“The idea that anyone would expect us to use these accounts as some sort of benchmark for current working practices is ludicrous"

01 October 2020, at 8:55am

As many of you will be aware, there is a new series of All Creatures Great and Small on the television. For many vets, we will have memories of watching the original TV series in the late 1970s onwards and reading the books. They have been widely credited (or blamed!) for inspiring people to take up the profession. The theme tune “Piano Parchment” (1968) by Johnny Pearson has been indelibly inserted into the profession's psyche and associated with the rose-tinted view of our job portrayed by James Alfred Wight MRCVS. It appeared briefly at the end of episode one of the new series, and was used by BBC Panorama in an investigative programme into alleged misbehaviour at a veterinary clinic. A sort of ironic auditory cue.

Now that I have placed the tune in your head, you can read on. The majority of us will have positive associations with Herriot and the TV series and books. However, I was surprised to learn that for a significant number of vets he is perceived somewhat as a malign character and the whole Herriot universe as an apologist for bad working practices, namely long hours, poor pay, bullying bosses, onerous on-call duties and a terrible work–life balance. Not to mention the fact he is a white male. It has been said by the BVA that he is no longer the face of the profession (Loeb, 2019).

He also has been accused of encouraging poor working practices and client’s expectations for vets to work for free.

When I first heard that, I thought someone was pulling my leg. But no, this has recently been a topic of discussion from the upper echelons of the profession to down among the various veterinary Facebook groups. So, I feel the need to examine this a little.

Firstly, it needs to be remembered that Wight wrote fiction. He made no secret of this and that the books were based on his working life and experiences, but it was by no means a factual account of working life. A fictional series of books is then adapted further for TV and film. So, any perception of what he may have thought or felt about the work has been two steps removed.

Secondly, these books were set mainly in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Much of the working activity takes place around 80 years ago, so the idea that anyone would expect us to use these accounts as some sort of benchmark for current working practices is ludicrous, least of all the real Alf Wight. I can’t imagine the General Midwifery Council putting out a statement to disown the BBC series Call the Midwife, also written by a working clinician around the same time as Herriot, also then adapted for TV for a feel-good series. We should continue to cherish Herriot and his legacy, and be proud to say “look how far we have come” and leave his work alone without criticising it in today’s terms of reference.

As well as leaving it in the historical perspective, there are still things we can learn and appreciate from his writing. He does not shy away from writing about (and it appears in the current TV series) the difficulty of obtaining payment from clients in difficult circumstances. “That’ll be half a crown” may not be a phrase we use any more, but he is clearly seen to have to obtain payment from clients. He also takes his fair share of complaints and criticism from clients and colleagues, manages to put them into perspective and carry on.

As with all historical sources (even semi-fictional ones) we should take inspiration and learn lessons when we can, but also treat them as historical and of their time, and be glad about how far we have progressed from then. And there will still be a surprising number of scenarios that we can laugh in sympathy with, as we relate to the truth of our strange and difficult work as it reaches across the decades to us.