‘All Memories Great & Small’ reviewed

❉ A meticulous look behind the scenes of one of the BBC’s most beloved shows, marking the centenary of James Herriot’s birth.

In 1978, one of the BBC’s most beloved shows, ‘All Creatures Great and Small’, based on the semi-autobiographical books by James Herriot made its debut on BBC 1. The show made stars of Christopher Timothy, Robert Hardy and Peter Davison, whose exploits as vets in the Yorkshire Dales in the 1930s charmed viewers and very quickly became a ratings hit. Now in the centenary of Herriot’s birth, Miwk Publishing present the first book written about the TV series.

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Oliver Crocker’s meticulous book looks back at the show through the eyes of the people who made it, both in front of and behind the camera. Crocker’s efforts are incredible, with over 60 people interviewed, including many actors who appeared in the show, through to the producer, director and writers, but also the seldom interviewed people crucial to production like the sparks, sound recordists and grams operators. This leads to the inclusion of many unfamiliar tales, and takes it well beyond the story of actors shoving their hands up the backsides of cows that many might be expecting.

It’s clear that’s there’s a great deal of affection from just about everyone concerned with the show, but that’s not to say that everything is painted as rosy throughout.

The recollections of the regulars are going to draw the most attention. All of them give detailed interviews, often with specific recollections for episodes that were either memorable or because they thought they were particularly brilliant. Christopher Timothy’s recollections of how he broke his leg during production of the first season are painful in all sorts of ways, especially so when you realise how close he came to being recast (the part was offered to Peter Davison at that point, who through loyalty to his co-star turned it down). Peter Davison’s recollections are as honest as those recently found in his autobiography and there’s a very touching part at the end, where he touches on how much he owes the show and Tristan for his future career.

It’s clear that’s there’s a great deal of affection from just about everyone concerned with the show, but that’s not to say that everything is painted as rosy throughout. Carol Drinkwater is quite outspoken about her battles to make Helen Herriot more like her real life counterpart, Joan, who she met several times. She remembers being overruled by the producer about Helen wearing trousers, which Joan certainly did. Robert Hardy is also entreatingly forthright on some of the writing, principally when Seigfried was written as blusteringly argumentative in certain episodes for no particular reason.

It’s more than just a book about ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ but becomes more a document of how a TV serial was put together and an overview of the workings of the BBC at the time.

There’s also a general consensus from the main cast and some of the writers that the material wasn’t quite as good in the later series, as the source material from the books was exhausted. The writers who wrote for the later seasons agree broadly with this, but again, what shines through all the recollections is how hard they tried to keep the show fresh and try new stories, drawing on recollections of calamities that befell other vets, or slightly different stories based more around the Herriot family, especially once his children Jimmy and Rosie were introduced.

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Christopher Timothy on location. © David Crozier

What really makes the book very special, however, is the level of detail about the production as whole. It’s more than just a book about ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ but becomes more a document of how a TV serial was put together and an overview of the workings of the BBC at the time. The interviewees often include much about their careers in general, giving a precis of what led to them working on the show and how their careers progressed afterwards.  Some were novices just starting out, very excited to work on a show they’d heard about, others were more experienced, guiding the novices as they were thrown in at the deep end, trying to deal with capricious Yorkshire weather, uncooperative cows and the perils of working on location.

Once again, Miwk have come up the goods in the design stake, with a splendid cover from Andrew Orton and pages of never before seen photographs, with many coming from the collections of the people interviewed within the book.

Miwk are rapidly gaining a reputation for producing high quality books about the history of television, and this is a very fine addition to their catalogue. A true labour of love from Oliver Crocker, ‘All Memories Great and Small’ is a wonderful book and a must for anyone with an interest in either the show itself or BBC shows of the 1970s and 1980s. Highly recommended!


❉ ‘All Memories Great & Small’ by Oliver Crocker can be ordered directly from Miwk Publishing, £14.99 (RRP £17.99)

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