All Creatures Great and Small – James Herriot, Christopher Timothy

James Herriot’s books are, for me, the ultimate in comfort books. Which is odd, it occurred to me while listening to this audiobook; there’s blood and gore and uterine explorations and knackerings and death and cruelty… There is casual mention of deeds and practices which would turn PETA’s collective hair white. But I’ve been reading these books since I was about ten. (Which, considering the language, is surprising. Them Yorkshire farmers were salty, mind.) And then there was the wonderful tv series.

That last is what made the audiobook ideal: the reader is Christopher Timothy, who played James in the series (alongside my beloved Peter Davison as Tristan). I think he’s one of those I’ll follow anywhere, listen to anything he reads. He’s perfect. Not just because I know him so well in the role already – he is a warm, funny, compassionate reader, wonderful at the accents and natural in his delivery.

Just like Alf Wight, better known as James Herriot. The things I mentioned before – well, they were simply a part of life on a Yorkshire farm, in a Yorkshire veterinary practice in the first half of the 20th century. It was as it was, there were no better treatments than some of the medieval remedies used, and for the most part animals were well kept because they were vital to the livelihood of their owners. There is a surprising lack of sentiment overall, whether the animal in question is a pig or a puppy, a horse or a heifer.

Which isn’t to say the stories are strictly cool and clinical – not by a long mark. Tricki Woo is the perfect embodiment of the series as a whole. The pampered Pekingese “son” of a rich widow, he is a good-natured little furball whose ailments tend to stem mainly from that pampering. And when he goes flop-bott or shows other symptoms which alarm his Mrs. Pumphrey, “Uncle Herriot” is summoned on to the scene at once. The reward for James’s promptitude is baskets from London at Christmas (I can’t even fathom how expensive that would be, sent all the way to the Yorkshire Dales in the 1930’s) along with other periodic delicacies – so James, naturally, has a mercenary fondness for the Peke. But he is also genuinely fond of the dog for his own self, as a personality, and of Mrs. Pumphrey as well. And balancing it all out like a splash of lemon juice is Mrs. Pumphrey’s chauffeur, responsible for the spasmodic bouts of exercise she penitently orders, along with the role of body servant to the dog, and he loathes Tricki with a deep and burning passion. (And when the pig Nugent comes along, there is much hilarity.)

So, yes, there is some cringing as we visit the knacker’s yard, or when some archaic remedy is brought out. But it merely acts in the same lemon juice fashion on the warmth found in the daily interactions with the farmers and peers and kids with their goldfish, the dogs and cats and horses and pigs and cows and sheep, the slowly disappearing way of life of the Dales farmers. The madness that is the Farnon brothers; the surely-hopeless love James has for a client’s daughter – eccentric as it all can be, it still rings true, and that’s the key. The book is, to co-opt what they might say about a particularly nice cob, as sound as a bell.

So, whether it should be a comfort book or not, it got me through a particularly bad night recently. The very definition of a comfort book. I love these stories.


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4 Responses to All Creatures Great and Small – James Herriot, Christopher Timothy

  1. bibliophage says:

    Just wanted to say hi from a fellow fan of All Creatures Great and Small and Peter Davison! I was just about too young to see the original, 1978-1982 All Creatures TV series – in fact, I didn’t realise until recently that there had been an earlier series – but I certainly remember Davison’s last season of Doctor Who and being terribly upset when my hero ‘died’ and regenerated. As an animal-mad 10-12-year-old I loved the later All Creatures series and subsequently devoured all the books. Unlike seemingly everyone else, I actually really liked Lynda Bellingham as Helen, and think she fitted the role better than Carol Drinkwater who, while lovely, seemed just a little too refined and film-star-like to be believable as the daughter of a gruff farmer.

    Robert Hardy’s recent death prompted me to look out the TV series to enjoy his performances as the irascible Siegfried once again, and I was delighted to discover the 1978-1982 series, which are incident-packed (they seem to fit four or five of Herriot’s chapters into one episode in the earlier parts of the series) and much funnier than I remember the late-80s series being. As I watched, I found myself falling in love with Tristan despite (or because of?) his dissolute and disaster-prone ways, or perhaps it was more a case of reawakening a childhood crush on the dashing Doctor! I find it impressive how much depth Davison brought to what could have been a merely annoying or one-dimensionally comic character. Of course, the handsome face doesn’t hurt either :-)

  2. stewartry says:

    Hi! I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Lynda Bellingham episodes – or at least not since I was a kid! I’ll have to track them down.

    Ah Tristan … he’s a hot mess, but he has a good heart. And a pretty face! The Fifth Doctor is MY Doctor – he was the first one I saw, and I’ll always love him best, though his son-in-law is tied. I would have given a lot to see him play Lord Peter Wimsey…

  3. bibliophage says:

    Thanks for your reply :-) I only just noticed it now – I thought WordPress would keep me posted with replies, but it seems it didn’t…

    I would also like to see Peter D. play Lord Peter W. (Perhaps he still could – I’ve no idea how old Lord Peter was supposed to have been, but IIRC the novels spanned a number of years.) Have you seen him as Campion? I haven’t, yet, but a friend of mine who didn’t think much of the Fifth Doctor liked his Campion a lot. And another thing I have wondered, which is *definitely* just in the realms of idle speculation now, is what he would have made of Sebastian Flyte. Not to detract from Anthony Andrews’ portrayal of him at all, but he’s just the sort of charming-but-vulnerable character that Davison would excel at playing.

    Oh, and I was so taken with All Creatures that I have started a blog on it – just three episodes so far, but do have a look if you’re interested, and I hope you enjoy it!

  4. stewartry says:

    Hi again! I think the window for Peter Davison to play Lord Peter has passed, unfortunately… I really enjoy him as Campion. I’ve been watching them again on YouTube – they’re lovely. But I remember being sad when I found out he had that role because Lord Peter’s too similar a character in a lot of ways for him to have played both. (I have to admit I’ve never watched Brideshead Revisited – it’s on the list!)

    I followed your ACG&S blog – good on you for starting it! It’s such a wonderful show – can’t wait to read your posts.

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