In 1939, a fresh-faced graduate with a Glasgow accent arrived in Thirsk, Yorkshire, to take up a position in the local veterinary practice. The rest is literary history.
James Herriot’s vivid characters and finely drawn scenes from Yorkshire life turned a country vet into a bestselling author. His six-book series quickly amassed a global following and inspired the immensely popular BBC drama series All Creatures Great and Small, which first aired in 1978 and continues to top “viewers’ favourites” polls.
Starting this week, Young James Herriot, an original drama based on the author’s student days at Glasgow veterinary college, is set to win a new generation of fans.
The handsome town house in Thirsk where Herriot (real name Alf Wight) lived and worked is now The World of James Herriot, a meticulous re-creation of a 1940s veterinary practice.
It’s a weird thing to walk into the pages of one of your favourite books. It must be even weirder for Jim Wight, Alf’s son, to walk through this exact replica of his childhood home, with its crackly radiogram and bottles of Universal Cattle Medicine.
Wight, who followed his father to Glasgow vet college and subsequently shared the Yorkshire practice, is an energetic character with his father’s gift for a good story. He has written a biography of James Herriot (who died in 1995) and consulted closely on Young James Herriot.
“You could call it a ‘prequel’ to All Creatures Great and Small,” says Wight of the three-part series, “but it’s going to be very different to what the Herriot fans are expecting. Everyone knows about James Herriot, the country vet. This is about Alf Wight, the city boy. Which is what my father was.
“Although he was born in Sunderland, the family moved to Scotland when he was three weeks of age and he was brought up in Glasgow until he was 23. So obviously, the city left its mark on him.”
1930s Glasgow was gripped hard by the Depression and Young James Herriot draws a striking contrast between the misery on the streets and the indolence of well-heeled students spinning out their time at veterinary college.
“My father’s parents weren’t on the poverty line, but they didn’t have money to throw about,” says Wight. “My grandfather was a shipbuilder on the Clyde, but he had another trick up his sleeve because he was a professional musician. Glasgow was a very cultured city and my grandfather used to give recitals in cinemas and playhouses.
“My grandmother was a seamstress – she made wedding dresses for some very wealthy people – so, unusually for the times, she had her own income as well. My father was an only child and they had great ambitions for him. He went from his local primary school to Hill Head High School, one of the top fee-paying schools in Glasgow.”
As a reward for passing the exams for Hill Head, the young Alf Wight was given a dog, an Irish setter called Don. “It was Don who sparked his interest in animals and nature. If you read his diaries, every spare minute was spent out on the hills around Glasgow with Don.
“Then he saw an advert in the Meccano magazine from the President of the Royal College of Veterinary Medicine. It was talking about a career as a vet. And my father thought, “Hey, that’s for me!”
The fact Alf Wight had no aptitude for science was no bar to his chosen career. “Nowadays,” points out Wight, “there are three or four thousand applications for 30 or 40 places on a veterinary medicine course. The competition is unbelievable.
“My dad was hopeless at sciences and maths – actually almost educationally sub-normal at maths – but he was very good at the arts and he sailed into Glasgow veterinary college with three Higher leaving certificates in English, French and Latin.”
While the plotlines of Young James Herriot are largely fictional, the atmosphere and character of “young James” are drawn directly from diaries Alf Wight kept from boyhood through to his second year in college. The sense of the future author as “an innocent abroad” rings entirely true to his son.
“Wine, women and song hit my father overnight at Glasgow vet college. He writes in his diary about going to what they called a ‘college smoker’ and says ‘I found some of the wisecracks and stories a bit astonishing!’
“You can imagine it, because he’d come from this god-fearing, non-drinking, non-smoking family into this wild, unruly place where he’d spend all afternoon playing cards at the back of lectures or going to the dog tracks. But he adjusted very quickly.”
A changing profession
The 30s and 40s were decades of seismic change for the veterinary profession and this, too is reflected in the series.
“When my dad was starting out, the doom and gloom merchants said, ‘The life of the vet is finished. Horses are going out, tractors are coming in and vets aren’t going to be wanted’. It was a big worry,” explains Wight.
“In those days, too, vets had to make up their medicines and learn all the different dosages – ‘materia medica’, it was called. To say nothing of the astonishing cures used on the farms, where they were still using ‘kill or cure’ potions made out of arsenic, strychnine and turpentine. Then the 40s saw the transition to antibiotics and steroids.
“So it was a time of terrific metamorphosis for the profession. That’s what my dad saw, and he preserved it for us all to see. His books are history. That’s why they still sell and it’s why they make terrific period drama.”
Fame, says Wight, in no way changed his father, who continued his involvement with the Yorkshire practice long after his retirement: “Which was just as well, because round here, people don’t like you changing. If he’d been driving a Reliant Robin one day and a Mercedes the next it would have been, ‘Who’s he to show off?’
“But my dad was a very self-deprecating man. He found other people endlessly interesting – you can see it in the books – he didn’t major on himself.”
“The great thing about James Herriot,” concludes Wight, “is that he never was ‘James Herriot’ to us. He was Alf Wight the father, Alf Wight the veterinary colleague, Alf Wight the neighbour. That was the real secret of his success.”
Young James Herriot begins tonight at 9pm on BBC1 and BBC1 HD.