BAFTA-winning actor Sir David Jason tells Caroline Hutton about his life on-stage and behind the camera.

I Remember...

…the feel of brick rubble under my feel

I was born in 1940 and growing up in Finchley, North London, during the war we got used to that being normal terrain. Our playground was a bombsite. We didn’t comprehend that people had once lived there, and almost certainly died there too. It was just where my friends and I went to hang out.

…my gang, The Lodge Laners

It was named after the road where we lived. We were very inventive with our “play” down at the bombsite. The wooden posts from the gate of the demolished house were still standing, and someone thought it would be fun to strap an inner tube across the posts to make a catapult. With military organisation and at great speed we proceeded to fire half-bricks at any advancing kids who dared to try and raid our site. How terrifying must that have been? We could have killed someone!

…a special moment with my mother Olwen

I must have been about six. It was Christmas time and the fire was lit. My mum was in a mellow mood and took me into her arms and cuddled me on the settee. She sang a few Christmas carols—Away in a Manger was one. My dad Arthur, a porter at Billingsgate fish market, and my brother, also Arthur, who is seven years older than me, weren’t there. So having Mum all to myself was a moment I remember savouring. If you can give your children little times like that, they learn what a mother’s love is. It was such a nice feeling.

Young David Jason at 14

A young David Jason, at 14

…my crystal radio set

I won it off my friend next door. It was just a set of coils inside a box with a crystal. The “cat’s whisker” wire would touch the crystal and, lo and behold, like magic, we could listen to the radio. Arthur and I would lie alongside each other on my bed sharing the one set of earphones. He’d tried to kill me more than once, but he and I shared the wonder of that little device.

…the size of the mountains in Wales

We used to go and stay with my Uncle Id, my mother’s brother, in the Valleys. I couldn’t believe how much open land there was—being in a place where the buildings had disappeared made me really happy and gave me a wonderful sense of freedom. Seeing and hearing the sea for the first time took my breath away—but then so did getting into it, as it was always freezing!

…my horror when the head decided I’d make a good lead in the school play, Wayside war

I was 14 and acting was for sissies! But I got the afternoon off to go on the Tube into London and rent my costume, so that made it worthwhile. Of course, I ended up enjoying the accolades that the play [set in the English Civil War] brought me, especially after it won at the local drama festival.

…the invitation that changed my life

After Wayside War, my friend Micky and I were approached and asked if we wanted to join the local amateur theatre group, Incognito. We were dismissive until we were told, “There are 20 girls and no boys.” As young lads, our imaginations and hormones went mad—we thought we’d be going out with all 20 as soon as they set eyes on us. Ha! But what did happen was that I discovered acting could be a joy and that to concentrate and improve at something was immensely rewarding.

 

…setting a pub on fire

After I left school, I worked as an electrician for a few years and continued acting with Incognito in my spare time. One night, my partner and I were rewiring a pub for the builder Derek Hockley, later the inspiration for Del Boy. The pub had a disused dumb waiter and it seemed a good plan to run the wires up inside its lift shaft—so in I went. I was using a blowtorch and put it down on top of the dumb waiter. Years of dry dust and kitchen grease ignited and, before I knew what had happened, I was surrounded by flames. My partner hauled me out and we ran round like blue-arsed flies looking for an extinguisher that eventually put the fire out. No one ever found out, so be sure to keep the secret.

…my first day as a professional actor

I was 25 and was to play the tiny role of a butler in [Noël Coward’s] South Sea Bubble. But it was in a proper theatre—the New Theatre in Bromley [south-east London]—and I’ll never forget arriving for the first day of rehearsals. That moment when I entered the foyer, pushed open the doors to the auditorium, walked down the central aisle towards the huge stage and met the rest of the cast was so exciting.

David Jason, No Sex Please We're British

David Jason in No Sex Please, We're British

…seeing my name in lights in the west end

I played Brian Runnicles in No Sex Please, We’re British for 18 months, starting in 1973. Just before we opened, the company manager took me outside and told me I should take a photo for my memories. I was very touched by his thoughtfulness. It struck me—I’ve arrived!

…blowing raspberries for Ronnie Barker in 1976

The Two Ronnies had a serial called “The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town”. I’d worked with Ronnie in the past [in various sketch shows] and was very proud to be asked to provide the rasping sounds...profound stuff. Ronnie was a good friend and a gentleman. We were both also in Porridge and, of course, Open All Hours (buy box set here), and I learned so much from him. He had creativity and a way with words that made him a talent beyond all others.

David Jason and Ronnie Barker, Open All Hours

…so many happy memories from my years as Del Boy

We used to laugh all the time when we were making Only Fools and Horses (buy box set here). One time Nick Lyndhurst and I kept falling about so much that we couldn’t shoot the scene. The director got exasperated with us, shouting, “Now come along! You’re supposed to be actors but you’re behaving like children.” If you watch closely in a few of the episodes, we can be seen cracking up in a most unprofessional manner.

…winning a best actor BAFTA in 1988 for playing Skullion in "Porterhouse blue"

To have my journey from Wayside War to the BAFTAs acknowledged was amazing. Accolades for Only Fools and Horses were about the team, but this award was just for me and that felt really good. (Buy Porterhouse Blue here).

…putting on a lot of weight as Pop Larkin

I ate a great deal during The Darling Buds of May (Buy box set here)—in our rural idyll we lived in the land of plenty. One time I had to eat some fish. But it couldn’t be just a normal bit of fish, it had to be half a haddock that took up the whole plate. So I tucked in. When we had to shoot the scene again, the cry went out, “Another haddock!” and I had to eat that too. By the time we’d finished filming that scene I’d eaten at least four bloody haddocks. And that was quite healthy. Imagine how often we did that with bacon, eggs, chips, beans and toast. I ended up looking like Billy Bunter.

…Bossing my brother around in A Touch of Frost

It was good to have Arthur [White, also David’s real surname] join the cast as the police archivist Ernie Trigg. I got to say things like, “Chop, chop, come along, what are you doing?” As his younger brother, it felt like some retribution for his childhood attempts to kill me.

…getting married to Gill and being knighted in the space of 24 hours at the end of 2005

That was pretty tremendous—although I was a bit disappointed that the Queen didn’t say, “Arise, Sir David”. That doesn’t happen in real life. But I did kneel on the knighting stool which cleverly has a sort of stick attached that you can hold onto—very handy if getting up is a bit tricky. The whole thing is like a military operation. They’ve got everything covered over there at the Palace.

Sir David’s autobiography My Life is out now (£14.99)

 

Read more articles by Caroline Hutton here

 

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