When Mum was pregnant with me Dad bought her a paperback copy of James Herriots All Creatures Great and Small because it was an easy pleasant read. I read my mothers Pan paperback copy with its cover image of sheep farmers and the vets vintage car when I was growing up. We all watched the BBC adaptation when it was on television. And when my son is a bit older I am sure I will read the book to him or he will read it himself.It is 50 years since All Creatures Great and Small was first published. In the time since more than 60 million copies of the semi autobiographical series of books about life as a vet in the 1930s and 40s Yorkshire Dales have been sold.
The books eight in total were published in the UK with some combined into omnibus versions making six American books.There have been two film and three television series adaptations of them the most recent British TV adaptation aired in Australia earlier this year. And the 1940s house in Thirsk Yorkshire where real name James Alfred Wight lived and worked is now a museum attracting visitors from all over the world.What is the key to the books success? I think it is the combination of humanity and humour in Herriots writing.
James Herriott was the pen name of Wight a Yorkshire vet. He used a pseudonym because the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons did not allow vets to advertise. He also wanted to protect the privacy of the people on whom his characters were based.Born in England in 1916 Wight grew up and graduated from veterinary school in Scotland before returning to England to practice. He first worked in urban Sunderland but moved to Thirsk after just six months as he wanted to be a country vet. He was in the Royal Air Force in 1942-3 but was discharged after being deemed unfit to fly for health reasons. Following the end of the war Wight worked as a vet in and around Thirsk until his retirement in 1989. He lived in Yorkshire until his death in 1996.
Wight kept diaries as a child and made copious professional notes but began to write seriously in his 50s after his wife Joan encouraged him to do so. He analysed books by authors whose work he enjoyed including the humourist P.G. Wodehouse. His first published book If Only They Could Talk was published in Britain in 1970. It had modest sales as did the sequel It Should not Happen to a Vet published in 1972.When the two books were combined into All Creatures Great and Small for US publication also in 1972 the omnibus volume had huge success. From there a franchise was born.