Julian Norton and Peter Wright - TV's Yorkshire Vets
PUBLISHED: 10:15 10 October 2016 | UPDATED: 10:15 10 October 2016
The stars of the TV documentary series The Yorkshire Vet still can't quite believe its success, as Tony Greenway finds out during a visit to their Thirsk surgery.
Fame, to borrow a phrase from James Herriot, shouldn’t happen to a vet. But it’s happened to Julian Norton and Peter Wright, the stars of television’s The Yorkshire Vet, the hit fly-on-the-wall documentary series which returns to Channel 5 this month. I met them at their practice in Thirsk, both are laid back about the success of the show and as down-to-earth, dedicated, hard-working vets, find their new found celebrity status completely hilarious. ‘The other day I came out of the butchers and there was a young lad loitering about in a hoodie,’ remembers Julian. ‘He shuffled up to me and said: “Sorry – can I get a photo with you? I really like your show.” That’s just very strange.’
‘I know what you mean,’ says Peter. ‘I was lying on a sun-bed on holiday three weeks ago, when someone tapped my leg and said: “Has your suturing improved?” I looked up and there was an elderly chap standing there with a big grin on his face.’ (Peter’s suturing has become a running gag in the show.) But this interaction from fans (Julian and Peter even find the suggestion that they have ‘fans’ amusing) is not intrusive. It’s just nice to know that people like the series although that much was clear already, thanks to the healthy viewing figures.
The Yorkshire Vet follows the work of Julian and Peter, two of the partners at Thirsk’s Skeldale Veterinary Centre, a practice set up in 1940 by the late Donald Sinclair and where the late Alf Wight (who wrote the bestselling books under the pen name James Herriot) would come to work. Peter (‘I’m a Thirsky – I was born here’) even has special insider Herriot knowledge because he used to work for Wight and Sinclair. ‘After half an hour of being at the practice, if Alf had said: “Bring your sleeping bag and move in”, I would have done,’ he says. ‘I loved it. There was just something about it that felt so right. There are so many different aspects to being a vet. That can be stressful because you never know what’s going to happen next. But it’s also part of the job’s appeal.’
The real James Herriot was an unassuming person. ‘At the time, because he was such a quiet, gentle man, I didn’t appreciate that he was known the world over,’ says Peter. ‘He didn’t want to be a celebrity. He wanted to be a vet and never felt comfortable in the limelight. It didn’t matter what animal came in – a bird that had been injured on the roadside or someone’s horse that was worth £20,000 – he’d treat them the same. He did genuinely care for everything. That sounds a bit fluffy, but that’s how it was.’
Sinclair, who became the eccentric Siegfried Farnon in the James Herriot books, was a great character, too. ‘And a very good vet who had no ego,’ says Peter. ‘I’d say to him: “Are you going anywhere on holiday, Mr Sinclair?” And he’d say: “I’m not going anywhere. I’ve got everything I want here.” They were both very different people which helped make their partnership successful. It’s the same with me and Julian. We’re very different. If we were alike, it probably wouldn’t work as well.’
The Yorkshire Vet capitalises on the fact that Skeldale is James Herriot’s old practice (Christopher Timothy, who played Herriot in the BBC TV series All Creatures Great and Small, even provides the voiceover) and there are echoes of Farnon and Herriot’s senior/junior partnership in the way the programme portrays Peter and the Castleford-born Julian.
‘We’ve tried to carry on their ethos at the practice, and we like to think we’ve succeeded,’ says Peter. ‘Don’t get me wrong: we are organised with modern equipment, but we have an old fashioned way of dealing with things in many ways. We don’t hide behind our computer screens and we try to be approachable to clients.’
When they were first asked if they would be interested in making the series by Leeds production company Daisybeck, Julian was keen but Peter wasn’t so sure. ‘We’d been approached a few times by TV people in the past,’ says Julian, ‘and we’d never gone for it. Tim, the third partner in the practice, didn’t want to be involved at all. But when Daisybeck mooted the idea, I was interested and Peter was in two minds, fluctuating from “quite keen” to “definitely no”.’
Julian reasoned that their own show would give them national exposure that might do their busy practice – and Thirsk – some good. ‘Because while the town is buzzing now, the James Herriot era was fading a bit,’ he says. ‘Young kids, even people in their twenties, don’t know who he is. So Peter came back from holiday and I said: “Let’s just do it.” I figured that if the worst came to worst, we’d only end up looking a bit silly on national television.’
Ultimately, the series got the green light when Peter had a change of heart. ‘I wondered, if I looked back when I retired would I regret not doing it?’ he admits. ‘And we’ve never shirked a challenge, so I said: “Let’s give it a go.”’ For the production company, then, every important box was ticked. Practice partners on board? Check. Herriot angle? Check. Picturesque Yorkshire countryside? Check. Lots of involving stories about all kinds of different animals and their owners? Check.
Yet the one thing – or two things, really – that remained an unknown quantity was Julian and Peter themselves. They’re vets, not TV presenters, so how would they be ‘on camera’? If they were stiff, wooden or unlikeable, viewers would turn off in their droves.
And with brilliant timing, Laura Blair, the programme’s producer/director, arrives to see if the pair has any interesting animals to film. So I take the opportunity to ask her why she thinks the series has been so successful. ‘It’s a mix,’ she says. ‘The countryside is Yorkshire at its best. But Julian and Peter are great characters. They have different styles and both are very warm people who viewers find interesting.’
Even so, the first few filming sessions were stressful, and made worse when Julian saw some rough cut footage of himself. (‘We showed it to him to calm him down.’ admits Laura. ‘But it only succeeded in freaking him out.’)
‘I was looking at myself on screen just droning on,’ says Julian with his head in his hands. ‘I thought: “This show will be terrible!” But when I saw the final edited programme with the music overlaid on it and the voiceover added in, it looked good!’ The first episode even received a glitzy premiere at Thirsk’s Ritz cinema. ‘There was a red carpet and posters of us outside,’ laughs Julian. ‘It was just like the Oscars. It was completely surreal.’ The success of the series has since taken both of them by surprise. ‘We’re just a couple of country bumpkins doing our jobs,’ says Peter.
But it’s how they do their jobs that’s so interesting. The Yorkshire Vet is certainly entertaining. It’s also rather graphic at times. The camera doesn’t coyly pan away during the grisly bits or gore-streaked surgery scenes, or when one or either of them have their hands in a sheep’s stomach or their arms halfway up a cow. ‘We were filming something yesterday,’ says Julian. ‘I was amputating a swan’s wing when I cut through a massive blood vessel and the blood went everywhere.’
‘It was all over me,’ agrees Laura cheerfully.
Whether that episode will make the edit of the third series remains to be seen but maybe that’s another part of the show’s appeal; viewers like the fact that this is unsanitised, warts and all veterinary work. And certainly there’s evidence that the popularity of the The Yorkshire Vet has made an impact on tourism to Thirsk. According to Welcome to Yorkshire, visitor levels have increased in the last year, inspired by the landscape captured in the series.
Apart from working at his day job and doing more filming, Julian also has a book coming out this month called Horses, Heifers and Hairy Pigs: The Life of a Yorkshire Vet. ‘I always fancied writing one but never thought there would be any real opportunity,’ he says. ‘Then I thought that if our job is so appealing to TV viewers, someone might want to publish a book about it, too. So I started writing one. In the second series you’ll notice there’s a time when I look really knackered. That was when I was up at four o’clock in the morning finishing off a chapter.’
So do Peter and Julian enjoy watching themselves on TV? ‘We get the crisps and popcorn out,’ says Julian. ‘It’s nice to see my kids’ reactions. And for me, watching yourself on television is the funniest thing in the world. I can’t believe it’s happening.’
His wife, he admits, is more pragmatic about it. She’s a vet herself so after doing the job all day doesn’t necessarily want to watch more vets on TV in the evening. ‘She wouldn’t rush in to watch me on television,’ says Julian. ‘She sees me all the time!’
And what about Peter? ‘No, I don’t like watching myself,’ he says with twinkle in his eye. ‘I make sure I’m playing bridge on that night.’