Don’t be a wally! He starred in some of TV’s biggest hits and is back in Still Open All Hours. Just don’t get David Jason started on what he got paid (or swearing, reality shows and the PC brigade). By Louise Gannon
M ON dieu! David Jason (aka Del Boy Trotter) has just realised that he has been a ‘42-carat plonker’, having been ‘done over’ by the BBC. He’s here today to celebrate the return of Still Open All Hours – the sequel to the comedy in which he first made his name alongside the late Ronnie Barker in the Seventies – following a successful one-off festive special. And it turns out that it was Jason who suggested the BBC revive the show in the first place.
Lovely jubbly, I say. Life must be cushty – surely the BBC gave him a nice little bung on top of his salary for coming up with that idea? Jason looks momentarily stricken. ‘No, they didn’t,’ he laughs, as it dawns on him he might have been something of a dipstick in the negotiations department. ‘I never even thought of that. And nobody else mentioned it.’
Never mind, I say. It would surely be just a drop in the ocean for a man who must have made millions with the universally admired Only Fools And Horses, which drew a vast audience and holds the record for the most popular sitcom episode of all time, with 24.3 million viewers for the 1996 Christmas special. When superfan David Beckham joined Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst (Rodney Trotter) for a Sports Relief sketch in 2014, the millionaire footballer said afterwards: ‘Now I can die a happy man.’ Jason opens his mouth to say something, then stops and shakes his head. ‘Don’t get me started on BBC salaries,’ he says. ‘Situation comedy has always been the poor relation in the television entertainment business. It doesn’t matter how popular you are, if you are a jobbing actor, you are a jobbing actor. The clever ones these days set up their own production companies and make the money that way. But it wasn’t really done in my day, you got what you got. And that was never as much as people thought.’
Nevertheless, Jason, 76, is clearly getting by OK. He lives a comfortable life in a nice house in the country with his wife of 11 years, Gill Hinchcliffe, 56, a former floor manager and mother of his 15-year-old daughter, Sophie Mae. He clearly wears good clothes – today he’s sporting a wellcut tweed jacket and an expensive tailored shirt – and he is a qualified helicopter pilot, although he doesn’t own his own helicopter.
Yet he’s never cashed in by starring in a blockbuster movie or appearing in a lucrative advertising campaign, though at the height of his fame in the Eighties, Nineties and Noughties, Jason was the king of primetime TV, moving from Only Fools to The Darling Buds Of May and A Touch Of Frost. ‘People look at things differently now. It’s all about money and fame. I became an actor because I wanted to become an actor. But what I really wanted was success, which is a different thing from fame and money. We are living in a different world today, where people confuse those things. I’ve been approached to do reality shows but even though the fees are very, very attractive, I always say no because money should never be your motivation.
‘Ronnie Barker, who I still call The Guvnor, gave me the best advice of my career. He used to say that as performers we are our own currency and you must spend it wisely.
‘When my career was at its absolute height with Fools, it was Ronnie’s words that kept my feet on the ground. There were no flash cars or fast women for me. I kept my head down, got on with the job. I never wanted to be a star, I’ve never had any time for that. I just wanted to be thought of as good at what I do and to have good standards. You’ve got to have standards.’ T HERE is perhaps another reason why he has never been offered a big movie or a Netflix role. He absolutely refuses to consider a part that involves fruity language. ‘Don’t get me started on swearing,’ he says. ‘It’s all over the place. In comedies on television now people swear. All the time. It drives me insane.’ Would he ever look at a script containing a profanity? He shakes his head.
It is an unfashionable point of view but Jason does not follow fashion. His opinion of political correctness is that we live in a world gone mad. He himself has been hauled over the coals by
‘the PC brigade’. Earlier this year he was accused of racism when, during a Jubilee radio broadcast, he recounted a story the Queen had once told about mistaking an ambassador for a gorilla. ‘It’s all gone too far,’ he says. ‘We should be able to laugh at ourselves. Comedy is anarchy and if you start making rules about what we cannot laugh about then it’s all lost.
‘I find it sad that we allow the voices on Twitter and the like to take over and dictate what we can say. It’s given too much credence. A lot of the comedy I’ve done couldn’t be done today for those reasons. My first role with Ronnie Barker was when he was playing Abdul The Filthy and he was throwing banana skins and I was slipping on them.
‘When we did Open All Hours, Ronnie wanted Arkwright to have a stutter. We had two letters of complaint sent to us and two letters from people saying they were pleased Ronnie was bringing stuttering to the fore. We did all have a discussion about it. The producers talked to Ronnie. Ronnie stood his ground and said the character is funny and that the stuttering was a comic device that worked on several levels. The producer wrote a long letter back to the four people and the whole matter was discussed, thought about, explained and dealt with. Now you just need one comment to destroy everything.’
Now in his eighth decade, it’s Jason who dominates the screen as the haplessly grumpy Granville in the expletive-free Still Open All Hours, alongside a new cast including Johnny Vegas and Tim Healy. The original series, which starred Barker as penny-pinching northern shopkeeper Arkwright, ran from 1975 to 1983. It was the show that transformed Jason’s career and the series that persuaded Only Fools producer, Ray Butt, to cast him as Del Boy after Jim Broadbent turned down the role.
Perhaps the reason why Jason is so loved by the public is that he has always been an underdog. Even his greatest moments have been tinged with regret. When he was knighted by the Queen in 2005, he was disappointed that she clearly had no idea of the massive popularity of his TV shows. The only remark she made was, ‘You’ve been in this business a long time.’
He says ruefully, ‘She didn’t know who I was. I have no idea why. But I know the Queen Mum loved Only Fools.’
Jason was born David White in 1940, the son of a Welsh charlady and a London fishmarket porter. His twin brother died at birth, though he refutes the much-repeated assumption that his death made him strive harder in life, and his eldest brother, Arthur, won a place at Rada to study drama (the brothers have appeared together on screen in Frost). His father would not, however, let his youngest son follow the same path and insisted on him getting an apprenticeship, so he spent six years as an electrician before finally plucking up the courage to pursue his real dream of acting.
HE SPENT years in repertory theatre, which he says was a valuable training ground – ‘you haven’t lived until you stand on a freezing railway station in Crewe in the early hours of the morning trying to find a place where you can get a cup of tea’ – before being offered parts in TV sketch shows. In 1967 he was brought in as the token working-class comic to star alongside Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones in Do Not Adjust Your Set because the show’s producer wanted someone to offset their intellectual humour. When the show ended in 1969, Idle, Palin and Jones left to set up Monty Python without him. He then tried out for the role of Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army but was rejected in favour of Clive Dunn. ‘I was really disappointed at the time in both cases,’ he says. ‘You build yourself up, you think something is going to happen and then it doesn’t. I should have been in Monty Python. I should have been in Dad’s Army. But I wasn’t. They didn’t want me. You pick yourself up and you look for another fork in the road. And it can be hard at the time but it worked in my favour. ‘When I started working with Ronnie Barker [he first appeared in Hark At Barker in 1969] he gave me a lot of confidence. He told me I had good comic timing. I was good at falling over. He liked that. And he took me under his wing. I listened, I learned and I worked and worked and worked.’ He pauses and smiles as he emphasises a more serious point. ‘So when people say to me I’ve been lucky because of Only Fools and Open All Hours and Darling Buds I think of good old Donald Sinden, who said: ‘I tend to find the lucky people are the ones who work the hardest.’
I ask if he is in touch with his former co-star Catherine Zeta-Jones, the Mariette to his Pop in The Darling Buds Of May. ‘I had lunch with her and her husband a year or so ago when they were renting a house near Richmond. What I loved was when I turned up, Michael [Douglas] had been in the pool. He greeted me completely drenched and dripping in his trunks. Catherine told him off and he said: ‘What’s the problem? He’s our friend. We can be just who we are.’ He’s a great actor who has managed to keep his feet on the ground and I like that. And Catherine has always been a wonderful girl.’
Jason says he has lived his life backwards. In his 20s, 30s and 40s he worked non-stop. His long-term girlfriend was the Welsh actress Myfanwy Talog, and they spent 18 years together until her death from breast cancer in 1995. Devastated by the loss, he threw himself into working even harder. ‘I didn’t ever think there would be a family for me in my life – all I ever thought I would have is my work,’ he says.
But several years later he began a relationship with Yorkshire Television floor assistant Gill. In 2001 she gave birth to their daughter Sophie and in 2005 they married the day before he received his knighthood, with Sophie acting as bridesmaid.
So how does he find being a father to a teenage girl at the age of 76? ‘I don’t think of myself as old,’ he says. ‘In my head I’m still in my 30s. It always confuses me when people ask me about my age. I don’t think of myself as an older father, just as a father.’
Is he strict? ‘I don’t think so,’ he says. ‘My daughter is a clever girl. She’s happy, we have a lot of fun together.’ As an old-fashioned father did he change nappies? ‘Of course I did,’ he snaps. ‘I can’t say it was pleasant but I did it.’
Has Jason ever felt it is time to hang up his flat cap and retire? He looks astonished. ‘Never,’ he says. ‘Why would I do that? You don’t do this because it’s a job. You do it because it’s a vocation. It’s just the parts you need. I’m not resting, I’m reading. I’m waiting for more good parts. And I will keep reading until I find something special.’ ‘Still Open All Hours’ is on BBC1 at 8.30pm on Sunday
David Jason today (left); with James Baxter and Lynda Baron in Still Open All Hours (above); and with Buster Merryfield and Nicholas Lyndhurst in Only Fools And Horses David as Pop Larkin with Catherine Zeta-Jones in The Darling Buds Of May