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All Creatures Great and Small: The real James Herriot

Generations of children and adults have marvelled at the wonderful tales of a veterinary surgeon's often comical experiences in 1940s rural Yorkshire. Based on a series of books by real life vet, James Alfred Wight, All Creatures Great and Small became a weekend favourite on our screens.

All Creatures Great and Small - James Herriot

Better known by his pen name, James Herriot, his legendary books about his experiences, beginning with If Only They Could Talk, in 1970, spawned a number of TV series, a film and an international following, particularly in the United States.

Wight's quaint tales of the often-eccentric farmers he met during his time in Thirsk sparked the imagination and interest of all who read them. They described a way of life in a bygone era, without the aid of modern technology and medicines, when life for vets was a hard slog, especially in rural farming communities. Surviving his experiences unscathed, Wight tackled his career with enthusiasm and gusto, and more than a hint of humour.

Born in Sunderland on 3rd October 1916, he qualified as a veterinary surgeon at the age of 23 at Glasgow Veterinary College. After a brief stint working in a Sunderland practice, Wight moved to a rural practice at 23 Kirkgate, Thirsk, in July 1940. As well as treating domestic pets, he was also a veterinarian for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and was qualified to treat farm animals.

He was to remain in Thirsk for his entire life, marrying local girl Joan Danbury - known as Helen in his books - in November 1941. Serving in the RAF from 1942, he later resumed his veterinary practice. The couple had two children, James Alexander, born in 1943, who went on to become a partner in the business, and Rosemary, born in 1947, who became a physician. The original practice later opened as a museum called The World of James Herriot.

Wight had always fancied writing a book, but had been too busy with his veterinary work. However, at the age of 50, he finally started writing - but he didn’t begin with his life story. He wrote books on other topics such as football, but they were rejected by publishers.

Success came at last when Wight wrote, If Only They Could Talk, in 1969 - the first book in his famous series about his life working as a vet and his time in the RAF during World War II. He received a call from book publisher Anthea Joseph, who expressed interest. Professional etiquette meant he had to use a pen-name, as it was frowned upon for veterinary surgeons to publicise their services.

He chose the pen-name James Herriot, in honour of Scottish goalkeeper Jim Herriot, whom he had seen playing for Birmingham City in a football match against Manchester United in his younger days. Wight's first book was published in the UK by Michael Joseph Ltd in 1970.

He became successful in the US after publishing his second book, All Creatures Great and Small, in the UK in 1972. Thomas McCormack of St Martin's Press in New York subsequently arranged for the publication of his first two books in one volume, which was a hit in the American market.

Wight wrote a series of books chronicling his adventures as a vet, including Let Sleeping Vets Lie in 1973, Vet in Harness in 1974, Vets Might Fly in 1976, All Things Wise and Wonderful in 1977 and Vet in a Spin the same year. His books could change from being funny to tragic in an instant, his memories of his humorous encounters with his four-legged patients and their owners interspersed with some moving recollections of those he had been unable to save.

Among the most memorable patients were pampered Pekingese Tricki-Woo, who belonged to wealthy Mrs Pumphrey. Tricki-Woo had his own servant, William Hodgekin, who had to look after him when Mrs Pumphrey was on holiday! Hodgekin hated every minute of it and was permanently irked at having to look after a dog.

Several farmers make regular appearances, such as Mr Biggins, who is always quibbling about his bill, while Jeff Mallock is always hanging around like the spectre of doom, telling Herriot the farm animals are suffering from "stagnation o' t'lung", whatever their real affliction is.

The books went on to spawn a massively popular TV series, All Creatures Great and Small, which was broadcast by the BBC from 1978 to 1980 and then from 1988 to 1990. It starred Christopher Timothy as Herriot, alongside Robert Hardy as Siegfried Farnon - owner of the Skeldale House surgery - and Peter Davison as Siegfried's brother, Tristan.

Herriot's wife, Helen, was played by Carol Drinkwater in the original series and Linda Bellingham in the second. The series had a massive supporting cast of more than 600 people, who appeared mainly as farmers and other clients of the veterinary surgery.

Based on Wight's first two books, All Creatures Great and Small was also made into a film in 1974. It was released in 1975 and starred Simon Ward as Herriot, Brian Stirner as Tristan Farnon, Anthony Hopkins as Siegfried Farnon and Lisa Harrow as Helen. The critics loved it, describing it as "wholesome and warm-hearted."

After a lifetime of helping animals, James Wight died in 1995 at the age of 78. He has left a moving legacy in the shape of his marvellous books, which have sold 50 million copies in 20 countries.

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