One of British television’s best-loved characters returns to the screen with Young James Herriot, a new three-part drama series based on the early life of James Herriot, Britain’s best-loved vet.
Iain de Caestecker (The Fades), Amy Manson (Outcasts), Ben Lloyd-Hughes (Miliband Of Brothers), Gary Lewis (Billy Elliot), and Tony Curran (The Pillars Of The Earth) star in this new BBC One drama produced by Koco Drama (a Shed Media company).
It’s more than 20 years since James Herriot was last on our screens in the much-loved and hugely successful All Creatures Great And Small. This new series is also inspired by Herriot’s best-selling books but this time the focus is on his early life as a student at Veterinary College in Glasgow.
The series draws on unprecedented exclusive access to an astonishing archive from veterinary surgeon Alf Wight, who wrote under the pseudonym James Herriot. This includes the diaries and case notes he kept during his student years, together with the authorised biography written by his son, Jim Wight.
The inspiration for the new series initially came from Johnny Byrne, a stalwart of British television whose credits included All Creatures Great And Small, Doctor Who and Space 1999 among others. As a script editor on the original series Byrne was convinced there were more stories to tell.
“Johnny was a great writer and he knew Alf and his family really well,” explains consultant producer Kate Croft.
“Through his friendship with Alf he also came to know this wonderful story of how Alf became a vet. This was an amazing story and when he first told me – this was about 10 years ago – I knew it had to be a TV series. I had loved all of the Herriot books and I just ate up the original series.”
Johnny Byrne’s passion for the idea and his years of experience as a writer convinced Croft that the series could succeed.
Croft took the idea to Shed Media in Glasgow who were equally excited about the project and began to develop the idea. Sadly Johnny Byrne died in 2008 while the show was still in development.
The most important aspect of the show was the cooperation of the Herriot estate and in particular Jim Wight who wrote his father’s biography. The family are justifiably proud of the Herriot legacy and very protective of his reputation. They still live in Thirsk in the heart of Herriot country and are actively involved with the Herriot museum.
This turned out to be a key factor as Jim Wight gives a lot of talks and is actively involved talking to people at the museum with his sister Rosie. One of the questions he is most frequently asked is how his father became a vet. He knew there was a fan base out there who were anxious to hear this new story. But the family do take their responsibilities very seriously.
Iain de Caestecker who plays the young James Herriot met the family and had dinner with Jim Wight.
“They were very helpful,” says de Caestecker. “They knew that I would want to be as protective of James Herriot’s memory as they are but they also understood that a lot of the content in this series is fictionalised. They also realised I had a job to do as an actor and appreciated that.”
The series is set in Glasgow Veterinary College in the 1930s, a time of great hardship for everyone and a time when it seemed that the practice of veterinary medicine was dying out through increased mechanisation.
Cameron Roach, executive producer, Shed Productions, says: “The Glasgow Veterinary College of 1933 is an inspired setting for this series. Whilst portraying the reality of the era, stories will be delivered with charm and humour taking James Herriot and his fellow student vets from the rural dairy farm to inner city slums, and to an aristocratic family seat. The series combines the authentic period detail of a time of huge social and political change with an outstanding ensemble cast.”
The series introduces us to an idealistic James Herriot newly arrived in Glasgow and ready to make his way in the world as a vet. The drama focuses on his relationship with his new found friends Whirly Tyson and Rob McAloon. The trio make their way through the college like a veterinary version of the Three Musketeers as Amy Manson explains.
“It is an extremely complementary relationship in that they all have different qualities that add up to a total package. Whirly and McAloon take James under their wing; McAloon is the joker, Whirly has the brains, and James has this compassion and heart. I think the way Iain has chosen to play James is terrific. It is absolutely spot on and I am sure audiences will be moved by his idealism and desire.”
The access that the production was given to the Herriot archive and the Vet School archive means that the period is recreated in loving and painstaking detail. But it’s not just the setting that should surprise audiences according to Kate Croft.
“Young James has a Scottish accent as Herriot himself did. Christopher Timothy didn’t play him with an accent at all but Alf grew up in Glasgow and retained a gentle West of Scotland accent. We were looking for a young Alf, not a young Christopher Timothy, and knew we had found our “James” when we saw Iain. I think Iain is a great find, not only is he a great upcoming Scottish actor but there was the added bonus that he grew up in the same part of Glasgow as Alf.
“Audiences should also be pleasantly surprised that this is not in a rolling, bucolic setting but in 1930s industrial Glasgow. There is lovely countryside nearby but the College is in town and we had a great picture archive to rely on to get the look right. The social attitudes of the time are another very important part of the show; Whirly is one of only two female students at the college which gave us another opportunity to show a different side of James.
“This is a very rich period with some very complex attitudes and we were able to mine those details.
If you don’t know the books you have a chance to get into this character, if you do then it’s a wonderful new story about the making of the man. His triumphs and disasters, the mistakes he made, and how he learned from them.”