‘Dad’s vet books brought joy to so many… yet he lived with an aching sadness’: Children of All Creatures Great And Small author James Herriot reveal the truth behind novels that made the Queen laugh out loud
Not long ago, Rosie Page was approached by an American visitor to Thirsk, the quaint Yorkshire town where her father Alf — better known as James Herriot — wrote his uproarious books about life as a country vet.
‘We were in the street, just outside here, and he was so emotional that he was struggling to speak,’ she tells me, gesturing through the window of Herriot’s former surgery, Skeldale House, now a period-piece museum show- casing the quack potions and torturous gadgets he used to ply his trade.
‘He was about 60-ish, and he said: “Would you mind if I said hello and shook your hand? Because your father actually saved my life.”
‘He explained that he’d suffered from terrible depression, but Dad’s books were so uplifting that they had helped to bring him out of it.
Rosie Page (pictured with her brother Jim Wight, 77), 73, was approached by an American visitor asking to shake her hand in Thirsk, the quaint Yorkshire town where her father Alf — better known as James Herriot — wrote his uproarious books about life as a country vet
‘We hear this sort of thing time and again.
‘Dad’s works have been published in 36 languages, so we get letters from all over the world, and a lot of them tell the same story: Your father’s books helped us through this awful illness, or bereavement.
‘The joy he brings. That, to me, is his greatest legacy.’
Sitting beside her, Rosie’s brother Jim, four years her senior at 77, nods vigorously.
‘His books have been a tonic for people going through difficulties for 50 years, and he’s doing that again now — raising people’s spirits at a really bad time for our country.’
He certainly is. Viewing figures for the new TV series of All Creatures Great And Small are topping 5 million — a record for Channel 5 — and although the original, which ran to 90 episodes, was one of Britain’s most enduring and best-loved sagas, critical praise for the remake has been no less fulsome.
The original All Creatures Great And Small, which ran to 90 episodes, was one of Britain’s most enduring and best-loved sagas. Pictured: James Herriot on his farm in Yorkshire in 1995
Indeed, in many ways Herriot’s children regard the current version as truly authentic, capturing the ethos of life for farmers and country vets in the 1940s.
The scriptwriters have stuck so closely to detail that they have even used the surgery’s post-war phone number, Thirsk 2297.
And without wishing to denigrate Christopher Timothy’s superb portrayal of their father, who was born in Sunderland but moved to Glasgow as a baby, they say Scottish newcomer Nicholas Ralph’s accent makes his representation the more realistic.
Only one significant fact has been changed. In the series, Herriot’s eventual wife, Helen Alderson, is depicted as the comely daughter of a prosperous farmer. The woman Alf married, Joan Danbury, was a corn-mill secretary, so impecunious that her marriage dowry to him was half-ownership of a pig she jointly reared!
A deeply private woman, Joan avoided the spotlight. Yet it was she who encouraged Alf to take up writing when he was approaching 50, and who spurred him on when he received publishers’ rejection slips. She was ‘his lynchpin’, his daughter says.
Elegant, composed and slightly reserved, as befits a retired, small-town Yorkshire GP, Rosie — who has never before spoken to a newspaper about her father — admits she was overcome with emotion as she watched the first episode earlier this month.
James Herriot’s works have been published in 36 languages
Having acted as consultants to the programme producers, she and her brother had seen the uncut episodes and knew the plotlines. ‘But as James’s parents waved him off at Glasgow station (he was bound for an interview at Siegfried Farnon’s veterinary practice in Yorkshire) there were tears pouring down my face.
‘I was thinking, “Gosh, that’s my dad and my grandparents.” I’ve watched so many different people play them — and me — and I’ve never cried before. But I think it was because, in those other All Creatures films and TV series, the real people were still alive. Now, years later, they are all gone.
With a smile that says she hopes this won’t sound mawkish, she adds: ‘Well, that’s my excuse, anyway. I tried to rationalise it, because I couldn’t understand myself doing it. But I soon stopped.’
Ask Rosie and Jim why the series carries such timeless appeal and they point to the charm of simply-told stories — some amusing, others poignant — that ‘wash over you’, obliterating everyday worries.
They hark back to an era when the pace of life was so much gentler and people’s aspirations seemed more wholesome and uncomplicated.
In the world James Herriot created there was no overt sex, just nuanced romance, and no violence — unless you consider it violent to yank out an unborn calf with a rope, or castrate a bull with a device resembling a pair of garden shears.
That Herriot’s lilting, everyday stories of country folk unfold in ‘God’s Country’, as Yorkshire folk describe the ruggedly scenic Dales, and feature larger-than-life characters whom he really encountered on his veterinary rounds, only enhances their appeal.
Viewing figures for the new TV series of All Creatures Great And Small are topping 5 million — a record for Channel 5
Among his father’s greatest admirers, Jim discloses, was the Queen, never happier than when roaming the countryside with her dogs or tending her horses. Over a private lunch at Buckingham Palace, she told Herriot his were ‘the only books that have made me repeatedly laugh out loud’.
As they recount Alf Wight’s own story to me, however, his son and daughter reveal how it was tinged with irony.
For in his 40s, before his genius for capturing his clients’ amusing foibles brought him acclaim, the author who lifted the spirits of millions suffered from clinical depression. It was so serious that they feared he might take his life, and he was treated with electroconvulsive therapy or ECT.
The causes of their father’s illness, they tell me, were difficult to determine. Jim wonders whether it might have been triggered by the trauma Alf endured when he lost his own, much-loved father, Jim ‘Pop’ Wight, suddenly and in tragic circumstances, in 1960.
That weekend, the football-loving pair had intended to attend a Scotland match together at Hampden Park. But as Alf arrived at his parents’ house in Glasgow, having travelled up from Yorkshire in those days before mobile phones, he found a hearse parked outside the front door.
For a deeply sensitive man, it was a devastating blow. Yet as Rosie says: ‘I don’t think anybody really understands these things unless they have been through them.’ She recalls that his melancholic episodes first surfaced much earlier, when he was in his 20s.
‘On paper, he had no problems with his life at all. He had a beautiful wife, two children, a good job, he was doing well, and yet he wanted to commit suicide. ’
Listening to them talking, in the attic of the surgery above which they lived during their early childhood, it is clear that they still find it painful to dwell on this period of their family’s life, not least because their childhood was, for the most part, as idyllic as Herriot’s works suggest.
Nonetheless, Jim felt obliged to write about it candidly in his acclaimed biography of his father; and they are rightly proud of the way Alf overcame the illness through sheer determination and strength of will while continuing to work, without allowing it to impinge on their lives.
I wonder whether his depression might have enhanced his writing by helping him to better understand the human condition; and whether he might have found it therapeutic to take up his pen, at the relatively advanced age of 50.
‘I think he felt it was cathartic getting his feelings out on paper, yes,’ replies Rosie. ‘Because Dad was very private and he wasn’t a demonstrative man. We didn’t cuddle and say we loved each other, though we did, of course.
‘Dad would show his affection to us in different ways.
‘He had a black Labrador and when I got home for a weekend, after I started working, the dog would be ecstatic and jump all over me. Dad would say to him, “I know, you’re telling me how grand it is to have Rosie home.” But he wouldn’t say that to me directly.’
Though his bleakness briefly threatened to return after his books were first published, by the mid-1960s, Alf had recovered his old zest. Admirably, though he was then becoming a renowned writer, he used his experience to work voluntarily for the Samaritans.
It is also a testimony to his selflessness and strength of character that Rosie and Jim have only fond memories of their early years. The only reminder of his struggle with inner demons came when he died in 1995, aged 78, and they found dozens of self-help books stashed in his loft.
Rachel Shenton and Nicholas Ralph as Helen Alderson and James Herriot in Channel 5’s remake
But, as Rosie observes from long experience as a family doctor: ‘You don’t necessarily have to be unhappy when you suffer an endogenous depression.’
We return to lighter matters. So did the glorious caricatures we meet in Herriot’s stories really inhabit the Dales of their childhood?
Rosie and Jim confirm that they did, and that — as they began accompanying him on his rounds when they were three or four years old — they met many of them in the flesh. Mindful of local sensibilities, however, their father would usually disguise their identities.
The snooty Mrs Pumphrey, played splendidly by the late Diana Rigg in what proved to be her final casting, was in fact a well-to-do local socialite called Miss Warner, and the real name of her Pekingese dog Tricky Woo was Bambi.
But she had the same airs-and-graces and showed her gratitude to Alf by sending him Fortnum & Mason hampers replete with caviar and other delicacies.
When Alf sent a note of thanks, she reprimanded him for addressing it to her rather than her pampered pooch, who, she insisted, had sent the gift ‘personally’.
‘His books have been a tonic for people going through difficulties for 50 years, and he’s doing that again now — raising people’s spirits at a really bad time for our country’
Then there was Mr Worley, a troublesome pub owner who repeatedly calls Herriot at dead of night to treat his sickly pigs. ‘He’ was actually a female inn-keeper called Mrs Bush.‘Oh, I laughed so much at the story of Mr Worley! It was so realistic!’ Mrs Bush trilled, when Rosie visited her pub with her parents, never guessing that Alf had been writing about her.
As a little girl, when she juddered from farm to isolated farm in her father’s Austin 7 car (whose brakes really did often fail as he careered down a steep hill), Rosie was entrusted with fetching his dubious animal medicines from the boot, even though she couldn’t yet read their labels.
She thought then that she would follow his career. Today, the majority of newly qualified vets are women, but in those days it was considered to be gruelling men’s work, and Alf didn’t want his daughter to wallow in a stinking byre, thrusting her hand up a pregnant cow’s posterior.
To put her off, he gave her the dirtiest jobs and it did the trick. She chose to become a family doctor.
Meanwhile, Jim went into practice with his father and his partner, Donald Sinclair, known to Herriot fans as the impulsive, irascible, impossibly eccentric Siegfried Farnon.
Jim (who is more outgoing than his sister and gives amusing talks to aspiring vets and Herriot devotees) describes Sinclair as ‘the funniest man I’ve ever known’ — the more so because he had absolutely no idea that his behaviour was so amusing.
One evening he invited a sales rep to dinner but found him a crashing bore. When the man showed no signs of leaving, Sinclair fetched the shotgun he kept under his pillow and fired it into the wall ‘about two feet above his head’. He shifted pretty quickly after that.
At another dinner party, for well-heeled Yorkshire folk with whom he mingled after marrying into money, Sinclair abruptly disappeared from the table, never to return. When a guests asked where he’d gone, his wife Audrey replied nonchalantly: ‘Night-fishing. He likes to do that, you know.’
Alf Wight wrote about his life as a farm vet between the 1930s and 1950s which were adapted for TV in the 1970s and 1980s by the BBC
Sinclair also had a penchant for tinned sardines, believing their oil was enormously beneficial to one’s health.
‘He would buy 20 or 30 tins all at once and keep them in his cupboard. He took me aside one day and said, very seriously: “Jim, don’t forget — you must turn the tins regularly to distribute the oil evenly over the fish.”
‘I would sometimes phone his house, and Auntie Audrey would say: “Sorry, Donald can’t speak to you now. He’s turning his sardines.” That was the sort of man you were dealing with.’
Despite his idiosyncrasies, Jim and Rosie describe Sinclair as charming and inscrutably honourable. He was also a ladies man with the ability to make women he met ‘feel as though they were the only person in the world’, smiles Rosie.
They dismiss claims in an unauthorised biography that he exploited their father by playing the country squire while Alf ran their practice for a pittance, saying he was well-remunerated and that they remained close friends to the end.
Perhaps then it was no coincidence that in June, 1995, barely four months after Alf died, Donald — who had recently lost his wife, and whose two grown-up children had moved far away — took a fatal overdose.
‘He was rattling around on his own in that big house, and I think he could see no future. I can understand why he did it,’ says Rosie quietly. She remains close to Donald’s Hampshire-based daughter, Janet, and loves to share memories of bygone times with her over a glass of wine when she comes to stay in Yorkshire.
By his children’s reckoning, the Herriot books have sold more than 100 million copies and continue to enthral in unlikely corners, from Russia to Japan. Pleasingly, at least one more All Creatures TV series is planned, and there will be a Christmas Special.
Alf left £5.2m in his will, though he might have left considerably more if he hadn’t refused his accountant’s advice to join other best-selling authors of his day by going into tax-exile in Jersey, at a time when the Labour government was soaking the rich for all they were worth.
He valued his work, his family, his dogs, Sunderland Football Club and the Yorkshire countryside far above the trappings of wealth, his children say.
In any case, the greatest gift he gave them was his time, and endless hours of fun and laughter.
Aptly, his ashes, and those of his wife, were scattered on Sutton Bank, a 1,000ft hill overlooking the Vale of York, in the heart of what has become known as Herriot Country.
‘During the lockdown, I would walk up there on my own, three times a week, and I’d sit on the seat and have a chat to them,’ says Rosie.
Aware that this might raise eyebrows among earthy farming folk in Thirsk, she laughs. ‘I know it sounds potty.’
But, of course, it doesn’t at all. Next time she’s up on the moors, she might thank her brilliant father for carrying us off to a simpler, less-troubled world — and making us smile again.
- All Creatures Great and Small is on Tuesdays at 9pm on Channel 5.
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