Thursday, 21 January 2016
322 All Creatures Great And Small
First viewed : 8 January 1978
Yorkshire vet James Wigt became , in late middle age , one of the publishing phenomena of the seventies with his loosely autobiographical series of novels about the lives of three country vets in the Yorkshire Dales of the 1930s and 40s under the name "James Herriot" . My mum loved them and as she was terrible at taking care of books, we became used to finding bits of them all over the house. She persuaded me to go and watch the 1975 film All Creatures Great and Small when it was shown in Rochdale as a double bill with a wildlife film, Beautiful People. ( Interestingly, Herriott never actually wrote a novel with that title- it was given to an American compilation of the first two , If Only They Could Talk and It Shouldn't Happen To A Vet. I found the film really boring as a 10 year old and much preferred the documentary feature. I didn't bother with the follow up film It Shouldn't Happen To A Vet a year later.
The young Wigt/ Herriott was played by the unknown Christopher Timothy after both the film Herriots ( Simon Ward and John Alderton ) and Richard Beckinsale had turned down the role. His fictionalised partners were the eccentric and temperamental Siegfried ( Robert Hardy ) and his much-younger and more likable brother Tristran ( Peter Davison in his breakthrough role ). His wife Helen was played by the attractive but mumsy Carol Drinkwater. With much of the action taking place in a small village there were plenty of other characters who appeared in more than one episode most memorably Mrs Pumphrey the elderly widow doting on the poodle Tricky-woo.
This was quintessential feelgood Sunday night TV though some of the stories were quite poignant. The one where James accepts payment from an impoverished man in the form of a cigar and then smokes it when he dies was the only episode I recognised from the film. I watched it pretty regularly as there wasn't a cat in hell's chance of changing channel and enjoyed the irrepressible Tristran's storylines but otherwise it left me pretty cold. I thought Siegfried was an appalling character and James and Helen a bit cloying.
Of course the one everyone remembers is Peter Davison sticking his hand up a cow's nether regions to deliver a calf, apparently for real although it has been suggested that Davison's histrionics are a bit exaggerated. It was certainly much talked about in the playground the following Monday morning.
After three immensely popular series the programme had more or less caught up with Wigt and the series had to stop for want of material apart from two Christmas specials in 1983 and 1985. Its impact was profound; three years after the series halted in 1980, veterinary studies was the hardest degree course to get on to with three straight A's in relevant subjects the minimum requirement.
Eventually Wigt agreed to let the Beeb come up with its own stories and the series was resurrected in 1988. Drinkwater had taken up environmental activism in the meantime and didn't want to reprise her role ( she eventually returned to acting and a successful second career as a writer ). Her controversial replacement was Linda Bellingham then best known for a series of annoying adverts for Oxo gravy.
I never tuned in for the revived series and can't remember if mum did either. It eventually ended with a Christmas special in 1990. Davison of course was Dr Who during the hiatus in the series and remains a bankable TV actor. Hardy remained a top character actor , much in demand for patrician roles in historical dramas though he seems to have retired now, having turned 90 a few months back. Timothy's had a much harder time of it with a six year stint in daytime soap Doctors the most substantial thing on his cv. The Yorkshire ton of Thirsk and its environs still have a thriving tourist industry based on the series and its author. Wigt himself died in 1995. He would have turned 100 this year.