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.