'All Creatures Great and Small’
(A Point of View)
I was recently having a conversation with my long-suffering wife when she asked me why I was so hooked on the late twentieth century British television series All Creatures Great and Small, a programme on which production stopped over 20 years ago. You see, I have recently been lucky enough to have the complete box set of DVDs gifted to me and ever since receiving them I have watched at least one episode daily. Having said that the question did initially throw me; for whilst I could easily come up with what might be fairly obvious answers to her question such as – good scripting, brilliant locations and superb characters, there is, of course, much more to this wonderful programme than that. So I thought it might be a good idea to have a closer look at what is undoubtedly a phenomenon and, as any writer would, put my thoughts down on paper.
Firstly, the series’ episodes, at least the early ones, are based on the real-life adventures and memoirs of James Herriot, AKA – Alf Wight –, a country vet working as part of a small team of same out of the picturesque North Yorkshire market town of Darrowby, AKA – Thirsk. Thirsk is also situated on the eastern edge of the Yorkshire Dales; one of the most beautiful places in England if not Britain. The second key factor is the programme’s timeline. It begins with the newly qualified James joining the practice of one Siegfried Farnon, AKA Donald Sinclair, in the late 1930s and by completing some 30 years or so later is confined to what many people, of my extended years and older, might regard as something of a ‘golden age’, a time when gentlemen and schoolboys doffed their caps to the gentler sex and always, well nearly always, gave up their seats for them on public transport. An age when everyone was allegedly courteous to each other even though, without having to wear the, sometimes heavy shackles of twenty-first century political correctness, the good, ‘salt-of-the-earth’ folk of Yorkshire could, and did, tell it as it really was.
Set as it is therefore, in some of Britain’s most delightful countryside, the viewer can almost smell the bucolic splendour with which each 50-minute offering is, usually and copiously, served. From little country cottages, complete with roses growing around the front door, to ancient, austere and isolated stone-built farmhouses, set high-up on the cold, snow-laden moors, it is all there for the committed rural lifestyle addict to slaver over. Then there are the characters, some animal but largely human. In an age where conformance to a standard, compliant, behavioural norm, seems to be almost a societal prerequisite enshrined in Parliamentary law, Mr Herriot’s characters, many of whom even the great Charles Dickens would have been proud to own, have no such restraints placed upon them. They range from the intensely irritating, and infantile Tristan, brother of the ever-capricious Siegfried, to the comprehensively rustic, and serially miserly and contrary, Ezra Biggins, superbly and very skilfully played by the late, Bradford-born actor, John Sharp. Additionally, who, having once met both him and his over-protective, if not psychotic mistress, played by the also late, and ever-charming Margaretta Scott, could forget the virtually criminally pampered, oriental canine and martyr to ‘flop-bot’ and ‘cracker dog’ – Tricky Woo?
Of course, as you would expect in a programme supposedly centred on the subject of animal welfare, there are many, many other creatures, both great and small, ranging from minute budgerigars that can, unexpectedly and embarrassingly die of shock when handled, to huge and sometimes dangerous, bovine beasts and mean-tempered equines. Nonetheless, all are lovingly treated by the indomitable ‘veterinarians’ with a believable professionalism that can only be described, by this particular wimpish layman, as – ‘truly awesome’.
By now the reader will have some idea where I am coming from. All Creatures Great and Small offers the viewer a chance to escape from what many might see as the rather course and somewhat inflexible confines of a modern, almost lawless, self-centred, debt-ridden and materialistic Britain into what may be perceived a gentler, less troubled and more desirable age; a time when, although people had far less, they were much happier for it. I also consider the stories help feed a primeval, deep-rooted need felt by virtually all of us – that of belonging, of being a part of something wholesome and good. For millennia, Homo sapiens tramped around the primeval wildernesses, hunting for and subsequently gathering food and seeking shelter and they did so in groups. Indeed, it seems reasonable to assume that the instinct to belong to a tribe, or familial sub-group, is now so innately imprinted in our DNA that we subconsciously yearn for the comfort zones such groupings represent. Albeit vicariously, the programme achieves catharsis for this subliminal longing in spades; ‘Skeldale House’ is easily identifiable as the tribal headquarters in which the main characters live, communally eat, interact and ‘gather-in’ at least some of their work and by doing so – means of sustaining life. It is also the place from which, when required, they heroically venture (as latter-day hunters) into the modern wilderness of the dales and moors, into a sometimes-threatening world of dangerous and unpredictable beasts and even less friendly, curmudgeonly farmers and horse breeders. The point here is that as they do so we too journey with them and having tribally identified ourselves, with them; wish them well as we hesitantly and anxiously peer over their tweed-covered, hard-working shoulders.
No discussion of this virtually unique programme would be complete without mention of the series’ inspirational theme music. Somehow, by clever use of a series of crochets, quavers and semibreves, the composer managed to encompass everything that is so delightful about the show into one, relatively short, piece of music; even though it was recorded ten years before the first series was shot. Indeed, whenever I hear Piano Parchment, by Johnny Pearson play, it lifts the heart, making me yearn for the basic but undisputed melancholic beauty of the Yorkshire Dales. It also helps me settle further into both my armchair and that all-important, very personal, zone of comfort I mentioned earlier.
'But hang on,’ I hear you say, ‘is not your point of view a dangerously simplistic one?’ In answering this protest I must agree that the story of our veterinary hero, James, begins in the late 1930s, at a time when many people were living on the breadline and when much healthcare for humans, let alone animals, was expensive and crude in the extreme. Also, far from being a Utopian world of sublime contentment it was an age ridden with racism, homophobia, sexism, unemployment and injustice. It was also the eve of a world war that would leave an estimated 80 million dead and an untold number homeless and injured; a war that, if those figures are anything like correct, would make it the deadliest in world history. However, dreadful though those facts and figures are, that is not the point. What Alf Wight gifted to us, initially through the medium of his truly delightful books and more latterly cinema and television, was the opportunity to escape from our own reality and into a world which, when we were children, was occupied by lions and witches, Peter Pan and Captain Hook. In other words, for 50-minutes after hearing Piano Parchment herald the arrival of the next episode, we can all be members of a small, elite and excitingly wonderful tribe of dedicated heroes, enjoying grown-up adventures in a bucolic paradise that, because of its distance from us in both time and culture, is untouchable; and yet and despite that incontrovertible fact – is still as delightfully ‘real’ as we are prepared to allow our imaginations make it for us! Therefore, on behalf of all members of our great human family, who like myself still enjoy a periodic escape from actuality; I say to the late, great, Mr Wight, a very, very large and totally sincere – ‘thank you’.
She’s a Lumberjill and She’s OK
(A Dedication to a Very Special Generation of Women)
As a child born in the 1940’s, with the enquiring mind of the social scientist and a keen interest in all things historical, I have often wondered what it was like to fight a world war. In using the word 'fight' I do not mean in the simplistic sense of driving a tank, flying a bomber, or firing a rifle; winning a world war was, of course, far, far more complex than that. By no means a minor part of that, overall complexity, was the involvement of the many, many thousands of women who worked long hours, night and day, and often in the foulest and most dangerous conditions, to help ensure ultimate victory in the greatest and deadliest conflict the world had ever seen.
In World War II the vast, reserve pool of labour, that to some extent had been drafted into service during the Great War which preceded it, was now set to come fully into its own. From all walks of life the women, of what were to become the mothers of my generation, willingly answered the call. They became a thousand and one different people; amongst them – Wrens, WAAFs, members of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, lorry drivers, aircraft builders, munitions manufacturers, pilots, train drivers, radar technicians and code-breakers. They lived and died as agents and radio operators whilst ‘setting Europe on fire’ with the mind-numbingly dangerous SOE (Special Operations Executive). Many, like my own mother, were employed on low wages making uniforms in the textile industry, a select few, as with the great Vera Lynn, became important morale-boosting entertainers and the ‘sweethearts’ of ‘Our brave boys at the Front’. Others, especially the very young and fit, would help ensure that the population of the United Kingdom had food in their bellies, woollen clothes on their backs, shoes on their feet and coal in their hearths; and the latter did all this by joining just one, great, war-winning organisation.
Some time ago I watched a television programme about the WWII Home Front. Much of the sixty-minute long documentary was dedicated to the many young women who, for nothing more than a pittance, laboured long and hard in the wartime British countryside.
The Women’s Land Army was originally formed during WWI to supplement and indeed replace the labour of the many agricultural workers who had gone to war. By early 1940, an almost identical situation had returned to the UK countryside with many thousands of farm workers lost to the armed forces; a situation aggravated by an additional 15,000 men who, unhappy with their low wages, had left the land to take up posts in better remunerated industries. Something clearly had to be done and done urgently; therefore Bevin, the then minister of labour, duly re-formed the Women’s Land Army.
The ‘Army’ was to be one of the great organisational successes of the conflict and by 1944 some 80,000 ‘Land Girls’, wearing the smart uniform of a green jersey and brown breeches, were helping ensure that a nation at war, blockaded by predatory U-boats, did not go hungry. Apart from driving tractors, planting crops and even catching rats, some of these quite extraordinary women were recruited into The Women’s Timber Corps (WTC). Enter the very appropriately nicknamed – ‘timberjills’.
The job of the timberjills (or lumberjills) was to replace the heavily depleted numbers of lumberjacks who had been conscripted into the armed forces. Their duties included tree-felling, snedding (the removal of branches from felled trees) sawmilling and despatching timber to wherever it was needed (many were destined to be pit props, hence the allusion to coal above). Timberjilling was hard, backbreaking, highly skilled graft, carried out in all seasons and in all weathers. The work was also very poorly paid and the women usually ‘enjoyed’ accommodation comprising of nothing more than a wooden hut which came complete with the absolute minimum of minimal basic facilities. Apart from pit props the product of their labours included ladders, railway sleepers, ship’s masts, and telegraph poles.
Born just after the war, in 1946, I regarded, for many years, WWII as being as distant and untouchable as the Norman Conquest or The Battle of Waterloo. However, as time passes, perhaps in part due to age and education, I seem, in an almost intangible way, to be able to empathise more and more with the psychology and sociology of generations past. Indeed, whilst researching this article I have looked at a number of photographs of WTC members taken during the conflict and listened to the voices of some of this magnificent group of women as they talk on television and as I read their stories.
However, these are not distant, detached, sepia images of my mother’s now almost forgotten cohort, nor are they, any longer, of women a quarter of a century older than the writer. On the contrary, that glorious cadre of young women, ripped away from everything they understood and held dear, at a time of great uncertainty and anxiety, will never age. Their example of unselfish personal denial, of unfailing commitment to a cause vitally important to the ongoing life of our nation, is still very much a gold standard to which we might all try to aspire. Indeed, theirs was such an extreme, altruistic commitment that, in an age where hedonism and self-seeking personal gratification are the norm amongst some, it is a commitment I desperately hope we have not, yet, completely betrayed.
So you may rightly wonder, as all the occupations I outlined earlier were each, in their way, crucially important to the war effort, why my focus on the lumberjills? Well, perhaps the answer to that question is that at a time when women were often seen as little more than child carers or housekeepers, they all very quickly proved the quality of their metal and in so doing – their detractors, to be wrong. Not marginally wrong, completely and totally wrong. Therefore, as perhaps lumberjacking was probably perceived to be the most testosteronal and macho of all the hitherto mainly male occupations the girls succeeded in mastering, could the term lumberjill, or timberjill, be used as a collective noun for that whole cohort of superwomen? Women who came, almost literally, out of nowhere and willingly answered the call to help win a world war; women whose achievements were symbolised by those towering conifers that, like Hitler and his henchmen, the pine-scented girls of the WTC helped bring, with much élan and camaraderie, crashing down to earth.
So, finally, and if you agree with me, if you are ever fortunate enough to meet any one of those surviving heroines of the ‘lumberjill generation’, who once gave up to six long years of their lives by becoming someone else, do not forget to remind her that – she’s a lumberjill and that she really, really is – okay!
Dedicated, with grateful thanks, to my mother and all the magnificent lumberjill generation of WWII – whatever they did in the war!
Len Cooke 2009