In 1937, as he told it, a newly qualified veterinarian named Alf Wight took a job – hard to find at the time – with a practice in Yorkshire in northern England. Over the next half century he amassed a multitude of anecdotes about the place, its people, and their animals. Many were funny, some were heartbreaking, and all of them were charming.
He shared those tales with his mates in the local pub and came to be known as a fine storyteller. His wife, Joan, nagged him to write them down. This he did and after a while he had enough for a book, then another, finally eight in all. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the profession’s governing body in the United Kingdom, banned all forms of advertising, including the publication of general audience books under one’s own name. According to his son, it was while watching sports broadcast Wight decided that the name of one of the players would make a good pen name.
Soon came the first of the books published to great acclaim and commercial success by “James Herriot.” They are, individually and collectively, wonderful.
There have been several adaptations, into audio books and the like. My favorites among these are the ones read by Wight/Herriot himself in his rich Scots accent, some of which can be found on YouTube.
The books were also made into what in my estimation is the best television series ever made, “All Creatures Great and Small,” produced by the BBC in the late 1970s. (There was a continuation of the series a decade later.) The show starred an unknown, Christopher Timothy, as Herriot, the great Robert Hardy (known to modern audiences as the minister of Magic in the Harry Potter movies) as his boss, Siegfried Farnon, and the equally great Peter Davison (the Fifth Doctor of the “Doctor Who” series) as Tristan Farnon, Siegfried’s seldom-serious younger brother, along with Carol Drinkwater as the warm and sweet Helen, the author’s pseudonym for Joan Wight.
If there is a better escape from the here and now, I do not know what it is. If there is a more comfortable place to go than Herriot’s pre-war Yorkshire, I cannot imagine it. I watched it when it was broadcast on PBS stations in the early 1980s and have seen the odd episode since then. It was at one time on YouTube in 20-minute bites, then full episodes. Currently, the only full episode available there is the last show of the second season, “Merry Gentlemen,” which I warn you will make you cry, but for the right reason. (The BBC has apparently demanded the original series not be made available in the U.S. except on it to its BritBox streaming service, and I believe it’s now obvious why.)
The show was so good that I saved the episodes on video tape (as I did the only other perfect television series, “Northern Exposure”). Though I still have – yes! – a Betamax that works, the years have been unkind to the tape itself, so viewing the series that way is not the enriching experience I hoped it would one day be.
Now the BBC has remade the series. This is a dangerous thing to do, in my estimation, because it would have to be perfect if it were to survive comparison to the original. That series premiered Sunday on PBS. Based on the first episode, I think that calling it “All Creatures Great and Small” skates perilously close to fraud. It is set in Yorkshire, has characters whose names are those used by Herriot, and from time to time mangles a Herriot anecdote.
While the opening credits say it is “based on” the books of James Herriot, I am very familiar with those books and accuracy demands that the card say the series is “vaguely suggested by” those books. The first episode has nothing at all to do with the book. It features characters who are the opposite of those described by Herriot, incidents which not only conflate Herriot’s anecdotes but change their importance to the story. None of what is depicted is even close to anything related by Herriot. (For example, the relatively minor character of Mrs. Hall, the 60-ish housekeeper, has been transformed to become the 30-ish female lead.) It might come to be a nice story, but it’s not Herriot’s story.
Mark Twain wrote “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” and noted that “in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.” BBC has done for television adaptations of literary art what Twain’s Cooper did for literary art itself. While the show is beautifully filmed – you can’t make the Yorkshire Dales ugly – it is a travesty of Herriott’s beloved books.
There are a few interesting tidbits, such as the character Mrs. Pumphrey being played by Diana Rigg in what would turn out to be her last performance. Otherwise it seems as if the show has been jiggered to better please modern London (and PBS) sensibilities, a goal that may or may not be worth pursuing but that in no way could make the show better. (And nowadays a BBC/PBS series about World War II would, alas, exhibit less concern for historical accuracy than whether there is sufficient diversity among the actors playing the German general staff.)
Memory has been known to work its tricks, so I decided that I had better watch the original series again, just to confirm that it was as good as I remembered. I subscribed to BritBox and commenced watching. Frankly, I did not remember it being as good as it is. It is the television equivalent of relaxing in front of the fire on a cold and gusty winter’s night. And I had forgotten how true to the books the series is. Even Johnny Pearson’s opening and closing theme — abandoned for a cartoon sequence in the new series — was just right.
For some peculiar reason the original episodes are flagged by BritBox as containing “Drug use, violence, and foul language.” The only violence I know of is when a vet, typically Herriott himself, is kicked by a cow or (memorable because it actually happened while they filmed the scene) bitten by the malevolent cat Boris; the only foul language I could find was when Siegfried hollered — avert your eyes if you must — “Damn and blast!”; and the drug use — yes, it must be said: Veterinarians administer drugs to their patients sometimes – the horror!
The new “adaptation” is agony for anyone who loves Herriot’s books or the excellent series made from them several decades ago. Better that you read them and watch it, for either will make you happy and both will make you happier still.
The new version isn’t “All Creatures Great and Small.”
Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Wednesday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.