All Creatures Great And Small delighted audiences from the 1970s onwards with its rural tale of a veterinary practice, and for the brainchild of The Yorkshire Vet television series, Countryside Live in Harrogate at the weekend was a powerful reminder of what he and his production crew, and his unassuming cast, have achieved in the last two years.
Telling the story on screen of veterinary life in Yorkshire had, before the intervention of Wakefield’s Paul Stead in 2015, been practically the sole preserve of classic BBC series All Creatures Great and Small starring Christopher Timothy as Herriot.
But now new generations are enjoying a rural-centred narrative on the same topic, and as opposed to the late-1970s television programme inspired by late Skeldale vet Alf Wight’s semi-autobiographical Herriot books – this time in documentary form.
Daisy Productions, of which Mr Stead is managing director, had some work to convince former Wight trainee Peter Wright that a series telling the story of Skeldale Veterinary Centre in Thirsk was a concept worth exploring.
But having compelled Mr Wright and fellow Skeldale vet Julian Norton to be the show’s stars, such has been its success that around two million viewers now regularly tune in for each episode of the Channel 5 programme, which is currently into its fifth series.
The Yorkshire Post spoke to Mr Stead at Countryside Live at the Great Yorkshire Showground at the weekend. It was a poignant couple of days, as he saw Mr Wright and Mr Norton headline an event which was this year renamed Yorkshire Vet at Countryside Live after the Yorkshire Agricultural Society partnered with Channel 5.
Asked how he felt about creating a show in a similar vein to All Creatures Great and Small, Mr Stead explained: “I was really nervous because of living up to a legend and what James Herriot brought to Yorkshire, and what we wanted to do was depict what was in his books in a real practice and it was an ethos that still existed through Peter.
“It took quite a lot to gain his trust, and you’d have to ask Peter if we have done that.”
As the programme’s executive producer, Mr Stead was keen to ensure The Yorkshire Vet was a true, authentic depiction of the working lives of countryside vets. Mr Norton is frequently shown on screen with his arm exploring the innards of stricken farm animals while Peter is a frequent visitor to long-term elderly farm clients, Steve and Jeanie Green, and was there for the couple when they had to sell their beloved dairy herd through circumstances beyond their control. Mr Stead said: “We don’t exaggerate surgery; what you see is real life. We are in a practice and what’s going on is real. Real, raw and rural, that’s the three qualities we insist on.”
If the queues to meet Mr Norton and Mr Wright at Countryside Live were anything to go by, plus the packed out grandstands that welcomed them to the stage for a series of live shows, then the programme’s authenticity has certainly hit home with the viewing public.
“I think people right now are looking for Britishness with Brexit looming and terrible things happening in the world,” Mr Stead reflected. “Our show gives a sense of real life, with natural highs and lows but of heart, warmth and character; it’s raw and rural.”
Series five of The Yorkshire Vet continues tonight at 8pm on Channel 5.
Read Julian’s column in The Magazine on Saturday.