There used to be demarcations in acting: theatre work was the real thing, artistically speaking; film work was the real thing, financially speaking. Television was the poor relation in both respects. But in a world in which James Gandolfini, say, had the same global reach once enjoyed by Richard Burton, that is no longer the case – and it is certainly true that Britain’s best-loved actor has done the bulk of his work on the small screen.
In 2006, to mark its 50th anniversary, ITV conducted a viewers’ poll to find TV’s 50 Greatest Stars. It was no surprise that David Jason came out on top. And while his autobiography has been outsold by Sir Alex Ferguson’s this Christmas, he did beat Jennifer Saunders, Rick Stein and Mary Berry to win the autobiography category at the National Book Awards.
It also looks as if Jason might be about to do what he’s done so many times in the past, and that is win the Christmas ratings battle. Nearly 30 years after the end of Open All Hours, the sweet comedy he made with Ronnie Barker, he will reprise the role of Granville, who now owns the shop in which he was once a put-upon errand boy. It will be one of the BBC’s biggest hitters of the festive season: the ballot for the 300 tickets available for the studio recording attracted 26,000 applicants.
Before Open All Hours came to an end, Jason had embarked on the show with which he would make his mark, as Derek “Del Boy” Trotter. Only Fools and Horses, which began in 1981, went through seven series in 10 years and lived on in Christmas specials. It was Thatcher’s Britain seen from the bottom of the ladder: Del Boy bought and sold, ducked and dived, a maverick figure beholden to no one and loyal only to his family. The deal that would set him up for life always remained just around the corner.
Preparing for the role, Jason resisted attempts to take Trotter over the top – no bubble perm, he insisted, and only two sovereign rings per hand. “I was doing my best to think comedy-drama, not sitcom,” he says in his memoir, and that helped to prevent the character from lapsing into caricature. It was typical of the care with which he works. As Sandy Johnson, who later directed him in A Touch of Frost, says: “The way he approached a scene, it was like he was inviting the audience to go with him.” Only Fools was knockabout stuff, but with a strong emotional core.
Jason was born David White in north London in 1940, the son of a Billingsgate market porter and a maid; he was one of twins, though his brother was stillborn. His elder brother, Arthur White, won a scholarship to Rada. He later joined Jason as a policeman in A Touch of Frost. As a boy, Jason found that being funny kept the bullies off his back, but he got into acting only when press-ganged into the school play by his headmaster. Several years of amateur dramatics followed, while he worked as an electrician.
His first paid job was at Bromley Rep, as the butler in Noël Coward’s South Sea Bubble, a part he got through his brother. As there was a David White on Equity’s books already, he switched to David Jason. There was a story that this was in memory of his twin, but he says that on the spur of the moment he simply thought of Jason and the Argonauts, a film he had enjoyed.
In 1967, he joined Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin on the anarchic children’s programme Do Not Adjust Your Set. Jason was behind the show’s best-loved character, the grocer with superpowers, Captain Fantastic, but he always felt excluded from the others’ Oxbridge clique, and when the show ended in 1969 he was not asked to join the team that became Monty Python. He was forced to look on as they cemented their place in British culture. “It was like the Beatles all over again,” he wrote, “and I was Pete Best.”
Jason was taken under Ronnie Barker’s wing, however, working with him on several shows. He has said how much he owes to Barker, and he appears to operate with the same generous geniality. Like Barker, he has always tried to keep his private life private, sometimes even going out in disguise. In the late 1980s, he did give a few interviews to scotch rumours of his sexuality; he was simply wedded to his work, he said. In fact, he had a long-term partner, the actress Myfanwy Talog, who died of breast cancer in 1995, and in 2001 his girlfriend Gill Hinchcliffe gave birth to a daughter; they were married on the eve of his investiture as a knight of the realm in 2005.
Only Fools was still running when he embarked on Darling Buds of May, based on the HE Bates novel. His Pop Larkin was a bucolic Del Boy, living off the land in a rosy-eyed, nostalgia-drenched rural paradise and paying as little tax as possible. It was as successful in its own way as Only Fools and Horses, but Jason had a hankering to dispense with the laughs, and the way the big dramatic role of his career came about demonstrates the clout he had accumulated.
With Darling Buds drawing to a close, he was asked what else he’d like to do. A detective, he said. He was given five crime novels to read, and from them chose R D Wingfield’s A Touch of Frost. Jason’s caustic but good-hearted detective, Jack Frost, solved gruesome murders with a gruff empathy. Beginning in 1992, he played the part until 2010 when, at 68, he was well past a copper’s retirement age.
Is Jason’s status diminished because his film and stage careers haven’t hit the same heights as his TV work? From the late 1960s onwards, he was working more or less permanently, often with shows overlapping. He had the actor’s fear that the next job will be the last, and was devoted to his profession. “Being an actor is like being a monk,” he once said. “You have got to be dedicated.”
Frost director Sandy Johnson feels that Jason’s appetite for theatre was limited – “I don’t think he was fond of the process overmuch.” And as for the cinema, Johnson says: “I’m not sure he had ambitions like that. He enjoyed having his big TV audience.”
Jason did have one experience of Hollywood, he recounts in his autobiography – a week’s holiday in 1978. Although his agent arranged for him to meet his son, who worked in the industry there, Jason says that it never occurred to him to network. “Maybe, deep down, in my heart, for all the fantasies about a life in film, I lacked the belief,” he writes. “Maybe, in my heart, I thought it was far above and beyond me.”
Jason seems content simply to have pleased the considerable audience that he did have. Certain scenes of his are seared into the national consciousness – including what is probably the most famous pratfall in television history, when Del goes to lean against a bar hatch at a wine bar, not knowing that the barman has lifted it up, and promptly disappears. In his memoir, Jason says: “Olivier had his Othello, Gielgud his Lear, Branagh has his Hamlet; I have my falling through a pub bar flap. And do you know what? I’m perfectly happy with that.”
Life in brief
Born: David John White, 2 February 1940, Edmonton, London.
Family: Elder brother is actor Arthur White. Married to Gill Hinchcliffe, with one daughter, Sophie Mae White.
Education: Left school at 15 and became an apprentice electrician.
Career: Jason started his TV career playing Bert Bradshaw in Crossroads. He went on to appear in many Ronnie Barker comedies, including Porridge and Open All Hours. In 1981, he began his best-known role as Del Boy Trotter in Only Fools and Horses. He went on to play Jack Frost in A Touch of Frost in 1992. He was knighted in 2005.
He says: “We watched Laurel and Hardy, made in the 1930s, and the kids laughed like drains. That’s humour – doing what funny people have done since comedy began without being edgy and pushing boundaries.”
They say: “He made going to work a pleasure. He’d always have time to have a laugh on the set – he was a bit of a practical joker. It was like joining a family.’
Sandy Johnson ‘A Touch of Frost’ director