Our favourite literary vet hit our screens this week, although blink and you’d miss him. For three nights only James Herriot came to the Beeb as his younger self, muddling his way through veterinary college in Scotland, well-meaning but a little bit clueless.
Set in thirties poverty-ridden Glasgow, this mini-series is beautifully shot and evocative of the depression which we don’t often get to see in dramas- the Great War still an uncomfortably close memory, World War II yet to come.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. James, played with a lot of charisma by Iain de Caestecker in a tank top and his friends Whirly Tyson (was this name ever explained? I’m confused) and Rob McAloon, played by Ben Lloyd-Hughes and Amy Manson, bring plenty of humour and warmth- starting out as eager but inept vet ‘wannabes’ and developing into knowledgeable and devoted young trainees.
As an animal-lover my main concern was that lots of animals would be put-down in the series. Luckily this only happens in episode one but is dealt with sensitively and obviously has a real impact on James. Even a second attempt by James and McAloon to put a sheep out of its misery by administering a lethal dose of sedative ends happily, as the sheep’s dead body – which they understandably choose to leave in their car overnight?! – has woken up by the morning, miraculously restored to full health.
Ok so the reasoning ‘oh! The sedative must have given the sheep’s body enough rest to heal itself’ didn’t quite wash but then, at this time veterinary medicine was still nowhere close to being an exact science. Indeed, a lot of guesswork and a lot of we’ll-try-this-and-keep-our-fingers-crossed goes on in the programme, which is an interesting reflection on how far vets have come since then.
Aside from all the animal antics, there are some interesting sub-plots. The on-going battle between pantomime villain-esque Professor Gunnell and the oddly-named Whirly, one of only two girls in the college, might seem a bit token-feminist but adds another dimension of the history at that time, showing how girls were struggling to establish themselves in education as the equal to boys. The dark fascist undertones of the final episode are also absorbingly sinister and a real awakening for the naive James. I would have liked to see this part of the plot developed a little more perhaps, but then I suppose it is ultimately a vet drama.
Overall, this three-episode special is well worth a watch and is a very promising start to what will hopefully blossom into a full series.
Catch up with Young James Herriot BBC1, on BBCiplayer: