Performed by the incomparable Méav Ní Mhaolchatha, this beautiful aria from Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl is sure to enchant every listener.
Facts, trivia and corrections of common misconceptions
As you probably know, I love James Herriot’s books and the BBC series All Creatures Great and Small. But reading posts online, from random comments on social media to actual newspaper articles, made me realise that not everything said about the books and especially the series is exactly correct, or at least not complete. And then of course, there’s also the usual questions askwed and answered (not always correctly) over and over again. So this post will address some of these things, simply because I care about it all.
James and Helen, Chris and Carol
The most common untruth spread about the series is that Christopher Timothy, who played James Herriot in the BBC series, left his first wife for an affair with Carol Drinkwater, who played Helen in the first three seasons, and that she was fired from the show because of it.
It was actually quite different. First of all: Carol was never fired! The show was cancelled after three seasons, as the books had finished at that time, and Carol returned for two following feature-lenght specials. It was only when, due to the books’ and the show’s popularity, Alf Wight (the real Herriot) decided to write new stories that the show was revived, and Carol, unhappy with a role that she liked but thought to limited, chose not to return.
As for the affair, that was different as well. There was a lot of bad press, especially for Carol, but Chris Timothy never left his wife for her. In fact, they didn’t even like each other at first: Carol had a mild crush on Robert Hardy, which she never pursued because he was married at the time, and didn’t get along with Christopher Timothy at all. Then, near the end of the first run of the show, they had to wait together in a car for a scene to begin filming, and they started to talk. His married had just ended at that time and he was very distraught, though he was not yet formally divorced, and she had just gone through a painful break up herself. They bonded over that, and got together. Chris was still married at that time, but seperated, and she was never the reason for his divorce. The press painted a different picture, one that is still spread nearly fourty years later, but it’s not true at all.
The Yorkshire farmers
Were all actors. People like to claim otherwise, but it is not true. Many people like to say that the farmers look too authentic to be played by actors, but that isn’t true. The actors were just very good at playing farmers, and not so famous as to be instantly recognised. Many were regional actors, from little theatres and comedy troupes, others were rather familiar, but not too well-known faces from television shows. They were not real farmers, they just did their work and did it well.
What about the vets?
The big question of the arms inside the cows. Did the actors really do the dirty work? Long story short: Yes.
But they didn’t do things on their own! No, no. The BBC hired to veterinarians, one for pets and studio scenes, one for farm animals and outdoor filming. The real vets trained the actors, helped them, and sometimes traded places with them for close ups on their hands. They even found sick animals to be treated for the filming, either by the actors under their guidance, or by themselves, depending on how difficult or serious the respective procedure and ailment were.
Some things, such as stitching wounds and helping with the calfing and lambing (the latter being rather normal for “country bumpkin” Robert Hardy, who was used to a lot of the work he had to do on screen) were done by the actors, including the (in)famous arms in the cows’ backsides. But never anything that could harm the animal! In fact, many animals were saved by the show, as the BBC paid for all treatments on set, which caused the real evts to take the pets of poor clients to the tv sets, even if they were never used for filming, and made the BBC pay the bills.
Fun fact, though: There’s a scene in which Peter Davison literally screams with his arm in a cow’s backside. That’s because his arm was tightly squeezed inside and he was in real pain. But don’t worry, he got out alright, and the cow was okay too.
Science and progress
The illnesses and treatments were very accurate. People also like to claim otherwise, but that isn’t true. Many things, of course, are outdated now (and, ironically, many things that were seen outdated back then have become rather common again!) but the medical treatments are absolutely accurate for their time, and so is the portrayal of the scientific progress from the 30s to the 50s.
There are, of course, very individual cases, and unconventional treatments, but that happens if you base things on real life and memory, rather than textbooks. Those special cases are either things that really happened and worked a bit different than usual, or things that are very similar to real happenings (like real cases “blended” to make one fictional one, etc.) and not, in fact, pure invention. The books are, after all, written by a real vet, based on his own memory, and the show adopted all these cases very accurately.
Fact and fiction
Alf Wight still chose to make things up for his stories. Many details are changed from real life, such as changing Helen’s background very much from Joan’s and putting aquaintances from different decades into one setting. He also kept things from his perspective—things he didn’t know about his friends, were things he didn’t know, at least at that time, and that is how things stay.
Now the writers and actors of the show dug a bit deeper, and talked to Joan (Helen), the Sinclairs (the Farnons) and other people who play necessary parts. They added details that could give more depths to the stories, but also respected specific wishes for privacy, especially coming from Donald Sinclair.
Which brings me to:
What happened to Caroline?
Siegfried marries Caroline in the first Christmas special, but she is only mentioned (and sometimes briefly seen) in later episodes. Many people wonder if that means that their marriage ended or wasn’t good, but it’s very much different.
Caroline is based on Donald Sinclair’s real wife Audrey, whom he loved incredibly much. They had two children, which are also sometimes mentioned but never shown in the series. That is because Donald valued his privacy very much and wanted to protect his family from public attention.
Alf Wight first met Donald Sinclair as a young “bachelor” (actually widower, but he also kept that to himself) with many flings with pretty young women, and that’s how Siegfried was portrayed at first. But it couldn’t be kept like that always—it would have been silly for a middle-aged Robert Hardy to always invent visits to his mother to cover up various dates, and a character based on Donald, whose world revolved around his wife, could only be a bachelor in the very first few years of his acquaintance with Herriot. Donald Sinclair was unhappy with being shown dating various women, which he did before he married Audrey, even after three seasons, and he also didn’t want Audrey to be used for the show.
So it was decided that Siegfried were to have a wife, and children, and be very happily married in the later (initially unplanned) seasons, and that there were not to appear in television storylines. They lived off-screen, in their own big mansion, while Siegfried was working in Skeldale House. A woman-who-could-be-Caroline was sometimes seen when a partner was needed, and that’s it.
Donald’s first wife was never mentioned, also out of respect to his privacy, but Siegfried was portrayed to have a severe fear of loss and separation, and to cling very strongly to all his loved ones, as well as to have strong depressive and maniac episodes, which is said to be accurate to Donald Sinclair’s personality. This portrayal was, however, done very subtly.
Character and actor
Alf Wight said to Christopher Timothy that he was the Herriot that he wrote about. They got along very well, and Chris Timothy was considered the perfect actor for the part by him.
Donald Sinclair was, true to Siegfried’s character, always unhappy with the way he was portrayed, and the better and more accurate the portrayal got, the more dissatisfied got he. Robert Hardy was, according to people who knew Donald, absolutely perfect at playing him, and Donald himself was of a very different opinion. But he liked Robert very much, they became very close friends, and Robert actually worked as assistant in his surgery and sometimes their families lived together for filming and holiday periods. Both Alf Wight and Robert Hardy insisted that they “toned him down” while writing/playing him, even people who didn’t know him thought him “too much”.
Brian Sinclair was very happy about the way he was portrayed, and about the books and the show in general, and very relaxed about it all. He also really liked Peter Davison.
Joan was very critical of Carol Drinkwater at first, and thought she made her look like a tart, but warmed up to her later and talked well of her performance in retrospect.
The second girl to play Rosie Herriot, Alison Lewis, was friends with Rosie’s real-life daughter Emma. Rosie didn’t expect her to play the part, and was very surprised to see herself played by her daughter’s friend on TV!
Marjorie Warner, the inspiration for Mrs Pumphrey, was one of the first people to recognise herself on the page while reading the books, and was very happy about the way she was portrayed. It is, as far as I am informed, unknown whether she liked the tv series, but she was still alive when the first seasons were made.
As for the actors
It was Robert Hardy who made much of it all possible. His fame allowed the BBC to cast the relatively unknown Christopher Timothy in the lead role, which they first wanted to cast a famous actor for, and it was him who insisted on making Tristan a larger character, because he greatly enjoyed Peter Davison and set his mind on making the young man a star. He also threatened to leave the show if it were filmed anywhere but Yorkshire, and he also forced the BBC to treat the actors and animals better, and insisted on the necessary safety around the animals. After Chris Timothy’s accident, he insisted that he shouldn’t be re-cast and took up some of the work he couldn’t to, and made Peter and Carol do the same. That aside, he edited, revised and changed some of the scripts, and wrote some of his own scenes. When some younger writers messed up Siegfried in the later episodes, he largely took over himself.
Robert Hardy and Peter Davison actually grew extremely fond of each other. Robert insisted that Peter looked exactly like one of his brothers at that age, and he loved the way Peter tried to impersonate his mannerisms to make them feel more like a family.
Christie the whippet was Robert Hardy’s real dog, the other dogs belonged to producers and other crew members. Some sources claim that all dogs were his, but that isn’t true. SIegfried’s horses were usually actor-horses but he sometimes rode his own on screen.
Mary Hignett was the balancing force between the actors. Everyone loved and admired her, and whenever there was a bad mood between the others, she quickly got them all calm again, just as Mrs Hall used to do. Her sudden death shortly after the (original) end of the show was a great shock to all of them, and Mrs Hall died with her. She was greatly loved by everyone.
Margaretta Scott was also very respected and beloved. She always insisted on carrying the various dogs who played Tricki-Woo on set, and she would only have her make up done by the chief make up artist.
Robert Hardy’s was usually called Tim, as his real first name was Timothy, which he was also occassionally called, and which caused some confusion on the set.
Christopher Timothy had a car crash at the end of the filming of the first season, in which he broke his legs, which is the reason he walked on a stick and had a very stiff walk for some time.
Robert Hardy’s daughter Emma had a very serious riding accident before the filming of the first season, in which she was badly injured, and which made her father rather sensitive to the horse-related safety on set, and insist that everything must be done right and no risks taken. She fully recovered, and actually played the small part of Rosemary Brocklehurst in the series, thirteen years later.
Lynda Bellingham was pregnant during the filming of season five, which is the reason for the slipped disc storyline. Andrea Gibb, who played Deirdre, was also pregnant at that time, but her part was smaller and was simply away for some episodes, and wore some covering clothes.
I am afraid I have missed quite a few weeks and a few songs, but today I will continue the series, on a lovely Sunday—the first Sunday in the lusty month of May! 🌳
The month of May was come, when every lusty heart beginneth to blossom, and to bring forth fruit; for like as herbs and trees bring forth fruit and flourish in May, in likewise every lusty heart that is in any manner a lover, springeth and flourisheth in lusty deeds. For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May.
— Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur
If you want to make movie or TV series of a semi-autobiographical novel, be careful how you use your own background research. It is, after all, still a novel, and the author has made the deliberate choice where to write fiction and where to include events and experiences and people from their own life.
I see a trend in more recent adaptations, for instance the newest adaptations of Little Women and All Creatures Great and Small, but also many others, to blend in historical facts that don’t actually fit in with the author’s own blend of fact and fiction, and thus loses its actual impact.
If you want Jo March, whose personality is based on Louisa May Alcott herself, to be Louisa, she will be an alien to the world she created, because Little Women is still a novel, and because all other characters still exist in their fictionalised form. Just because she Ms Alcott made the decision to weave in her own happy and unspeakably unhappy memories into her stories, does not mean that you can equate her with a fictional character. Just because Jo is very much like Louisa, she is still Jo, as written by Louisa.
If you want to express that Siegfried Farnon, like Donald Sinclair, was already a widower in the beginning of the story, a fact Alf Wight (James Herriot) and the writers of other adaptations left out out of discretion, then you can do it, but if you cast him as a man in his 50s (which is actually a very good thing, because he felt and appeared so much older than he was) and make him a widower of four years, for everyone to know, then the fact that he lost his wife at the age of 24, and began an entirely new life afterwards, will get lost, and with it the whole inclusion will lose its “point” beyond “look, we dug up some angsty trivia!”
You wouldn’t make Amy March marry a younger man in her late 30s, rather than Laurie. And you wouldn’t make Helen Alderson a town-bred secretary which James’ parents didn’t approve of. Because authors know what they include from their real lives, and what they make up.
Or take the 1999 Mansfield Park. If you want to adapt a novel, and find its heroine to be a bore, you might rather choose a different novel, rather than turn her into Jane Austen. Even though Jane Austen drew on some personal experiences, it does not mean that Fanny is Jane, or that Fanny is so unsuitable a protagonist that she has to be made Jane.
Because a semi-autobiographical novel (or a fictionalised memoir) is not an autobiography.
(Note, please: I do not mean that these films are bad because of this, or anything of that sort. They are just good examples of what I mean, and whether I like them or not or whether they are otherwise good or bad is in no relation to this. And the first two are also very recent, and a good example of that current trend. The third, however, shows a different way of doing this, which is also not a good idea.)
And there are many, many other examples, but I think you see my point. If an author includes things from their life, then they know why and what and how, and it is only up to them. Especially if the finished work is, after all, a work of fiction.
Learning about some more background is lovely, being really invested in such a work is a brilliant thing, but if you want to include that knowledge in an adaptation you must be really, really careful.
You might include some allusions, or some sort of little nod to this or that. Some detail that those who know will recognise and appreciate. That sort of thing is lovely. And there’s a lot of possibilities there, one can hide a good deal of Easter eggs in a movie, as long as one stays subtle and respectful, without trying to re-invent the original work. A little comment here, a design choice there, and people can really enjoy it.
But crude info dumping, random blurts of this and that to cause angst or drama, pseudo-intellectual blends of fact and fiction that subvert the authors’ intention, or the inclusion of intimate details that the author (or other involved persons) never wanted to be included to begin with, do not improve your adaptation. It’s just insensitive, pretentious, and in many cases off the mark.
by Christina Rossetti
I wonder if the sap is stirring yet,
If wintry birds are dreaming of a mate,
If frozen snowdrops feel as yet the sun
And crocus fires are kindling one by one:
Sing, robin, sing;
I still am sore in doubt concerning Spring.
I wonder if the springtide of this year
Will bring another Spring both lost and dear;
If heart and spirit will find out their Spring,
Or if the world alone will bud and sing:
Sing, hope, to me;
Sweet notes, my hope, soft notes for memory.
The sap will surely quicken soon or late,
The tardiest bird will twitter to a mate;
So Spring must dawn again with warmth and bloom,
Or in this world, or in the world to come:
Sing, voice of Spring,
Till I too blossom and rejoice and sing.
by Gustav Holst, performed by the Northern Sinfonia ♪
Many people know the 2008 movie The Secret of Moonacre, which is very loosely based on The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge and, though a popular film, a less than adequate adaptation. But there has been another one: the series Moonacre from 1994, starring Camilla Power as Maria Merryweather, who is known to Friends of Narnia as Jill Pole in the BBC adaptation of The Silver Chair.
I have been looking for episodes of this series, but, until yesterday, never found one. Now I have found the first episode, uploaded on YouTube just a few weeks ago, and while it is far from perfect, it does have its own charm.
There is no Wiggins, which is a pity, and Maria has a cute but somehow misplaced little brother. Sir Benjamin is too gloomy and serious, and the parson shows up much too soon. Wrolf is a lovely wolfhound, though in all fairness it would have been quite a challenge for a television production from the 90s to include a lion, no matter if real or animated. We all know the wonderful animatronic Aslan from the BBC version of Narnia, but that worked so well because it is made quite clear that he is a lion—it would be odd indeed to call a visibly false lion a dog.
All those flaws aside, this first episode has really captured the mood of the story, the gothic novel turned fairy tale, through a curious orphan girl called Maria who grows as she helps others grow, just like Mary in The Secret Garden. The brightness and warmth, and the blue and the night, of the Sun Merryweathers and the Moon Merryweathers, is captured surprisingly well, and Maria’s room is gorgeous. But most of all, I am delighted by the inclusion of the parson and the village and its people, and by the way all characters, at least those seen so far, are treated with respect.
As it is, my suspicions that there is no truly adequate adaptation of The Little White Horse have now been confirmed, but I am glad to have learned that one is close enough in its beauty and charm.
Of course, you can watch it for yourself. 🌙
I used to think it a pity that while The Little White Horse got two adaptations, Elizabeth Goudge’s other novels (safe for Green Dolphin Country) got none, and technically I still think so, but now I also think we really need another adaptation of The Little White Horse.
One that doesn’t suddenly disappear, and one that actually gets the book right.
I want a Christian (or in this respect very tolerant and sensible) director and screenwriter. No, seriously, I want it to be a piece of Christian media in the same way that The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings are. In a good way. And I mean in a really good and sensible way, not a sort of low budget production from a vaguely cult-ish American production firm nobody ever heard about and that also includes “Christian” things that were never intended by the author (that is, sadly, the downside of a certain kind of Christian media).
I want all the things included that don’t fit the mainstream Hollywood taste—the “middle aged love” as a Guardian article once called it, the blend of history and faith, the creative approach to magic, the way the backstory really works. I want all the characters to really look the way they were described in the book, I want a fat and jolly Benjamin, and a Puck- or Peter Pan-like Robin, I want the parson and the villagers, and Miss Heliotrope as a serious character, and Marmaduke Scarlet as a mysterious character, and all the little animals. I want the writers to understand that the characters are not separated into the categories “dark and mysterious” and “comic relief”. And I want Maria to be flawed and grow as a character.
I want all the odd and strange and silly aspects played straight. Wrolf is not a black dog who magically turns into a lion, he is a big golden lion that is somehow accepted by everyone to be a dog. The pink geraniums are a very, very important plot point. Maria’s spiritual connection to the very real boy Robin is an important part of their relationship.
I want the movie, from an aesthetic point of view, to be the ultimate dream fantasy of your average little girl. Pretty dresses, pony riding, lots of glorious food, flowers, enchanted rooms, the whole of it all. But I want the spiritual and emotional themes to be addressed in a very mature, serious manner, and with all the depth of the book. No toning down. None of that terrible business of children’s book adaptations making the tone darker and more mature, and the themes and values sillier and easier.
We need that. I think, in some ways this really might work better nowadays than just a few years ago: the cottagecore trend could help with the style, and older romantic couples are slowly and steadily becoming more acceptable again. A mini series might work better than a movie-they usually do—but I think a movie could capture it neatly, too.
Sally Eliot, née Adair of Damerosehay
Like all only children, she was in some ways too old for her age, and in other ways too young; she still fell over material things as though she were fifteen, but immaterial things, such as friendships, the griefs of little children, the desires of men and the jealousies of women, she handled with an instinctive sensitiveness that a woman fo thirty-five could not have bettered.
From John Rutter’s Mass of the Children performed by the Cantate Youth Choir with the City of London Sinfonia.