Q&A with the Children of Author James Herriot
The grown children of author and veterinarian James Alfred Wight (aka James Herriot) share singular anecdotes about their parents’ early married life. Siblings Rosie Page and Jim Wight reveal what their parents’ wedding day was truly like, describe the real men behind Siegfried and Tristan Farnon, and divulge what they’re asked most about their dad.
MASTERPIECE: You were on set when James and Helen’s wedding was filmed. What was that like, watching “your parents” get married?
ROSIE PAGE: It was Melissa Gallant [Executive Producer] who rang and said, “Would you like to come and watch your mother and father get married?” Well, who could say no to that?! … But it was fascinating to see our parents being married. People were asking me, “Surely there can’t have been so few people at the wedding.” But of course, in reality there were only five. That was the reality at the Thirsk Church, there were five people at the wedding—including mom and dad. There was Donald Sinclair [Siegfried Farnon]. He was best man. There was a chap called Fred Rymer, who gave my mother away. He worked at the mill with her. And of course, the Vicar to marry them. That was it. No parents were there. It was war time, difficult to travel around. … And there are no pictures from the day. I would guess my mother was in a sort of skirt and jacket, a little smart suit with a pencil skirt. Definitely heels.
MASTERPIECE: The series gives James and Helen a short honeymoon. In reality, how did your parents celebrate?
JIM WIGHT: They went to a little pub called The Wheatsheaf in a village called Carnaby, up in the Yorkshire Dales. And my dad did some tuberculin testing while they were there. They couldn’t afford any time off. … It was work all the time in those days from my father. He had a very hard life because he had hardly any money. And of course, the tuberculin testing was where you could earn decent money; the government paid for it. My mother would have been in trousers and wellies because she was standing in among all the cattle. She was taking down all the paperwork as my dad was doing the injecting.
MASTERPIECE: What do you know about your parents’ lives as newlyweds—did they really sleep in a bedsit at the veterinary practice?
ROSIE PAGE: Oh, yes and it would’ve been spartan. They had hardly any furniture. When we lived in that house, as we did until I was six, that bit at the top was never seen as anything but the attic. We kept a pig down the garden—they used to hang the hams on hooks up in that same attic!
As a couple, Mom and Dad weren’t touchy-feely. How they showed affection to each other is something Rachel Shenton [Helen Alderson] asked me. She wanted to know, and we’ve laughed about it, Jim, and I, because no, they most certainly didn’t call each other darling and dear—so much so that if mum said “darling” to the dog or something, dad would say, “Yes, dearest?” just because he knew fine well it wasn’t directed towards him. So no, they did not exchange endearments. I don’t think they needed to. They were a very close couple.
JIM WIGHT: All I can say from when I spoke to my parents about this, is that they were happily married from the very word go. Neither of them had any money, so they didn’t go out a great deal. I remember them saying they used to play a lot of cards in the winter nights. Bezique was one of their favorite games they used to be playing all the time. And they had good friends, especially Donald Sinclair and his brother Brian, [Siegfried and Tristan] of course. But yes, they had a very happy time when they were young. There was plenty of laughter, gosh yeah.
MASTERPIECE: You’ve said the Sinclair brothers—the real Siegfried and Tristan—were a constant presence in your childhood. How would you describe them?
JIM WIGHT: To me, Siegfried is the pivotal character in the Herriot books. Fascinating character. And the real man, Donald Sinclair, as my father very astutely put it, “is a true character because he doesn’t think he is!” Donald was explosive, unpredictable, massively impatient, and almost impossible to work with, but an honest and decent man. And this is why my dad and he got on so well. My dad liked him from the first day he met him, although he nearly drove my father cracker sometimes with all his crazy ideas.
To me, Donald was the funniest man I’ve ever known because he was unconsciously funny. And the amazing thing is when he saw his portrayal in the first little book back in 1970, he said to my father, “Alfred,” he always called him by his full name, “Alfred, this book is a test of our friendship.” Miss me, that shattered my father. And yet in the same sentence, I would say, whenever fans of the books came to our surgery back in the seventies, it was Donald who’d take them on conducted tours ‘round the place! This is what an enigmatic man he was, just a wonderful character.
ROSIE PAGE: Donald was very good with kids. He was always giving things to kids, random kids sometimes. The only people he had any patience with was children. He had all the time in the world for small children.
Brian Sinclair [Tristan] we didn’t see as much because he didn’t go on to do veterinary practice as such. He worked nearby in Leeds at a veterinary for the Ministry of Agriculture. And so, he had a nine to five job, which suited him very well. Mom and dad met up with him frequently and went out for a meal and things. And dad would always come back giggling because Brian had a stock of jokes that he’d put by him. They were very, very close pals. They were Uncle Donald and Uncle Brian to us. They felt like part of the family really. … The fact is all of them, Donald, Brian and dad and their wives had an acute sense of humor. They’d laugh mad at circumstances, get themselves in all sorts of hot water, get the giggles. I think that was a big cement.
MASTERPIECE: Jim, you were working alongside your dad in the practice as his books were first discovered …
JIM WIGHT: Yeah, I was an adult, working as a vet in the practice with him. I was doing a lot of the night work so he could concentrate on getting that first little book published. Despite all the rejections he got, he believed his book was good enough and was determined to get it published, which he did. But then he didn’t want anybody to find out who he was. He was a modest and very retiring man, really, didn’t want the limelight. He said to me, “My book’s going to be published. Don’t tell anybody. I don’t want to be recognized.” And don’t you know a man came up to me in Thirsk marketplace and said, “I’ve just read a book by a vet called James Herriot.” I said, “Oh, yes?” I’d have a face like the sphinx. He said, “It’s your dad, isn’t it?” I said, “Well yes, actually. How did you know?” He said, “Well, look at the way he described Siegfried—that’s Donald Sinclair. Couldn’t miss him. And that farmer, Finn Calvert, God blimey, that’s the old farmer up on the golf course. Oh, come on.” So, my dad was too good a writer. He blew his own cover.
MASTERPIECE: What do people most want to know about your father?
JIM WIGHT: I get asked quite a lot, “Were these stories apocryphal and made up?” No, they most certainly were not. He could use different incidents and make them all happen on one farm and this sort of thing. But nothing is actually made up except for my mother was not a farmer’s daughter. I also get “Siegfried, what an incredible character. He can’t have been as crazy as that surely?” to which I reply, “No, he wasn’t like that at all, he was far crazier.”
[The stories] were properly based on real characters, real events. In fact, Rosie and I have given some input on a new book [The Wonderful World of James Herriot]. It’s a collection of the best Herriot stories. Emma Marriott pulled it together and consulted with us at length to give the origins of the characters and the incidents that our father describes.
MASTERPIECE: Tricki Woo is based on a real patient of your dad’s. Have you met Derek, the Pekingese who plays Tricki Woo in the show?
ROSIE PAGE: Well, it makes me laugh—we were very privileged to meet the actor dog, Derek. We’d heard before we met him that he’s so good it can’t be true. They say that when he’s supposed to act, say, when he’s supposed to look ill, they really believe he’s trying to look ill! But what got to us [while on set for James and Helen’s wedding scene], what with how many repeat takes there are, was Mrs. Hall was bringing him in again and again on a velvet cushion to the back of the church. And he never moved a muscle! In fact, Jim thought he was a stuffed dog, and he was very much not stuffed. He later sat on my knee, took one cursory glance at me, and then went to sleep. Such a good dog.
MASTERPIECE: You both joined your dad on calls when you were little. Did that experience influence Jim’s career as a veterinarian and Rosie’s as a physician?
ROSIE PAGE: We both went ‘round with him from a very young age, before we could read, but we knew we were a big help. We opened gates for him. In those days there were little farms with about eight gates between them. And it was a great help to have someone get out, open it, rather than having to stop and get out. You can picture it, probably. But we also knew which were the common drugs dad used. And he could say to one of us, “Just, can you fetch me the penicillin and a syringe?” And we knew which one to bring and were genuinely helpful. So, Jim was always going to be a vet and so was I. And he encouraged Jim, but not me. I think predominantly because in those days vets were mostly men, particularly country vets. And I don’t think dad wanted his little girl lying in cow byres in the middle of the night, flat on her face. He kept saying, “No, you’d rather be a doctor, wouldn’t you?” And I have to say, I don’t regret it. I was happy being a doctor. So yes, he’d had a big influence. I don’t think either of us thought of anything else to do apart from doctors and vets. I certainly didn’t.
MASTERPIECE: How have you been involved in the TV series?
ROSIE PAGE: We do see the scripts and comment on them. And Jim is much more important in this because, although he obviously isn’t as old as the era being shown, he does remember a lot further back, veterinary wise. And they ask him a lot of veterinary stuff. … But the fact is they do listen to us, and they are a very nice group of people who try to keep the Herriot ethos correct.
MASTERPIECE: What’s been the experience of seeing yet another resurgence of interest in your family with this adaptation?
ROSIE PAGE: The Herriot name being emphasized again, we are delighted about, because there is a generation who have missed the books, which bring enormous joy and comfort to people. There are maybe two generations who’ve missed reading them. And this new series has brought it to the fore, has started people reading the books that never have heard of them. … We’re delighted that a whole new group of people like it.
JIM WIGHT: When dad first burst into the public image back in the 70s, he was regarded as the world’s most famous vet. He died in 1995 and he still is, after all those years. He’s still the most famous vet. It’s incredible, really.