Udderly Magical; James Herriot's Back on Our Screens Next Week in a New Drama about His Unruly College Days. and, Says His Son, the Legendary Vet Would Have Loved It
Byline: BY JIM WIGHT JAMES HERRIOT'S SON
My father would, I think, have been secretly pleased with Young James Herriot, the new three-part drama based on his student days. He was a shy and unassuming man who was almost embarrassed by the success of his books and the TV show All Creatures Great And Small, which was based on them. But I'm sure he would have approved of this latest adaptation, which portrays his life as a veterinary student in Glasgow in the 1930s. Although people always assume James Herriot was a Yorkshireman, he was born in Glasgow and lived there until he was 24 - he kept his Scottish accent until the day he died. A huge part of his soul was always in Glasgow.
The whole show is a slice of history, and many of the storylines come from the notebooks and diaries he kept back then. He'd originally fancied himself as a writer or a journalist, and although he never actually published anything about his student days, many of his books allude to them.
He'd always loved animals, and when he was 15 he read an article in Meccano Magazine about vets and decided that was what he wanted to do. While still at school, he phoned Glasgow Veterinary College and the Principal himself, Dr Whitehouse, answered. Dad said, 'I fancy being a vet.' The answer was, 'Great, when can you start?' It didn't matter that he was studying English, French and Latin - nowadays students must have A grades in three science A-levels.
My father was lucky because he had enterprising parents who helped fund his studies. His father, my grandfather, was a shipyard worker who was often out of work, but supplemented his income by playing the piano in cinemas. My grandmother was not only a talented singer, but she also earned money as a seamstress, making wedding dresses for the rich people of Glasgow. She was the main breadwinner, and between them they made enough money to send my father first to the fee-paying Hillhead High School and then on to college.
When my father arrived in 1933, Glasgow Veterinary College was a strange place. The Government had decided to close it down in 1925 because there was another college in Edinburgh, but the governors wanted to keep it open, so they had to survive on their wits and on funding from philanthropists. Many of the teachers were retired vets with no teaching experience, and it was a culture shock at first for my father who had come straight from the strictly regimented Hillhead. He found it a wild and unruly place where nobody seemed to care whether you passed your exams or not. No one was forced to attend lectures and he wrote about students throwing paper planes around during classes - it sounds fantastic. Nowadays, if students fail their exams twice they're out; in my father's day there were students who had been there for years.
There's one such character in the show called McAloon, played by Ben Lloyd-Hughes, who keeps failing his exams. It's a fictitious name, but Dad wrote about a friend just like him; he'd been there 14 years and only got as far as the second year, but as long as his parents were happy to keep paying for him he was allowed to stay on.
Partly because it had no money, the college would farm students out to practices where they would be given a tremendous amount of responsibility. It gave all the students a feeling of pride and a lot of practical experience. When my father started he had plenty of enthusiasm but very little confidence. …