Based on North Yorkshire vet Alf Wight’s semi-autobiographical James Herriot books about veterinary life in the Yorkshire Dales, the programme was a revelation, attracting 20m viewers at its peak.
Two runs of the show created by Bill Sellars were screened almost a decade apart and yielded 90 episodes. Authentically set in the Dales, starring Christopher Timothy as Herriot, it heightened curiosity of the quaint market town of Thirsk where Wight’s surgery and home was located at 23 Kirkgate.
Now, approaching the 40th anniversary on January 8 of the show’s TV debut, it is another Herriot-inspired piece of programming that is shining the spotlight back on Thirsk and Wight’s legacy, The Yorkshire Vet, on Channel 5.
Since 2015, the show has revisited Wight’s world in documentary format by tracking the working lives of his apprentice Peter Wright and fellow vet Julian Norton at Thirsk’s Skeldale Veterinary Centre.
It has had a massive effect on the town, according to Ian Ashton, the managing director of The World of James Herriot, the museum set in Wight’s former surgery and dedicated to the late vet’s colourful life, literature and the original TV series that he so successfully inspired.
“The show has benefited the town, the area and Yorkshire. It’s had a big knock-on effect. We have certainly seen a big movement in numbers here,” Mr Ashton said.
Since taking over the then closure-threatened museum from Hambleton District Council in 2012, Mr Ashton has overseen its resurgence. A combination of efficient management, pro-active marketing and ‘The Yorkshire Vet effect’ has caused annual visitor numbers to double from 18,000 to 36,000.
“The Yorkshire Vet has attracted an age group that we’ve lacked, a younger element,” Mr Ashton said.
Other local businesses have benefited from the musesum’s increased footfall. Lacking a cafe by design, museum visitors are drawn to Thirsk’s cafes.
In the Market Place, Thirsk-born Sue Lake has been running the independent White Rose Book Cafe for 22 years. It has hosted two book launches for Mr Norton’s A Yorkshire Vet titles. The most recent, in September, attracted 200 people.
The shop has sold more than 1,500 copies of Mr Norton’s first book since it was released in 2016 and more than 1,100 copies of his second volume.
“For an independent bookshop, that is phenomenal,” Mrs Lake said. “It outstrips sales of JK Rowling – The Yorkshire Vet is bigger than Harry Potter in Thirsk.
“The sales of Julian’s books have made a big difference to the shop. We have been able to invest, whether that’s in a new sofa or in the new sign above our door. We call it ‘The Julian Effect’.
“People are definitely coming to visit Thirsk because they have seen the programme and are stopping for longer visits. It’s great for the town.”
‘SHOW BEFITTING OF DAD’S DELICATE TOUCH’
The daughter of Alf Wight believes her late father would have been proud of how Thirsk is enjoying the spotlight again through The Yorkshire Vet TV series.
Dr Rosie Page lives in Thirlby and is a former GP in the town where her father worked as a vet and wrote the James Herriot books.
Dr Page, whose brother Jim Wight also lives locally, said the Channel 5 show following vets Julian Norton and Peter Wright at Thirsk’s Skeldale Veterinary Centre had moved her in a similar way to her father’s books.
“I think he would have approved of the way it is presented,” she said. “Like the Herriot books The Yorkshire Vet appeals to all ages. That was the secret of Dad’s books; he was a very erudite man who came to literature.
“He had a way of bringing you in, just as The Yorkshire Vet brings you in. I’ve cried and laughed when I’ve watched it, a bit like the way I did with a Herriot book. It takes me back to my childhood and travelling about with Dad. He loved Thirsk, the people, the Moors, the Dales and I think he would have been delighted to think he’d given it this spotlight.”
TV vet Mr Norton has previously told of how the Herriot books played a part in him aspiring to follow Wight’s profession.
Reflecting on her father’s legacy, Dr Page said: “He made people want to be vets, but for me the biggest legacy of all and I see it every time I go to The World of James Herriot, was the joy he gave. He has given enjoyment to millions worldwide.
“When he died, we received countless letters that said several things but they had a common link running through them: Dad’s books helped them through terrible times in their lives and he brought them joy.”
Wight died in 1995 and a life-size bronze statue of him stands proudly in the rear garden of his former surgery, now a museum.