How two Yorkshiremen and their lives as veterinarians in the world of James Herriot create Zen
You’ll know in the first thirty seconds if The Yorkshire Vet is the show for you. Between exhilarating drone shots of the rolling green moors and dales of England’s North Yorkshire District are shocking images of all the effluvium veterinarians encounter every day. For those hyper-sensitive to the sight of animals in pain or those otherwise squeamish, it’ll be five seconds and done. But those with enough stomach and spine will be richly rewarded by this fascinating, delightful documentary tour through modern England’s rural life.
For most of us, medicine, both animal and human, happens behind closed doors. Since the series premiere in 2015 (now streaming on Acorn and Amazon Prime), The Yorkshire Vet has been taking viewers through those doors and right into the blood, bone and gristle of the veterinary profession. It is, sometimes, a literally visceral spectacle with all bodily fluid groups fully represented, by the cupful, by the bucket. “It’s not glamorous!” narrator Christopher Timothy chirps, perhaps needlessly, as a fountain of waste gushes from a cow. No argument from me.
But hose away the viscera and you’ll find The Yorkshire Vet’s real subjects are people, animals and the world they share. I was steered to the series by the wise Mrs. B, a passionate animal lover who was previously married to a veterinarian before she plucked me out of the shelter (taken in, no doubt, by my big blue eyes and adorable meow). She’s also a fan of the series’ inspiration: the life and work of James Herriot (real name Alf Wight), the author of All Creatures Great and Small and other fictionalized accounts of his life that made him the most beloved veterinarian in the world until his death in 1995.
Thirsk, the Yorkshire market town where Herriot practiced, remembers him well, as does the series, which centers around the happy circus of the town’s Skeldale Veterinary Centre. According to its website, the practice employs nine fulltime vets but the series focuses on two of their surgeons: Peter Wright, a hearty Yorkshireman who trained under Herriot; and his younger boyish partner Julian Norton, another born n’ bred Yorkshireman, who’s recently moved on to a nearby practice, the show’s cameras loyally trailing along like a puppy.
Wright and Norton are wonderful hosts and guides, kindly big-hearted chaps who find joy in the simple things. Their smiles rarely fade, even when they’re both up to their arms in cow as they both struggle to untwist her intestines while cheerfully bickering over who does the better stitchwork. Working at all hours, driving miles at night through Yorkshire weather good and terrible, their love for what they do, and the land they call home, remains the rock solid. “I’ve got the best job in the world,” Norton insists with an easy smile while Wright says with cheerful simplicity, “It’s a privilege.” I was easily persuaded and you might be, too.
The Skeldale practice is tightly woven into Thirsk and the surrounding community of North Yorkshire. For Peter Wright, his favorite time of year is not Christmas, but “lambing” season, when sheep all over the countryside go into labor. Close-ups of animals giving birth — often under excruciating conditions — would spin many into a swivet, but to him and Julian Norton, it’s all part of a series of everyday miracles. Even castrations, about the most common procedure, are approached with enough English cheer to ease the nerves of the most insecure male. Between rare tumors and prolapsed intestines, the British spirit of getting on with things remains.
Their lives and work is made up of small victories, whether it’s Wright helping to free a wild deer entangled in a net or Norton raising his fists with a triumphal cry as a stubborn tortoise answers his plea to eat its veggies (a moment worth a thousand “Rocky” movies). Here, amongst the debris, blood and pain, people find joy caring for the animals that nature sends their way.
Skeldale’s patients range from enormous draft horses down to palm-sized lizards. For me, the greatest pleasures are the sojourns through the lovely Yorkshire countryside, a dreamy landscape laced with earthy comedy and poignant drama, from hardscrabble farmers to wildlife shelters. Farmers — or small to mid-sized ones at least — live on the margins, never knowing if the next turn of season will bring ruin. There’s nail-biting suspense as the show frankly portrays the often-gory dance between life and death. At times, it’s genuinely upsetting, even heartbreaking. Livestock farmers are said to regard their animals with a cold eye, but as many of them admit with touching ruefulness, that’s not always the case.
Along the way, we encounter a parade indelible characters, chief among them Jeannie and Steve Green, two elderly but active cattle farmers, animal lovers, and righteous eccentrics whose relationship with James Herriot provides a link to the past. Their rapport with each other and with Wright are among the show’s warmest moments, right along with a multitude of sheep, horse and chicken farmers, alpaca ranchers, and even a severely hemophobic cattle farmer. The show delights in the oddest details, as it should.
Back at the Skeldale clinic, household pets make up the bulk of the practice. The dedicated staff treat all that come their way — not just cats and dogs, but exotics such as parrots and ferrets, polecats and snakes. Many owners are classic British eccentrics (like the blazing redhead whose love for her hamster may outweigh that for her husband, at least around suppertime). The endlessly odd twists and kinks of human love are on full display. To call The Yorkshire Vet “sentimental” is a high compliment.
The show has its flaws, first of all its narration, well-delivered by actor Timothy Christopher (who played Herriot in the original BBC series), but irritatingly cute. The show (apparently supervised by the aptly named Louise Cowmeadow) is edited to a tight formula that can become repetitious, especially if you binge watch.
The Yorkshire Vet serves as a reminder to city folk where much of our food comes from while portraying the lives of those who provide it. It admirably spares nothing regarding the bloody details of veterinary work and life, not to mention the stress, strains and grief suffered by farmers, pet owners and pets alike. Wright, Norton and their colleagues do not always save the day. Sometimes they’re unable to save the lives of their own pets. It’s hard to imagine a similar American series being so upfront about the difficulties, dangers and heartbreak of the veterinary profession.
As a relatively coddled American (and urban carnivore), I feel both a little embarrassed and profoundly awed by those who willingly sink their arms into the most miraculous and terrible things life has to offer. On that basis, The Yorkshire Vet is a Zen experience and, during these dreadful days, shines a badly needed ray of hope. It provides proof that kindness and decency remain stubbornly alive.
Thomas Burchfield’s short story “Lucky Day” is in the anthology Berkeley Noir (Akashic Press, May 2020), now available in bookstores everywhere. Another story “What Now, Masked Man?” is in issue #1 of Hello Goodbye Apocalypse. He’s also the author of Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster thriller and the award-winning contemporary vampire novel Dragon’s Ark. His original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night are available in e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s Books, and other retailers. His reviews and essays have appeared in Swing Time Magazine, Posthoc.com, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Strand Magazine, and Filmfax. He also posts essays on Medium and his own webpage, A Curious Man. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.