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‘All Creatures Great and Small’: Who Was the Real James Herriot?

Can Alf Wight the man be cleanly distinguished from his celebrated stand-in, James Herriot? And was there really a little Tricki Woo who gave him goodies?

In the hunt for answers, we searched out biographical elements on which the two books agree and did some independent research as well, including in our own archives. Disputed details we skipped. Here’s what emerged:

The stories recounted in Wight’s first two books, “If Only They Could Talk” (1970) and “It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet” (1972) — which were combined for the American audience as “All Creatures Great and Small” — took place at the outset of World War II, but he relocated them to the more tranquil prewar period. In real life, the author didn’t complete his veterinary studies until late 1939. After the Luftwaffe bombed both Sunderland, the English city where he was born, and Glasgow, the Scottish city in which he was raised, Wight signed up to join the Royal Air Force, even though, as a veterinarian, he was exempt from military service.

While waiting for his R.A.F. call-up, Wight continued work as a rural vet, tending to ailing cows in the middle of air raids. (Or trying to, according to letters he wrote). Donald Sinclair, the model for the character Siegfried Farnon (played by Samuel West), was about to begin his own R.A.F. service and wanted to leave his practice in capable hands. Wight and Sinclair teamed up, but in the early days they were often separated by stints serving their country. (Or trying to; neither made it as a fighter pilot.)

It was a fraught time, and a hungry one. Staples like eggs, butter and bacon were rationed. The delicious perk recounted in the stories — in which grateful farmers feed the country vets — was actually one way the two men eased the pangs of wartime austerity.

In the show, we first see James (played by Nicholas Ralph) as he takes a morning run along the docks in Glasgow. But did people actually jog in the 1930s? Wight did. In 1932, at around age 15, he nearly died of diphtheria and afterward took up an exercise regimen called “My System,” which included running, stretching and regular cold baths (possibly the source of James’s love of skinny-dipping).

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