The long arm of the vet

What's an ex-comic doing writing a drama about a veterinary practice? David Benedict asks the questions
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The Independent Culture
there has never been a successful TV series about a butcher. Be it Black Beauty, Blue Peter or Rag, Tag and Bobtail we prefer our animals alive. TV writers are forever trawling the yellow pages in search of a new profession to build a drama series upon. Law and medicine are the hot favourites so how about medicine and animals? Hey presto, The Vet.

Whatever else they claim, the BBC cannot suggest that this is totally new. The Archers trots aimiably through the trials and tribulations of life among the animals of Ambridge and, after 40 years, it's more popular than ever. In a remarkable double whammy, the local vicar Robin Stokes, played by the inaptly named Tim Meats, is also the village vet and until recently he has been hogging the limelight with his unsuccessful wooing of the tragically single Caroline Bone.

In 1966, Anglia launched Weavers Green, a less than dramatic twice-weekly soap set in a small rural veterinary practice. The prognosis however was not good and it breathed its last after just 49 episodes. Of course, say vets on TV to anyone and they'll say All Creatures Great and Small, which kept its viewers happy for 12 years with an irresistible mix of animal drama, Yorkshire locations, nostalgia, and (latterly) Lynda Bellingham.

The BBC's dramatic affair with animals resurfaced with Trainer. Coming from the stable of producer Gerard Glaister, the man who gave the nation The Brothers (road haulage and Kate O'Mara) and the immortal Howard's Way, this should have been a dead cert. Alas, despite the valiant efforts of David McCallum, it was a only a few furlongs to the knacker's yard.

Nonetheless, the BBC invited Andy de la Tour to submit ideas for popular drama and picked up his idea for a series set around a rural veterinary practice. At this point, the sneaking suspicion sets in that we're talking formula TV. Isn't this just Casualty on four legs?

Not according to de la Tour. "There is an element of medical suspense, the sense of a clock hanging over a poor beast, but you can't keep that up for a whole episode. It's not the same as a human patient in a doctor series. At its baldest, either the animal gets better or it doesn't. That's not very filmic. What happens to the owner or to the owner's husband, that's dramatic." All the series do involve animals but he sees it in terms of a ration, with 20 per cent animals to 80 per cent people. Facts have to be faced: it's not easy to storyline animals. They're not exactly big on dialogue scenes.

De la Tour has only thought of himself as a writer in recent years. He spent most of the early Eighties in alternative cabaret. "I last did stand- up in 1989. I think I've lost my bottle permanently." He has built up a solid track record with TV play adaptations and original stage plays and has a strong working relationship with Jude Kelly, the artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, who premiered his wildly funny NHS farce, Safe in Our Hands. Like his political comedy, the hit rate of ideology tied to huge laughs was impressively high.

Last Saturday he was at the rally in support of the Bridgewater Four. So what's a good left-winger like him doing writing cosy Sunday-night drama in the Pie in the Sky slot?

"What you mean is have I sold out? It's all in the way you write it. I'm not cynical by nature or profession. It's not just for the dosh. If it were just about about fluffy animals I couldn't give a toss. It may not have the edge of doing one-liners about Airey Neave at the Comedy Store but I keep trying to be a little subversive." So we're not talking The Archers on location? "If it was I'd admit defeat."

Significantly, the series banishes the whimsy which has dominated the post-Sunday roast slot. "We may fail because it doesn't have Sunday evening stamped all through it like a stick of rock." If he does, no one can say he didn't try. The Vet may never achieve the major cult status of Veterinarians' Hospital, the Muppet Show segment which gave rise to the weekly soundbite "tune in next week when you'll hear Nurse Piggy say...", but hey, you can't have everything.

The Vet, 8pm Sun BBC1