All Creatures

2020 marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of James Herriot’s first book, If Only They Could Talk.

James Alfred “Alf” Wight, a British veterinary surgeon, became the most famous vet in the world when he started writing about his life as a newly qualified, young vet in the 1930s in beautiful Yorkshire, England. He assumed the pen name of James Herriot and respectfully changed the names of his clients, whose tales are shared in his memoirs.

As a youth and in university, Wight kept a journal religiously but only started writing his memoirs at the age of 50 after much encouragement from his family. He wrote 8 bestsellers between 1970 and 1992. Some of these were later compiled as omnibuses and 9 individual stories were selected to be re-written for children’s picture books. Wight also wrote two beautiful books on his beloved Yorkshire that are well worth a look.

I read my first James Herriot book before I entered high school. I loved animals, had a dog and a horse, and was obsessed with all things to do with the UK and country life. Frankly, all of these became lifelong interests. I read all of Herriot’s books, then read them again, and again. No matter how many times I read about pampered Pekinese Tricki Woo going “flop bot” or “cracker dog” (the latter is a term much used and much loved by my entire family in regards to our own canine companions), I still laugh. The story of Badger, the last draft horse on a Yorkshire farm which is converting to tractor power, still makes me teary. Practice owner and Herriot’s partner, Siegfried Farnon’s constant exasperation with his younger brother, Tristan, the challenges of helping Boris the Cat, and the mystery behind such things as the Monk that haunts Raines Abbey are always entertaining. James Herriot’s books are available at WPL in a variety of formats.

All Creatures Great and Small was made into a feature film in 1975, starring Simon Ward and Anthony Hopkins (who is worth following on TikTok, by the way). There was also a sequel featuring a different cast. The films did okay but it was the TV series, starring Christopher Timothy, Robert Hardy and Peter Davison (pictured here) that took off, shooting Herriot (and Yorkshire) into super-stardom.

The original TV series ran from 1978 to 1990 and contained 90 wonderful, funny, touching episodes. Casting was done beautifully and the characters from the books, including favourites like Mrs Pumphrey and Hodgekin, Jeff Mallock, Mrs Dalby, Miss Harbottle, Gobber Newhouse, came to life before your very eyes. A new version of the series is currently airing on Netflix and PBS, and a second season has already been confirmed. I must confess I haven’t yet watched it. I’m such a dedicated fan of the original that I am just not sure if I can view the remake with an open mind and heart.

If you are interested in learning more about Alf Wight’s personal life, there are two biographies: The Real James Herriot by Jim Wight (Alf’s son) and James Herriot : the life of a country vet by Graeme Lord. And if you subscribe to the AcornTV streaming service, you will definitely enjoy The Yorkshire Vet. This documentary series follows Peter Wright, who trained with Herriot, as he tackles day-to-day cases at his practice in Thirsk, Yorkshire.

I have been lucky to have traveled to the UK and Ireland quite a bit and one of my regrets in life is that I never had the chance to meet James Herriot/Alf Wight. He once said, “I love writing about my job because I loved it, and it was a particularly interesting one when I was a young man.” I’d have liked to have thanked him personally for taking the time to write and share his life with all of us.

— Sandi H.