The Real People Behind the Characters of All Creatures Great and Small
As you watch All Creatures Great and Small on MASTERPIECE on PBS, you have to wonder just how much the characters are based on real life people. For starters, the author who created them—James Herriot—used a pseudonym himself! James Alfred “Alf” Wight is the authentic Yorkshire vet and with the help of his children, Jim Wight and Rosie Page, we learn exactly which of these beloved and unconventional characters are true to life and which are pure fiction.
Alf Wight is the Real James Herriot
Like the character of James Herriot, James Alfred Wight grew up in Glasgow. However, he was born to English parents in the English town of Sunderland, according to his children. His family moved to Glasgow when he was only three weeks old. His father worked in the shipyards and his mother was a dressmaker. Both Wight’s parents were part-time musicians; his mother was a singer, and his father an accomplished pianist with his own orchestra, frequently performing in local cinemas. And of course, Alf Wight took his Scottish accent with him when he moved to Yorkshire.
Unlike the James of our MASTERPIECE series, Alf Wight started his career at the outset of WWII, the family tells us. He completed his veterinary degree in 1939 and had one previous stint as a veterinarian in Sunderland, England where his mom’s relatives lived, before joining the North Yorkshire veterinary practice. It’s quite true that Wight both lived and worked with his boss there, becoming a full partner in 1949.
Joan Danbury is the Real Helen Alderson
Helen Alderson may be the character least like her true-life counterpart. Joan Danbury was not a farmer’s daughter, but worked as a secretary in a Thirsk corn mill. She was an attractive girl who had several admirers when young and single, according to her children. Joan was, in fact, previously engaged but unlike Helen Alderson, never left a groom at the altar. Both of her parents were very much alive, and unlike the character of Helen, Joan was known for her culinary skill!
According to Wight and Page, their mom was the first woman in town to wear pants—but they were purple rather than the green ones Helen sports in Season 1.
Donald Sinclair is the Real Siegfried Farnon
Rural veterinarian Donald Sinclair was the model for Siegfried Farnon. He was, indeed, a widower as his first wife Evelyn died of tuberculosis. Sinclair had a sweet spot for horses and actually did become resident horse vet at Thirsk Racecourse, a side job he held for 50 years. He was known to be eccentric, unpredictable, impulsive, and capricious. He could also be charming and delightful company, particularly outside work. He was a truly likeable character according to Wight and Page. Donald Sinclair and Alf Wight worked together in their practice in Thirsk, North Yorkshire for 50 years and remained friends until the end of their days.
Brian Sinclair is the Real Tristan Farnon
Unfortunately for Brian Sinclair, but oh, so fortunately for us, there truly was a love/hate relationship between the younger and older veterinary brothers. Brian Sinclair is referred to in biographies of Alf Wight as fun-loving, ever optimistic, and someone who definitely loved a good prank.
Mrs. Hall has No Real Counterpart
James Herriot’s stories reference a housekeeper named Mrs. Hall who is in her 60s, but she’s a very minor character. However, there never was a housekeeper who lived in the real house and veterinary practice. Donald Sinclair employed a few different women who would come to assist with cleaning and washing. Alf Wight’s son Jim remembers two in particular—Mrs. Weatherall and Mrs. Smith—whom it’s possible were inspiration for the fictional Mrs. Hall. While Alf and Joan Wight lived at the practice, they also paid for help with cleaning and washing, but the women hired never had anything to do with the running of the home or practice.
Marjorie Warner is the Real Mrs. Pumphrey
According to Jim Wight’s biography of his father, this character of a rich older woman was based on a Mrs. Marjorie Warner of Sowerby, a local socialite. She doted on her pet, a charming Pekingese dog she called Bambi. Warner did, in fact, dispatch hampers of gourmet delicacies—”sent by Bambi”—to the vets in Thirsk. She caught on that she was the model for Mrs. Pumphrey, but apparently harbored no resentment about being included in the stories.