James Harriot treats his first horse

On this Day:

In 1978, the TV series “All Creatures Great and Small” debuted on BBC TV, based on the books by James Herriot, starring Robert Hardy and Christopher Timothy.

James Alfred Wight OBE FRCVS (3 October 1916 – 23 February 1995), better known by his pen name James Herriot, was a British veterinary surgeon and author.

Born in Sunderland, Wight graduated from Glasgow Veterinary College in 1939, returning to England to become a veterinary surgeon in Yorkshire, where he practised for almost 50 years. He is best known for writing a series of eight books set in the 1930s–1950s Yorkshire Dales about veterinary practice, animals, and their owners, which began with If Only They Could Talk, first published in 1970. Over the decades, the series of books sold some 60 million copies.

The franchise based on his writings was very successful. In addition to the books, there have been several television and film adaptations of Wight’s books, including the 1975 film All Creatures Great and Small, a BBC television series of the same name, which ran 90 episodes, and a 2020 UK Channel 5 series, also of the same name.

James Wight was born on 3 October 1916 in Sunderland, County Durham, England. Although Wight was born in England, the family moved to Glasgow when James was a child and he lived there happily until leaving for Sunderland, and then to Thirsk in 1940. He had a “soft, lilting Scottish accent,” according to actor Christopher Timothy.

Wight attended Yoker Primary School and Hillhead High School. When he was a boy in Glasgow, one of Wight’s favourite pastimes was walking with his dog, an Irish Setter, in the Scottish countryside and watching it play with his friends’ dogs. He later wrote that “I was intrigued by the character and behaviour of these animals… [I wanted to] spend my life working with them if possible.” At age 12, he read an article in Meccano Magazine about veterinary surgeons, and was captivated with the idea of a career treating sick animals. Two years later, in 1930, he decided to become a vet after the principal of Glasgow Veterinary College gave a lecture at his high school.

Wight married Joan Catherine Anderson Danbury on 5 November 1941 at St Mary’s Church, Thirsk.

After they returned to Thirsk, Alf “carried on TB testing cows in Wensleydale and the top floor of 23 Kirkgate became Joan and Alf’s first home”. The couple had two children: James Alexander (born 13 February 1943), who also became a veterinarian and eventually his father’s successor in the practice, and Rosemary (born 9 May 1947), who became a general practitioner.

Veterinary practice

Wight took six years to complete the five-year programme at Glasgow Veterinary College because of health issues. According to The New York Times, there was another reason: he “failed many of his classes on the first try: surgery, pathology, physiology, histology, even animal husbandry (which he failed twice)”. He graduated on 14 December 1939.

The new vet’s first position, which he accepted in January 1940, was at a veterinary practice in Sunderland, working for J. J. McDowall. He decided that he would prefer a rural practice and accepted a position in July, based at 23 Kirkgate in Thirsk, Yorkshire, near the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors. The practice owner, Donald Sinclair, had enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF) and was soon to leave for training; he gave Wight all the practice’s income in return for looking after it during his absence. (His brother, Brian Sinclair, was not yet a vet.) After Sinclair was discharged from the RAF four months later, he asked Wight to stay permanently with the practice, offering a salaried partnership which Wight accepted.

Wight enlisted in the RAF in November 1942. He did well in his training, and was one of the first in his flight to fly solo. After undergoing surgery on an anal fistula in July 1943, he was deemed unfit to fly combat aircraft and was discharged as a leading aircraftman the following November. He joined his wife at her parents’ house, where she had lived since he left Thirsk. They lived there until the summer of 1945, when they moved back to 23 Kirkgate after Sinclair and his wife moved to a house of their own. In 1953, the family moved to a house on Topcliffe Road, Thirsk. Wishing for more privacy as the popularity of All Creatures Great and Small increased, in 1977 Wight and his wife moved again, to the smaller village of Thirlby, about 4 miles (6.4 km) from Thirsk. Wight lived here until his death in 1995.

Wight became a full partner in the Thirsk practice in 1949 and retired from full-time practice in 1980 but continued to work part-time. He fully retired in 1989 (or 1990 according to some sources); by then, he had worked in this field for roughly 50 years.

Although Wight claimed in the preface of James Herriot’s Yorkshire that he had begun to write only after his wife encouraged him at age 50, he in fact kept copious diaries as a child, as a teenager wrote for his school’s magazine, and wrote at least one short story during his college years. In the early 1960s he began analysing the books of successful authors that he enjoyed reading, such as P. G. Wodehouse and Conan Doyle, to understand different writing styles. During this time he also began writing more seriously, composing numerous short stories and, in his own words, ‘bombarding’ publishers with them.

Based on the year when he started work in Thirsk, the stories in the first two books would have taken place early during the Second World War. Wight preferred to have them take place in a quieter era so he set them in pre-war years.

The author required a pseudonym because the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons’ regulations prevented vets from any type of advertising. A reliable source states that he “chose the name after attending a football match in which the Scotland internationalist Jim Herriot played in goal for Birmingham City”.

Wight’s early efforts at having his writing published were unsuccessful, which he later explained by telling Paul Vallely in a 1981 interview for the Sunday Telegraph Magazine that “my style was improving but […] my subjects were wrong.” Choosing a subject where he was more experienced, in 1969 he wrote If Only They Could Talk, a collection of stories centred around his experiences as a young veterinarian in the Yorkshire Dales. The book was published in the United Kingdom in 1970 by Michael Joseph Ltd. Wight followed it up with It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet in 1972. Sales were slow until Thomas McCormack of St. Martin’s Press in New York City received a copy and arranged to have both books published as a single volume in the United States that same year. Wight named this volume All Creatures Great and Small from the second line of the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful”. The resulting book was a huge success.

Achieving success

Wight wrote seven more books in the series started by If Only They Could Talk. In the United States, the first six books of the original series were thought too short to publish independently. Most of the stories were collected into three omnibus volumes; the final two books were published separately. The last book of the series, Every Living Thing, sold 650,000 copies in six weeks in the United States and stayed on The New York Times Best Seller list for eight months.

Recent research indicates that the first two books sold only a few thousand copies in the UK, initially. “It was a New York publisher [St. Martin’s Press] who changed the childish-looking cover art and combined the works under the title All Creatures Great and Small, becoming a best-seller in the US.

Contrary to widespread belief, Wight’s books are only partially autobiographical, with many of the stories only loosely based on real events or people. Most of the stories are set in the fictional town of Darrowby, which Wight described as a composite of Thirsk, its nearby market towns Richmond, Leyburn, and Middleham, and ‘a fair chunk of my own imagination’. Wight anonymised the majority of his characters by renaming them.

When Wight’s first book was published, Brian Sinclair “was delighted to be captured as Tristan and remained enthusiastic about all Wight’s books”. Donald Sinclair was offended by his portrayal and said, “Alfred, this book is a real test of our friendship.” (He never called Wight “Alf”, mirrored in the books by Siegfried always referring to Herriot as “James” rather than “Jim”.) Things calmed down, however, and the pair continued to work together until they retired. Wight’s son stated in The Real James Herriot that Sinclair’s character in the novels was considerably toned down, and that Sinclair was even more eccentric than the Herriot books portrayed.

According to The New York Times, Donald Sinclair actually had more rough edges than the Siegfried character. “Sinclair’s real-life behaviour was much more eccentric. (He once discharged a shotgun during a dinner party to let his guests know it was time to leave.)” When asked whether Donald Sinclair was eccentric, actor Samuel West (who researched the vet for his role in the Channel 5 TV series) replied, “Oh, no … he was mad”.

The books are novels, and most sources agree that about 50 percent of the content was pure fiction.

In an BBC interview taped in 1976, Wight recalled his life in Yorkshire, his career and the success of his books (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

Today in veterinary class we learned that cows have 4 stomachs to digest the grasses they consume.

It’s graze anatomy…

Second, a Song:

All Creatures Great and Small (2020 series) is a television series, set in 1937, based upon a series of books about a Yorkshire veterinarian written by Alf Wight under the pen name of James Herriot. The series was produced by Playground Entertainment for Channel 5 in the United Kingdom, and PBS in the United States.

The series is a new adaptation of Wight’s books, following the previous BBC series of 90 episodes that ran from 1978 to 1990, also called All Creatures Great and Small and which is still regularly reshown. and is one of a series of movies and television series based on Herriot’s novels. It is filmed in the Yorkshire Dales, and received some funding from Screen Yorkshire.

The first series, which consists of six episodes and a special Christmas episode, was filmed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the publication of the first book in the James Herriot series. The series premiered in the UK on Channel 5 on 1 September 2020 and in the US on PBS as part of Masterpiece on 10 January 2021.

All Creatures Great and Small was renewed for a second series, also of six episodes plus a Christmas special. The second series premiered on 16 September 2021 on Channel 5 (per Wikipedia).

Here is the Official Trailer for the 2020 Series All Creatures Great and Small courtesy of PBS and YouTube.com. I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“I have felt cats rubbing their faces against mine and touching my cheek with claws carefully sheathed. These things, to me, are expressions of love.” – James Herriot

Subscribe: The Smile delivered to your Inbox: https://bit.ly/3JniFkq

Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

Leave a Reply