Cristina Odone

Journalist, novelist and broadcaster

Sir David Jason: How little David grew into a Goliath

October 11, 2013 @ 8:40 am

A childhood in the East End during the Blitz, and post-war austerity, must
have steeled him for life’s shocks, I ask. Sir David shakes his head. “No,
no, you’ve seen too much EastEnders. I don’t watch the show but when I catch
the trailers I just think they have lost the humour of the cheerful Cockney
lads I grew up with. On EastEnders everyone’s bitter, angry. Where are the
wonderful characters that I lived with, who could find humour even in the
lowest form of living?

“We made light of a heavy lot. No complaining, just getting on with the job.
We were taught fortitude by our parents, who had gone through the war. Being
a child then was fun. We could go out and play in the street – there were
few cars – and we felt very safe. In my day we had that wonderful sense of
knocking on each other’s door, 'Is Ronnie there?’ ” he trills in falsetto
Cockney. “ 'Nah, ’e’s ’avin ’is tea.’ 'Will yer tell ’im I’m aht ’ere waitin
for ’im?’ ”

I’ve just been privy to the first of many impersonations with which Sir David
enlivens our interview. After the East End mother and his younger self, he
plays a panto dame and his friend Ronnie Barker, and reprises his most
famous roles, Del Boy and Pop Larkin.

In character, he is animated and confident. As himself, though, he deflates,
seeming less inspired, almost unsure. It’s as if David Jason is less fun to
inhabit. This, even though he looks every inch the successful self-made man,
sporting a heavy gold ring, and dressed in sports jacket, loafers and
open-neck shirt.

He confirms my suspicion that he finds David Jason his most challenging role:
his three favourite activities, he confides, are acting, deep-sea diving and
flying – because “they offer escapism. I can forget who I am.”

As a fishmonger’s son, expensive pursuits were out of the question, so the
young David opted for a thespian escape. While working as an electrician, he
acted in the provincial theatre. In 1967, aged 26, he was spotted during a
stint at the Pier Theatre in Bournemouth, by producer Humphrey Barclay, who
was launching Do Not Adjust Your Set. The TV show already had Michael Palin,
Eric Idle and Terry Jones on board, and its popularity spurred on the three
to form their own programme, Monty Python’s Flying Circus – and dump Sir
David in the process. It still smarts, he admits. “I was miffed. Yes, I
was.” But he’s bumped into “Mike” Palin a few times since. “Couldn’t be
cross with him. He’s a charmer, he still has a twinkle in his eye.”

After the success of Do Not Adjust, Sir David was cast to star in the
programme that made him a household name, Only Fools and Horses. Del Boy is,
as he puts it, “ridiculously British”, a wide boy who is utterly loveable
while being on the make. “Del Boy was like all the people I met when I was
working as an electrician. I knew where he came from.”

Both were, after all, working-class men from the East End. “Yes, we knew about
class, but none of us was envious,” Sir David remembers. “When I was a lad,
my parents and all their equivalents never lusted after other people’s
riches or success. If I was out with the lads and occasionally we would see
a Rolls-Royce, we would go potty, 'Hey look, it’s a Rolls!’ We didn’t say
'God, yer lucky so-and-so – why do you get this car?’ No, we enjoyed their
success and we accepted our meagre living standards… we didn’t even know
they were meagre. We were happy when we managed to get a fridge, and
eventually electricity. What you don’t have you don’t miss, as my father
said. Now everything is much more accessible to everybody – but people set
too much store by objects. There’s envy.”

Nothing could be further from this materialist mindset than the rural idyll
portrayed in his next hit, The Darling Buds of May. “Everyone loved it
because it was about a wonderful family living off the land, paying no
taxes. It was a gentle way of life that’s gone.”

On set, Sir David met the “lovely, lovely” Catherine Zeta-Jones. “Everyone
warmed to her.” I ask if he felt a twinge of envy when she went off to
Hollywood: “No. I didn’t look like she did. She was a pretty mean singer and
she could dance, whereas my singing and dancing – only dogs and bears could
be worse than me. I just thought, good luck to you, girl.”

He saw Zeta-Jones recently with her husband: “Michael Douglas was friendly,
unassuming. He thanked me for having taken care of Catherine way back when.”
Sir David hopes the couple can overcome their recent marital difficulties
because “they seemed so happy”.

His own personal life has settled after the huge blow of Myfawny’s death: he
is married to Gill Hinchcliffe, with whom he had a daughter, Sophie (named
after Sophie Raworth, the newsreader he most admires) in 2001.

What’s late parenthood like? “It’s like early parenthood: a pain.” He laughs.
“No, it’s lovely. I wish I could get that message across to young people.
When you’re young, for God’s sake, get out and try everything in terms of a
career. Or go abroad, meet people. So many poor girls get themselves
pregnant and that’s the end of their lives … they can’t get out of the place
where they’re born.”

Sophie’s arrival has not entirely reformed him, however. “I was a workaholic,
and I still am. But it’s never been about celebrity, or money. It was love
of the job. It was like somebody who wanted to be a monk or a nun: you do it
because you’re driven, and because it’s a beautiful way of life. It’s like
what Ronnie Barker told me when we were doing Open All Hours. As we fell
about laughing, he said, 'We are getting paid to laugh like this!’ ”

The two men forged a tight friendship until Barker’s death eight years ago.
Now the BBC has decided to bring back their sitcom, which ran between 1976
and 1985, with Sir David reviving his character Granville, no longer the
corner shop’s “young lad”, for the Christmas special.

Retirement is a long way off, it seems. “It’s been lucky, it’s been lovely.
What a journey! what a ride! And” – he winks at me, Del Boy-style – “it
ain’t over yet.”

'David Jason: My Life by David Jason’ (Century, £20) is available to order
from Telegraph Books at £18 + £1.35pp. Call 0844 871 1514 or
visit books.telegraph.co.uk

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