Sir David Jason: "I suppose I'm a workaholic"
Sir David Jason has been doing a lot of retrospective pondering lately,
and he admits the process has sometimes been painful. In addition to his new book, Only Fools and Stories, he’s done two documentary series for UKTV Gold, one on the making of Only Fools and Horses, and another looking at his entire career to date on stage and screen.
“It’s been a bittersweet experience,” he says, “because you’re being asked to go back and review some of the greatest and most enjoyable moments in your lifetime. You see pictures and bits of you that show you happy in that period, but it’s all so long in the past and you can’t get it back. In one way it’s rewarding, and in another you say: ‘Gosh, I wish I was still doing that, I wish I was still there.’ ”
Even so, ultimate perfectionist that Sir David is,
his recollections are compelling. The book follows on from his autobiography My Life, published in 2013, in which he gave us a warm and funny account of growing up in a small terrace house in Finchley, North London, and his tentative early steps as an actor, leading on to becoming the multi-award-winning household name that he is today. “The success of that book delighted everybody, me included,” he agrees. “So the publishers came back and asked if I’d write another one. I said, ‘Well, no, I’ve just done it, I’ve told it all, I’ve nothing left to say,’ but they pointed out I’d played an awful lot of characters in my time, and that maybe I could tell some stories related to that? “It set fire to my imagination, because one thing people haven’t wanted me to explain in any detail up to now is how I go about creating my characters.”
"I had a chance to display a serious side—there was more to me than just falling through the hatch of a saloon bar"
Much loved as he is, it’s possible we don’t quite realise what a unique talent Sir David is. Comedy greats such as Eric Morecambe, Frankie Howerd and Tommy Cooper maintained their famously funny personas in everything they did. By contrast, the comedy-character acting star, as embodied by Sir David, who changes his style and appearance to fit whichever part he’s playing, is a relatively rare type. “I’ve always thought of myself as an actor first, with the comedy second,” explains Sir David, who cut his dramatic teeth in repertory theatre in the late 1960s, continuing to maintain a busy stage schedule throughout the years of his greatest TV success with Open All Hours and Only Fools and Horses. “It wasn’t until I did A Touch of Frost that I had a chance to display that serious side because, especially in the theatre, producers always wanted me to do comedy as there weren’t so many people able to do that compared to dramatic parts. It was Porterhouse Blue and A Touch Of Frost that gave me the chance on TV to show there was more to me than just falling through the hatch of a saloon bar.”
"Ronnie Barker, big as he was in the public’s mind, was an amazingly polite and generous person"
It’s no surprise his great heroes were Peter Sellers and Ronne Barker, two of the finest character-comedy actors Britain has produced. Having worshipped the latter’s work from afar for years, once they started working together on TV, notably in Porridge and Open All Hours, Barker became both mentor and friend to Sir David, who remembers him fondly. “He was an original talent not just because he was a comedy actor, but because of his ability to write and create humour out of virtually nothing. And the thing that always impressed me was that, big as he was in the British public’s mind, he was such an amazingly polite and generous person.” Barker’s meticulous approach to fleshing out a role rubbed off on him too, but it’s fascinating to read in Only Fools and Stories about how the Del Boy character came to be.
When I remind Sir David of the way he drew inspiration for his patter from the lingo of the illegal street traders he used to watch selling black market goods in London’s Oxford Street, he laughs. “Cor blimey, yes! They were better than me, that lot. It was fascinating to watch. Of course, I know they were con artists and you learned to keep your hands in your pockets, but I picked up so much. Nothing’s ever wasted, you see.” Accompanied by his wife Gill and daughter Sophie, he was delighted to meet up again with his old sparring partner Nicholas Lyndhurst at the National Film Awards earlier this year, when the pair received a Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of their work together on Only Fools. “We don’t get in touch very often because we’re both always busy, and he’s on the south coast, while we’re up here in the wilds of Buckinghamshire.”
Busy isn’t really the word
In addition to another documentary he’s just made for Channel 4 on the history of spying, Sir David has spent the summer filming the fourth series of Still Open All Hours. He says that, when they decided to revive the old sitcom classic in 2013, they were delighted to find the original shop and street in Doncaster was still there, unchanged from the 1980s. Despite the long filming hours, he still gets a buzz. “I suppose I’m a workaholic, but I love the camaraderie. And Roy Clarke, the writer, is a genius. Lord knows what goes on in that man’s brain at night. He must be on jet fuel.”
Despite his vast experience, he admits nerves never go away, especially when they shoot the studio scenes before a live audience at Pinewood. “It’s like a first night every week,” he sighs. “It’s not fear, it’s…oh…your whole being is heightened with the thoughts: Is this going to work? Is it going to fail? Famously driven, he’s certainly not winding down. “It’s the work ethic. One thinks maybe another Only Fools is still hiding out there. That and Hollywood, although, mysteriously, they don’t seem to answer my calls. Never mind. I’m quite happy doing what I’m doing.”