Tag Archives: James Herriot

Yorkshire Vet

James Herriot (Alf Wight)
Photo: James Herriot.org

One of the greatest joys for me is reading the books by James Herriot. His books on being a veterinary surgeon in Yorkshire opened up a new world to many. His vivid description of the dales, the people, and animals he treated of all shapes and sizes made him a world-wide celebrity. To him though, he was a simple cow doctor who had by chance ended up practicing in a small town called Thirsk (Darrowby in his books) for the majority of his life. He loved the work he did and greatly came to admire the Yorkshire farmers he encountered. His love and care for the animals inspired many to enter the profession.

In his day, the majority of animals he treated were farm animals (cows, pigs, sheep, and the occasional horse) rather than domestic (dogs, cats, etc.). And it was not a calling for the faint of heart or does not want to get dirty. He vividly describes having to do calvings on cold nights, stripped to the waist, trying to get the new calf out of the womb of its mother. It sometimes took a good while and back then Caesarian operations had not yet been common. Also, they had a limited number of drugs they could use. They also had to mix much of it up into bottles in their dispensary and take it out with them on their visits. And then there were the required testing of cow herds for tuberculosis as well that kept the practice going. It was also hard to see good animals fade because they lacked the treatments that would come much later.

He was able to see the golden age that would come after World War II when all kinds of new drugs came out that could heal animals faster than before. It ended also the need to have a large dispensary where they had to mix up the concoctions. Now you just have packets and liquids. Fill the syringe up with the medicine, inject, and you are  done. Farmers were pleased as were vets at being finally able to cure many ailments that before took a while to treat. The days of small farms in Yorkshire, and a lot of places, came to a slow end after World War II. A lot of factors contributed to it from families changing, farmers retiring but the shift to large scale milk and livestock operations meant most small family farms could not survive.

Yorkshire Vet tv series
Photo: Radiotimes.com

That has affected the veterinary practice as well with a shift in many areas near farms shifting to treating domestic animals (dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, guinea pigs) and reduced numbers of livestock. In large cities veterinarians shifted to domestic animals and only those in areas with livestock still around might be a mixed practice. Which brings us to a remarkable show from the UK called Yorkshire Vet. This series follows the Skeldale Veterinary Centre, the former practice that James Herriot and Siegfried Farnon were part of in the books. It follows how this practice continues treating all creatures great and small as Herriot did in his books. The shows center vets are Robert Wright, who trained under Herriot, and Julian Norton, a highly skilled vet, who continue the service to animals. They are ably assisted by other vets who join the practice and animal nurses who assist the vets and keep the place spotless.

The show depicts them handling just about any case that comes their way. And it is truly remarkable the different types of domestic pets people have. You have the usual dogs, cats, small rodents, and bunnies. Then you have the odd ones with reptiles, pygmy goats or pigs, hedgehogs, and even pet chickens. So, it is quite varied but throw in some large livestock as well and the practice is not boring at all.

Yorkshire Vet does not shy away from showing the fuller picture that most shows tend to avoid. The first All Creatures Great & Small BBC television show, superbly acted by the way, did not show you the blood, guts, and muck the vets have to get through. They do here and you really appreciate the dedication they have for their craft. Seeing Julian carefully stich together a damaged cats rear end, where he has to slowly get everything back into place, reflects how dedicated they are. Or having to open up a cow to do a Caesarian section to get a calf out.

There are sad moments as well. Sometimes an animal brought in to Skeldale cannot be saved (a cancerous tumor cannot be removed or is suffering from a fatal disease). An ewe gives birth to a dead lamb or after doing emergency surgery, the calf dies. We see it all from the vets and owners when it does not work out. It is one of the most human parts of the series, the loss of an animal. However, there are many moments of joy as well when a calf is birthed fine, the surgery on the family pet is successful, or a lost pet missing for many years is joyfully reunited with its former owner.

What made Herriot’s books sell were the slice of life stories that brought laughs and cries to people who read them. And there are genuinely funny stories about living his partner Siegfried, his brother Tristan, and the remarkable people he met on the job. You get the same here. Reality shows love to stoke conflict and other things. No need for that here because the animals and the people around them give us all the entertainment we need. And we learn a thing or two not only about the animals but the lives of those around them. As I said earlier, most of the old-style family farms are near extinct. However organic farming and those wanting to care for livestock have led to some new farms. Some old ones are still around, and vets Peter Wright and Julian Norton take care of them. And some new wrinkles as well. Small dairy farms cannot make money milking (they cannot compete with the big companies) but make money breeding cows instead.

The show has been running since 2015 in the UK on Channel 5. It currently is available on Amazon Prime (disclaimer-I am an Amazon affiliate) so you can watch nearly everything up till now. Christopher Timothy, who played James Herriot in the original series, narrates it. That has changed for the latest series since due to Covid, Timothy could not go to the studio to do the narration. Nothing to fear though as another Herriot show veteran (and former Dr. Who) Peter Davison, was able to do so as he had a studio to record in his home. Skeldale Veterinary Centre made a big change at the end of 2020 and decided to focus on just small animals and no longer care for livestock. Julian Norton left that practice to work in another and the show follows him there as well. He has since opened up a new practice in Thirsk committed to helping animals but with consistent people handling the cases with concern.

If you liked the James Herriot books, or even if you didn’t but want to see how vets really work, this show will be worth your time. You will come to appreciate the work that vets do and some of the truly interesting people and animals they help.

Retro Saturday: All Creatures Great & Small

The stories of James Herriot thrilled millions with his tales of treating animals, the people he met, and the unforgettable characters of Sigfried, Tristan, and Mrs. Pumphrey. Herriot was the pen name for James Alfred Wight (1916-1995) who used his real life experiences as a Yorkshire veterinarian for his books. The books were made into film and television. All Creatures Great & Small ran on BBC first from 1978-1980 and then from 1988-1990. It was one of the most highly watched shows in its first incarnation in the UK. The books have been translated all over the world. They almost did not get printed in the U.S. An employee of the printing company brought back one of the small Herriot books in his briefcase and did not even open it. But his wife did and told him what a great book it was. By putting together several of the smaller books into the larger All Creatures Great & Small, it took off. And so did the other books that followed. Herriot was a success but it took a while for people to learn his true identity of James Wight in Thirsk, UK.

I highly recommend the books and the first incarnation of the tv series. The books are a delight to read, full of interesting characters and the animals he treated. Back in the early days, there were few drugs so the vet really had to nurse an animal. And it was not without being messy at times. While many people were friendly,some were not. And there are some sad stories in the books as well of people losing their prized pets. Many were inspired by the books to become vets themselves. While some of the mucky work they did back then is not done as often (today all dairy cows are immunized against tuberculosis so little need to check every cow on a regular basis),it is still done today. You still have to put your arm inside a cow or horse to correctly determine what is wrong inside but you have protective wear (robots or drones may do it eventually). Today most animal doctors treat lots of pets and not just cats, dogs, and the occasional bird. Nope today it is a wide assortment of rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, mice, and even pet rats (yes,there are such things as pet rats). Of course now people are getting into raising chickens at home so some urban vets are seeing them too (fresh eggs!).

The tv show starred Christopher Timothy as Herriot,Robert Hardy as Sigfried Farnon,Peter Davison as Tristan Farnon, and Carol Drinkwater as Helen (she was replaced by Lynda Bellingham in the second incarnation). The character of Mrs. Hall was given more presence than in the books (which was great because the actress who played her was terrific). Some of the stories were altered for television (especially when Christopher Timothy was injured and thus could not walk around much in the last episodes of season 1 and opening episodes of season 2). Peter Davison, though much taller than the real Tristan, Brian Sinclair, was excellent in the role as the brother. Robert Hardy got to play Sigfried (Donald Sinclair)and gets him exactly as Herriot wrote him. Donald was not exactly happy with the first book depicting him as it did (it was toned down later)but everyone who knew the real Donald Sinclair says it was spot on.

All of the main characters of the show and books have passed away. Tristan (Brian Sinclair) passed away in 1988. Of the three, he was the only one who actually went to war-but as a vet in India!. James Herriot passed away in 1995 and his wife Joan (Helen in the books)in 1999. Sigfried (Donald Sinclair)passed away in 1995 a few months after James. His wife of 45 years had recently passed away and James death was a blow as well. He died from an overdose of barbiturate. Herriot’s books not only inspired many vets, it brought lots of tourists to Yorkshire to see what he so vividly describes in his books. He was made an OBE by Queen Elizabeth II, a fan of his books and tv show. Numerous other memorials exist including a statue at Thirsk Racecourse.