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The true story behind All Creatures Great and Small: meet the real James, Helen, Siegfried and Tristan

Author James Alfred Wight based his characters on real people

Anna Madeley, Callum Woodhouse, Nicholas Ralph, Rachel Shenton and Samuel West in All Creatures Great and Small
Nicky Morris
Nicky MorrisTV and film writer
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Channel 5's heartwarming period drama, All Creatures Great and Small, has become an autumn TV staple since it first graced our screens back in 2020, with each comforting series sharing uplifting tales from the lives of beloved characters James Herriot, Helen Alderson and the rest of the Skeldale House gang. 

While most viewers will know that the series is inspired by real-life vet James Herriot's popular book series, did you know that the characters are based on real people? Keep reading to learn all about the real James, Helen, Siegfried and more...

WATCH: Are you enjoying series 4 of All Creatures Great and Small?

The real James Herriot

James Herriot on his farm in Yorkshire in 1995© Julian Calder/Shutterstock
James Herriot on his farm in Yorkshire in 1995

James Herriot is actually the pen name for real-life veterinary surgeon James Alfred Wight, who was born in Sunderland in 1916 but moved to Scotland when he was just three years old. 

James, who was known as Alf, remained in Scotland, where he trained as a vet at Glasgow Veterinary College, until briefly returning to Sunderland in 1940 to work at a veterinary practice before relocating to the Yorkshire Dales later that year.

Alf moved to Thirsk after accepting a position at the practice of Donald Sinclair. Like in the Channel 5 show, he both lived and worked with his employer at the practice. 

The surgeon-turned-author enlisted in the RAF in November 1942  but was discharged in July the following year after suffering an injury. 

The real Helen Alderson 

James Herriot and his wife Joan© ANL/Shutterstock
James was married to Joan Danbury

The character Helen Alderson is based on James Alfred Wight's real wife, Joan Danbury. 

Unlike her TV counterpart Helen, who is a farmer's daughter, Joan worked as a secretary in a Thirsk corn mill. 

Joan was believed to be a very private woman and kept her personal life out of the spotlight. 

After tying the knot in Thirk's St Mary’s Church in 1941, the couple went on to welcome two children: James, who was born in 1943, and Rosemary, who arrived in 1947. 

Alf has his wife to thank for his successful writing career, as it was Joan who encouraged him to pick up the pen when he was 50 years old. 

The real Siegfried Farnon

Samuel West as Siegfried Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small © Channel 5
Samuel West plays Siegfried Farnon in All Creatures Great and Small

Siegfried Farnon was inspired by Alf's employer Donald Sinclair, a rural veterinarian who owned a practice at 23 Kirkgate in Thirsk. 

Donald, who trained at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, employed Alf to run his practice while serving in the RAF. When Donald was discharged four months later, he asked Alf to stay on in a permanent position. 

Like Siegfried, Donald clearly had an affinity with horses and worked as the resident horse vet at Thirsk Racecourse for 50 years as a side job. He was also known to be eccentric and impulsive but also charming and honourable, according to Alf's son James.

Alf and Donald remained friends until the latter's sad passing in 1995. Shortly after the death of his wife of 53 years, Audrey, Donald took his own life at his home Southwoods Hall, near Thirsk. He was survived by his two children, Jan and Alan. 

FIND OUT: Why isn't Tristan actor Callum Woodhouse in All Creatures Great and Small series four?

The real Tristan Farnon

Callum Woodhouse in All Creatures Great and Small© Channel 5
Callum Woodhouse as Tristan

Brian Sinclair, the brother of Donald, was the model for Tristan Farnon. 

Like in the show, Brian's veterinary studies weren't exactly smooth sailing. After failing his undergraduate exams at Edinburgh University, he was transferred to Glasgow Veterinary College, where he was expelled for laughing during a pathology class. He later returned to the University and finally graduated, before going on to work at his brother's practice. 

In 1944, Brian enlisted in the Royal Army Veterinary Corps and served in India. After achieving the rank of captain, Brian was demobilised in 1946. 

Much like Tristan, Brian was known to be fun-loving and optimistic. 

In 1944, the vet married Sheila Rose Seaton, with whom he welcomed three daughters. 

The real Mrs. Pumphrey

patricia hodge© Photo: Channel 5
Patricia Hodge as Mrs Pumphrey

Mrs. Pumphrey was based on local socialite Mrs. Marjorie Warner of Sowerby, who much like her fictional counterpart, cherished her beloved Pekingese dog, who was called Bambi rather than Tricky Woo.

Marjorie would thank Alf for his services by sending him luxurious Fortnum & Mason hampers, filled with caviar and other delicacies, according to the late vet's children. 

Was there a real Mrs Hall? 

Anna Madeley as Mrs Hall in All Creatures Great and Small © Channel 5
Anna Madeley as Mrs Hall

While Mrs Hall isn't based on a particular person, Alf wrote about two women, Mrs. Weatherall and Mrs. Smith, who Donald employed to help with the cleaning and washing. It's possible that Alf may have drawn on his experiences with these women as inspiration for Mrs Hall in his novels.