What happened to a young vet, in the untold story of Herriot’s student days

Rob McAloon (BEN LLOYD-HUGHES), James Herriot (IAIN DE CAESTECKER) and Emma 'Whirly' Tyson (AMY MANSON). PA Photo/BBC
Rob McAloon (BEN LLOYD-HUGHES), James Herriot (IAIN DE CAESTECKER) and Emma 'Whirly' Tyson (AMY MANSON). PA Photo/BBC
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TODAY’S would-be vets know the odds of actually getting into vet school are stacked against them, such is the status of the profession and so great are the numbers of very bright young people vying for coveted places at university.

But back in the depressed years of the 1930s, veterinary science was seen as a job that had had its day because mechanisation of agriculture and the rise of the motor car meant animals were no longer vital to everyday life. When bright, wide-eyed local lad Alf Wight got in touch with Glasgow University Vet School to ask if he would be considered to study there, the enthusiastic and instant reply from the principal was: “When can you start?”

Although born in Sunderland, Wight had been brought up in Glasgow. He was a great reader, played the piano and had done well at arts subjects at Hillhead Secondary School. His father was a skilled labourer and the family was close and loving. Young Alf loved animals and from an early age was described as having a great humanity and empathy for both people and other living creatures.

As he always said, being a good vet is in large part about being a good listener. Starting out as a wet-behind-the-ears student (with no particular scientific background) in Glasgow, Wight imagined himself later working mostly with pets at a small animal practice where his white coat would barely ever get soiled.

Ironically, where Wight did fetch up not long after his training was North Yorkshire, where mucky jobs with large animals took up much of his day. But he settled, married, had children and spent the rest of his life in the Thirsk area until his death in 1995 at the age of 78.

Jim Wight, also a (retired) vet remembers his dear dad telling stories about his younger days, but not that many about his colourful time as a student in Glasgow. When Alf eventually got down to writing about his many encounters with animals and owners in the setting of some of Yorkshire’s most beautiful countryside, the only surprise was that it had taken him so long to put pen to paper.

“Dad had had ambitions to write for years, and was a great storyteller,” says Jim. “On my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary he again said ‘One of these days I’m going to write ...’ and mum said ‘You’re always saying that and you’ll never get it done.’ That suddenly spurred him on to write the first James Herriot book (If Only They Could Talk) and he asked me if I would move back to Thirsk to work with him and do the night shifts so that he could write.”

He went on to produce a series of semi-autobiographical works based on his experiences with animals and their owners. These gentle and humorous stories became beloved the world over and spawned eight highly popular prime time television series which ran on the BBC between 1978 and 1990. Set in the 1930s onwards, they told stories of the lives of young vet James Herriot and more senior colleagues Siegried and Tristan Farnon, as they dealt with animals and people around their patch.

Jim Wight says friends and other people in the area often asked his father about his life before arriving in Yorkshire, and he did allude briefly to the days when he was often flying by the seat of his pants in Glasgow in the foreword to a book about dogs. What hardly anyone knew for decades was that Alf Wight had actually kept diaries during his vet school days, and for many years those diaries were kept in the attic of his parents’ house in Glasgow.

It was not until his elderly mother was brought to live in Yorkshire towards the end of her life that these and other documents from Alf’s younger life were transferred in boxes to his attic. They have informed what fans of James Herriot will be thrilled to see: three one-hour BBC dramas called Young James Herriot, to be shown on consecutive nights early next week.

“Eventually, in 1999 (after Dad’s death), I went into the loft and found these writings about his later school days and university. They were a godsend to me, as a son and as his biographer. I also found an early manuscript of stories he’d written about his student days but never had published.” The material was shown to Johnny Byrne, script editor for the earlier Herriot series, and a proposal was put together with the blessing of the Wight family to bring those diaries and stories to life and answer, albeit in a fictionalised format, questions many had asked about the making of the man Alf Wight – and also James Herriot.

The three hours of drama we’ll see next week – producers are hopeful that there will be more, depending on audience response – will focus on James’s first term at vet school, when he arrives with little money and lots of enthusiasm, but immediately falls foul of his professors, antagonises local tradesmen and is left homeless after his landlady does a runner with his rent. Herriot is played by Glaswegian Iain de Caestecker, who went to the same school as Alf Wight.

He forms an unlikely triangular friendship with two older students – Whirly Tyson, one of only two women at the vet school and Rob McAloon, a playboy and perennial student who keeps failing exams but stays so long as his parents can pay the fees.

Producer Kate Croft worked on some of the earlier programmes. “The project took so long to get off the ground, even though Herriot was such a well loved character. Sadly, the brilliant Johnny Byrne died in 2008 before it came to fruition. The drama is very much centred on the friendship between the three students, and you see, even in the early days, James’s incredible quality of humanity. In his diaries Alf came across as a decent, good man. He was never top of the academic tree, but he was a great man with people and animals. He saw treating animals as also about treating people and that’s what made him so good at his job.

“Being a vet back then, in the time before antibiotics, was in many ways a darker and more challenging profession even though it was not seen as having any great status. Now, thanks to scientific developments, a lot of veterinary work is preventative.

“This series is, above all, not trying to be All Creatures Great And Small. It’s set at a different time and in a city, but I think audiences will see the character links between the young James and the older man. Those who loved Herriot 20 years ago will hopefully want to know about the younger years, and viewers coming to the story will find something new and engaging.”

A very different series to what went before, both in feel and content, filming was done by Shed Productions around some of Glasgow’s majestic period buildings including the old vet school, and interior sequences were shot at Filmcity studios. In preparation for playing Herriot, Iain de Casestecker and the rest of the cast decided not to watch the old programmes, but he did meet the Wight family for dinner.

“There were very helpful, and knew I would want to be as protective of James Herriot’s memory as they are. But they also understood that a lot of the content of this series is fictionalised. They realised I had a job to do as an actor and appreciated that.”

Jim Wight thinks Iain has captured his father’s great enthusiasm perfectly. “Dad’s enthusiasms were many and very varied, and his hobbies included learning foreign languages, boxing, juggling and learning about healthy eating. He also loved the piano – his dad had played the piano for silent movies, and my grandfather also encouraged dad to be a great reader. Dad grew up to be a quiet, unassuming man with a great sense of humour and was a great observer of human nature.

“As a father, dad was great. He would take me and my friends out walking on a Sunday no matter how busy he was, and it was always fun. My friends used to say they wished they had a dad like mine. Although he didn’t like the publicity surrounding the books and TV series, it gave him great satisfaction to think he had done something for his profession and also made more people interested in Yorkshire. The books are still in print, and sell particularly well in the US, Russia, China and Japan.”

Jim says The World of James Herriot museum (which is owned and run by Hambleton District Council) in Thirsk is struggling, and he hopes that the new series will help to revive its fortunes by creating new interest in all-things-Herriot.

“The old series have never been repeated in prime-time, which I think is a shame. My sister Rosie and I still live in the area and like to help out at the museum by going in and talking about Dad to visitors, but numbers are dwindling. The new series could be a shot in the arm.

“As a family we are very pleased the new programmes have been made. All you can do is help them to make the best they can. Hopefully people who never heard of James Herriot will watch because it’s an interesting and well-told story, reflecting the triumphs and disasters we all experience in our lives.”

Young James Herriot - BBC 1 at 9pm on December 18, 19 & 20.