she is distinctly underwhelmed. “I rather liked that moment,” he smiled.
“For the other kids in the drama, Father Christmas is a magical figure with whom they’ve been raised, but Eva is not impressed by him at all.”
The warm and tender programme is also tinged with sadness, though. Eva misses her family, a feeling that is partly assuaged when she is given a kitten to look after by Mrs Pumphrey, played by Patricia Hodge.
“My mother didn’t talk fondly about being an evacuee. It was tough,” he said. “But she was taken with the magic and joy of Christmas. And when she returned to her parents they embraced this. They found it both amusing and touching.”
As a result, Sir Colin, whose credits include the multi-award-winning BBC production of Wolf Hall and Harry Potter, grew up celebrating both Chanukah and Christmas. “Judaism was central to our home life, and the Jewish Chronicle was a big part of that.
"But every December we would go to the Isle of Wight and enjoy both festivals there.”
His mother was also a dedicated Zionist who helped set up the British branch of the Israeli charity Magen David Adom.
"His father Martin, an economist, was a member of the 43 Group who fought against Oswald Mosley’s fascists.
“My parents were part of that generation of British Jews who grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust in which members of the family were murdered. Those events defined their lives.”
The idea of reviving James Herriot’s drama — first broadcast between 1978 and 1990 — came to Sir Colin during the Brexit years.
“The divide between rural and metropolitan Britain was striking in that vote, and it made me think about stories that could somehow bridge that divide and bring people together again,” he said.
“What I didn’t anticipate was Covid and how viewers would crave connections with people and a sense of community. It became a sort of sanctuary for people both here and in America. There are no villains in the show. It’s about people coming together and supporting each other — and you can really see that in tonight’s Christmas episode.”
Watch the ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ episode on Channel 5 at 9pm on 23 December. It can also be streamed on My5