It’s an All Creatures (Great and) Small World

It’s 2020, Bradford’s James Mason became chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire,  in the year that the county (and the world) celebrate the 50th anniversary of the legendary Yorkshire vet, Alf Wight’s (aka James Herriot) bestselling books, including All Creatures Great and Small. So what’s the connection? Helen Leavey in’vet’stigates.

I hadn’t been out for a drink for months but had barely touched my glass of wine. It was resting on a table in a Dales pub garden, where I was coaxing a handful of people I’d just met into ‘singing’ the well-known theme tune to the BBC’s classic TV series, All Creatures Great and Small

James Mason, the boss of Welcome to Yorkshire, led the way. “Ready, guys?” he said, before everyone joined together and hummed that famous tune, which just about everyone in Britain over a certain age will have etched into their brain. I grinned as the song and laughter rang out. It was a lovely moment. I began to relax, and managed to take a gulp of my wine.

There was a reason I was singing with the regulars at The Old Horn Inn in the village of Spennithorne, near Leyburn. There was also a point to James being there. My colleague Simon Collins and I have been making a podcast, Voices from Herriot Country, that tries to recapture some of the spirit of the James Herriot books. We were interviewing James – Mason, not Herriot – for one of our episodes because he has a personal link to All Creatures Great and Small. The humming would add a little extra spice to the audio.

I’m a former BBC journalist and became interested in James Herriot and his Yorkshire a couple of years ago when I ghost wrote the life story of Peter Wright, one of the stars of the Channel 5 series, The Yorkshire Vet. For years, Peter worked with a certain Alf Wight in Thirsk. Alf, of course, is the real name of James Herriot. Peter would watch with bemusement when scores of fans queued up outside the veterinary practice hoping to meet their literary hero.

The Herriot books and TV series were, and are, world famous. My late father, a quiet, dog-loving suburban southerner who rarely read anything but a newspaper, would sit in his armchair laughing at Herriot’s beautifully-told based-on-reality books about life as a rural vet. The books were also enjoyed by me and millions of others, including the Queen. Herriot’s stories were turned into two films and the aforementioned BBC TV series; a new Channel 5 version can now be watched on Tuesdays at 9pm. 25 years after his death, Herriot is still a giant magnet, pulling in visitors to the Thirsk area – his home and workplace for decades – and the Dales, where the TV series was set.

Filmmaker Simon and I (both in York) regularly work together and we’d been thinking about making a podcast. When we realised that in 2020 it would be 50 years since the first Herriot book was published, we decided to mark the anniversary with Voices from Herriot Country, bringing what we hoped would be heart-warming tales from 21st century Yorkshire characters to what we hoped would be a fascinated public.

Our first interview was with Chris Greensit, an 85-year-old farmer, taking place on a rainy autumn day last year. Over the following months Simon and I visited magical spots, talked to endearing people who could have walked straight from the pages of a Herriot book, drank lots of tea and ate many scones. Then came a virus, and lockdown. We released five episodes, asking listeners to consider a donation to the NHS. As the weeks went by we clocked thousands of listens, across the UK and around the world, from Sweden and Italy to Australia and America. Even China. 

Several interviewees, including The Owl Lady and The Carpet Man, knew Alf Wight personally. But not all of them. Alfiya Stephenson, episode four’s Lady With a Tale of a Donkey, is from the mountains of the former Soviet Union and never met the vet-turned-author. She knows Herriot well though, through his stories and Thirsk’s World of James Herriot visitor attraction, where she’s been a tour guide for Russian visitors. 

Like Alfiya, James (Mason) has no direct connection to the writer. He grew up in Bradford, born in 1978, eight years after the first book hit the shelves. But he does have a connection to the original TV series All Creatures Great and Small. That was why we were with him at the pub and also why we initially met him that July evening at the cricket ground down the lane. He’d last been there in 1989. 

“Just being here is quite emotional,” said James, when our socially-distanced introductions on the gorgeously green but empty pitch were over. “I remember I was crying my eyes out. I remember that tree. I remember the tiny little narrow road there. We could be in the 40s, 50s or 60s, couldn't we? It hasn’t changed. It’s timeless.”

I’d first contacted James in April, asking if he’d listen to Voices from Herriot Country. His quick reply explained he had a keen interest because in 1989 he’d been in All Creatures Great and Small, in an episode called Big Fish Little Fish. “I spent two months of a glorious summer in Robert Hardy’s company. A great man and great company,” James said of the Shakespearean actor who played vet Siegfried Farnon, based on Alf Wight’s colleague Donald Sinclair. James agreed to be interviewed. Then we just had to decide where, and when, to meet; his schedule in a role he’d only begun in January (“the greatest job on the planet”) was hectic, evolving from promoting Yorkshire to also trying to save its tourism industry from the side effects of Covid-19.  

In the meantime, I found a DVD of the All Creatures episode and watched a fresh-faced James playing farmer’s son Colin Appleby. One of his goldfish had died so he’d asked Siegfried for advice. Soon Colin was accompanying him on his rounds, learning about farm animals’ ailments then watching the vet deal with an amiable ferret and its irritable owner back in the surgery. There Colin was introduced to the TV version of James Herriot, played by Christopher Timothy. James spent many happy days filming in the Dales with Robert Hardy and staying in the Grade II listed Golden Lion in Leyburn. He also filmed in TV studios in Birmingham. 

Back at the cricket ground, next to a tractor and a field of sheep, James’ childhood memories were flooding back. He’d been crying, he explained, because it was the last day of filming, then described how he’d fallen into acting. He was reading a comic, waiting for his sisters to finish their dance class, when a casting director spotted him and asked him to try for a role in a beef burger advert. His reluctance was overcome by the £100 on offer. “I had my eye on a snooker table that cost £80,” laughed James. He got the part, and others followed; soon he had an agent.

He said All Creatures Great and Small was his biggest experience as a child actor. He recalled putting on an “exaggerated” Yorkshire accent and having a “basin” haircut. He also saw men wearing make-up; Robert Hardy had “little red cheeks”. Robert and James often talked in the car when they were being filmed from a distance. “The director said to chat amongst ourselves so I got to know Robert,” said James. In 1989 the older actor, who died in 2017, was in his 60s. He was “very kind” and interested in his young co-star so James asked him questions too. "He was an archer, longbow archery, I was fascinated by that; there was this other side to him. He was a lovely man, very open with everyone.”

The All Creatures episode and James’ role as Colin ended at the cricket pitch because there was also a cricket storyline. George Tunstall, who grew up in the 1940s a few miles from Spennithorne, is a long-time supporter of the club. As he’d also taken part in the BBC’s filming, playing an umpire and marking out the ground, I’d invited him to meet us. He and James were soon reminiscing.  

George remembered huge amounts of food provided by the crew in a village hall and James and actor/comedian Duggie Brown, who played Colin Appleby’s father, carving their names on the cricket pavilion. George also said Robert Hardy delayed filming for hours one day. “He was too hot, so sat under a tree.” 

There was no singing or humming in this instance. Instead, I pulled out two copies of a script I’d typed out from the All Creatures episode and invited James and George to re-enact a scene. Then, on a golden summer’s evening, on a picture-postcard cricket pitch, James once again played young Colin Appleby, saying goodbye to vet Siegfried Farnon - played by George - at the end of a cricket match. “We’re off ‘ome now, Mr Farnon,” said James.  “Are you Colin?” said George. “Thank you for all your help. I'd never have got through all my rounds without you.” “It were smashing,” said James. “I can’t remember last time I ‘ad such a great day.”

Listen to James Mason in episode six - The Child Actor - and other episodes of Voices from Herriot Country, on iTunes, Soundcloud, Spotify or Google. Podcast produced by Mek It Media

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