David Jason on life before being famous
Finally, he sits down on a copious sofa and opens a magazine called Luxury. “Some people have so much money it’s not true,” he muses, flicking through the pages. “This is how the other half lives.” Jason may be “Sir David”, and does admit to owning a helicopter, but he is in no doubt about which “half” of the world he belongs to.
I grew up watching David Jason on television: Granville the message boy in Open All Hours (a role he is about to reprise in a brand new Christmas special), Del Boy Trotter in Only Fools and Horses, Pop Larkin in The Darling Buds of May, Detective Jack Frost, the voice of cartoon character Danger Mouse (“Crikey, Penfold!” he says, to my delight.) The man on the sofa is unmistakably all of these, yet not quite. He’s more subdued, less colourful. For all that he is one of Britain’s best-loved television actors, with a string of gongs on his mantelpiece, David Jason doesn’t really do fame.
He doesn’t often do interviews either. This is an exception, to promote his autobiography, My Life, which looks set to sweep into the Christmas best-seller lists. He shuns red carpets, preferring to live quietly in his Aylesbury home (we would be safe to call it a mansion) with his wife, Gill, and their 12-year-old daughter, Sophie. When he isn’t working – at 73 he is far from retired – he flies his helicopter, does his garden and builds mechanical models, a throwback to his days as an apprentice electrician.
“There are people who call their publicist and say ‘I will be entering the Landmark Hotel for an interview at 2pm tomorrow afternoon, just in case anyone with a camera might be there’,” he says. “Well, I don’t, and I never have done. I love the work, and it’s very nice when people are flattering towards me, but I don’t court it. If I want to go out to a restaurant with some friends, I’m more than happy that we go in under the radar, have a little evening on our own.” He looks genuinely puzzled. “Why do they need to do it? Why do they need to keep in the public eye?”
He takes his lead from the late Ronnie Barker, a great hero of Jason’s, as well as a close friend, who told him: “You are your own currency, spend it wisely.” “That’s what I would like to say to those contenders on X Factor,” he says.
He also learned from Ronnie the value of treating people well. “If you became a star it seemed to go hand in hand with being a pain in the butt. Ronnie was a big star, and he was totally the opposite, he was just enjoying what he was doing, laughing and falling about. And I thought: that’s the way to be.”
He has turned down several requests from publishers to write his life story, only accepting this one from Century because they did not insist on a kiss’n’tell memoir. (“There are no sordid stories. Certain areas of my past are private.”) Jason is scrupulously nice about fellow actors – the nearest he comes to being snippy is recalling a spat with Leslie Phillips, who as good as froze him out on an international theatre tour, and even then, he explains he had reasons for doing so. The most difficult performer he has worked with seems to have been the Dulux dog – with whom he attempted to make a short-lived children’s TV series in the early 1970s.
In the book, he plays everything for laughs, setting up the gag, playing it out, delivering the punchline. Sadness is so understated that when it does come along it is poignantly disarming. He writes about the loss of his partner of 18 years, actress Myfanwy Talog, who died of breast cancer at the age of 49, in just a few pages, but they are heart-rending. “I was trying to avoid talking about that,” he says, quietly, when the conversation steers that way. And that’s all he needs to say.
Our story starts in post-war London where David White, the son of a fishmonger and a cleaning lady, was one of a bunch of scallywag boys who grew up playing on bombsites. Small for his age, he learned to play the fool to avoid being bullied. “I was very shy and had low self-esteem, the only way to stop yourself getting beaten up was to turn your hand to being an idiot. At the beginning, it was survival, and after that it became second nature.”
Jason’s brother, Arthur, older by seven years, had become an actor after winning a scholarship to drama school, and Jason joined the local am-dram group when he discovered they were short on boys, but left school at 15 with few aspirations.
By the time he was 20, he had a job as an electrician, a motorbike and a steady girlfriend whom he thought he would marry. But one night, riding home from her house, he had what he describes as a “Damascene conversion in the Blackwall tunnel”. He knew he wanted more. “There are people who could tell you the story in the opposite direction, you see a beautiful woman or a beautiful man and it’s like a light going on, you fall in love instantly. It was the opposite for me. I had been besotted with this girl, and by the time I arrived home my feelings for her were squashed. It was terrible time, but in a way it was the catalyst, I realised that I was free.”
That meant free to be an actor, but his parents – firm on the fact that one in the family was enough – wouldn’t sanction drama school. He had to go in cold. “I decided I would give it five years. And if I failed, I’d give up my dreams, but I’d always be able to say, I gave it a go. I would have been satisfied with that. I didn’t want to become a bitter man because I never gave it a go.”
The first few years were hard: endless letters seeking work and failed auditions. His first, long-awaited break came through his brother, Arthur. But he pursued his goal with dogged determination and workaholic zeal. He dated women, but never let the relationships last – responsibilities, he felt, would hold him back. He picked up his first roles in farces, playing butlers and doddery old men in seaside theatres and on long, lonely provincial tours.
He made his television debut in a BBC pantomime in 1965 as a comedy policeman who entered via a wire from the ceiling. But despite his remarkable gift for physical comedy, he hoped for more: serious acting jobs at the National Theatre, or Royal Shakespeare Company.
When he was 30, he went to see his agent. “I said, ‘I’m getting fed up with farces and summer seasons, I want to be known as an actor, I want to do some drama’. And he said to me: ‘Don’t try to swim upstream. You’re getting a lot of work because of your comedy ability, and comedy is the most difficult thing to do. One day, the time will come when you can dictate that, until then don’t swim against the tide.’ So I had to go home, grizzling a lot, but I took his advice, and fortunately it was the right advice. I’ve had a very varied journey.”
He writes with great warmth about that early work. It seems there were just as many comic antics going on behind the scenes as there were on the stage. “You can’t make people enjoy what you’re doing unless you’re enjoying it yourself. The people who make that mistake are people who – no names, no pack-drill – the ones who measure the caravan [to make sure they are the most important star on the set]. If that’s what you’re doing, you should be doing another job.”
That philosophy, too, owes something to Ronnie Barker. “I always remember, we’d just done something in a rehearsal for Open All Hours that made us laugh, and he said ‘Isn’t it marvellous? We get paid extremely well for making ourselves laugh.’ I’ve never forgotten that, and he’s right of course. For me it has always been the journey, not the arrival. When I was at Weston-Super-Mare or Bournemouth for summer seasons, or even touring, it was about doing the play rather than thinking: ‘Where is this play going to lead me to?’ It’s always been about the moment. The journey is all the fun really. If we all stopped to think, that’s life – our lives.”
He turns all his failures into funny stories, like the film he was signed up for – a low-budget comedy called Albert’s Follies, which, mid-shoot, acquired an X-rating and morphed into a soft-porn flick called White Cargo. Yet the story masks a deep disappointment. “Let me put it this way, my Hollywood career ground instantly to a halt when that film came out, I had to go back to the theatre and the drawing board.”
He is equally frank about the disappointment of the near misses: he was signed up to be Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army, only to be unceremoniously dropped two hours later when Clive Dunn, who had been the first choice, became unexpectedly available. He worked on children’s sketch show Do Not Adjust Your Set with Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Jones, but when the three left to make Monty Python’s Flying Circus, they left him behind. “It seemed like everything I touched turned to gold,” he writes. “But only if I was no longer touching it.”
“It’s disappointing. When I lost the Dad’s Army job, I was hugely disappointed, it really knocked the wind out of my sails. You had to kill your mother if you wanted to get an interview with the BBC in those days. Monty Python’s Flying Circus, as we know, became huge, they made these movies, went to Hollywood and all of that.”
Perhaps his shyness played a part. He did go to Hollywood in 1978 for a week, but didn’t really promote himself. Writing about Do Not Adjust Your Set, he describes how conscious he was of the distance between himself and the middle-class Oxbridge-educated Pythons. Even today, he occasionally asks for reassurance: “Self-deprecating, is that the right word? You know more about words than I do.”
However, he did stand up to his agent and insist on taking a bit-part in Ronnie Barker’s series Hark at Barker (the agent felt the show wasn’t paying enough, and Jason parted company with him as a result). “Gosh, sometimes you have to wonder where you get the balls from. To stand up for myself against someone who was older and more knowledgeable in the business than me was… I still don’t know where I got it from. I was in tears when I left that room.”
But working with Barker proved not only to be a vital step forward in his career but also the beginning of a lifelong friendship. He writes with palpable sadness about the fact that Barker died two months before his knighthood – though not before making him a hand-written congratulatory scroll which is a “prized possession”.
Barker’s absence will be felt when Jason returns to the famous Yorkshire corner shop for a BBC Christmas Special, Still Open All Hours. Nearly 40 years after the series first aired, Granville will be behind the counter and a new message boy – called Arkwright – is being recruited. Jason is gleefully delighted that Lynda Baron (nurse Gladys Emmanuel in the original show) and Stephanie Cole will also be returning. “Yes, we are a little older, of course we are, but what a joy to be involved with those two lovely actresses. I won’t outshine Ronnie, I know that, but that’s not the game. I’m hoping people don’t want to compare, I’m not interested in comparing, I want them just to enjoy the fact that these bloody silly devils are back again.
“It is going to be exactly the same, the same shop, the same everything, it’s like it’s never gone away. He’s still as mean, he’s still got the bloody old till, he’s still conning all of the customers, it’s great, simple, pleasurable, old-fashioned. I hope families can sit with their feet up and watch something where they’re not worried about graphic language, graphic sex. I’m really looking forward to it. People have asked me, after playing Frost, Pa Larkin, Derek Trotter, major leads, isn’t that a bit of a slow-down, and I’ve said no. The size of the part is not important, it’s a wonderful idea.”
Looking back, he can see how one thing led to another: how Open All Hours led to Only Fools and Horses, and to making “What a plonker!” into a national catchphrase. How a part in a minor sit-com about a wedding called A Bit of A Do led to The Darling Buds of May and A Touch of Frost (all made by Yorkshire Television). And if he hadn’t done that, he wouldn’t have met his wife, Gill Hinchcliffe, a floor manager at Yorkshire Television. Their daughter, Sophie, was born when he was 61. Having shunned family responsibilities earlier in life for the sake of his career, it felt like a second chance. He and Gill married in 2005 in a private room at the Dorchester in front of close friends and family, the day before he received his knighthood from the Queen.
If he had a magic wand, would he change anything? He thinks hard about this, really hard. “If you’d asked me that when I first started in the business, I would probably have said: ‘I want to be a famous film star’, or ‘I want to join the National’. And when your parents depart, it’s very hard to take, and you think, ‘No, make a magic wand and bring them back’. But it would be too easy to say ‘I’d like to get rid of that time when it was very, very unhappy for a while’. The ups and downs are part of what has made you.”
• My Life by David Jason is published by Century, £20. David Jason will be interviewed by Alan Titchmarsh on 14 November on STV at 3pm.