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The actor best known for playing Derek 'Del Boy' Trotter has penned his autobiography. He talks to Yahoo! TV about his life and acclaimed career...
Sir David Jason confesses he doesn’t like “starry” people.
He admires the Hollywood actor Tom Hanks very much because “he seems like he’s a very grounded nice guy – not starry and his work is very good.” He’d also quite like to work with Michael Caine: “I’ve always admired him.”
We meet in the restaurant at one of London’s five-star hotels. Outside, a group of autograph hunters have tracked him down. One man manages to inconspicuously make his way into the restaurant where he looks around and covertly puts his hand inside his jacket pulling out a copy of Sir David’s autobiography. It could be a scene from 'Only Fools and Horses' – the television show which catapulted Sir David into the nation’s hearts - except this isn’t quite 'The Nag’s Head' and the man isn’t selling dodgy goods. He asks Sir David to sign the book and presents him with a pen. Despite being interrupted, Sir David, 73, obliges.
After his fan has made a hasty exit, Sir David spots a group of well-to-do young ladies, perhaps in their early twenties, in pretty dresses and looking quite at home in the opulent surroundings of the restaurant. He leans towards me and says in a low voice. “When I was their age, I’d never have dreamt of coming somewhere like this.” I get the feeling that even today he’d rather be somewhere else – although he does seem to enjoy the people-watching opportunity with his eyes repeatedly searching the room, taking in his surroundings.
He admits he gets distracted easily and that’s why learning lines has always been a problem for him. “I would start to learn them and then my mind would wander. I’ve always done that,” he says. However he made sure he mastered the art after one particular incident early on in his career which nearly put him off acting for life.
He was playing the part of an illusionist’s assistant in an episode of the television show 'Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)', and had only received the script the night before filming. One of his scenes involved making a long and complicated speech in a theatre full of 150 extras. For take, after take, every time he got to a certain point in the speech, he just dried up. Sir David got more and more nervous as the director just shouted “Cut” and “Go again”. He recalls: “That expression ‘I want the ground to open up beneath me so I can disappear’. That is what was going through my mind. I did get in right in the end but for weeks afterwards, when I thought about it I felt physically sick. It nearly put me off. I thought if that’s going to happen to me again I’ve got to cease being an actor.”
Was it the worst moment of his career? “Oh yes. 100 per cent.” Thankfully it never happened again.
The reason for our interview is to talk about his afore-mentioned autobiography ‘My Life’ which has just been published. Not many people can boast more than 23 awards for their work, including four BAFTAs, an OBE, a Knighthood and can claim to be one of Britain’s best-loved actors; a national treasure. The book is warm, funny, self-deprecating. Has he enjoyed looking back over his life and highly-acclaimed career while writing it? “No - not a lot,” he says. Not the answer I was expecting. He explains: “The reason is because some of the work I’ve done, I’ve enjoyed so much. It’s been so much fun and when you look back to put it in the book you realise that those days have gone and you can’t get them back. That’s when it becomes a sort of bittersweet experience. There’s good and bad. The bad you don’t want to relive but you have to and the good times are the ones that you miss.”
Sir David worked as an electrician for many years before pursuing the actor’s life, much to his parents’ concern. He isn’t sure if his mother was ever glad that he’d given up the steady electrics trade but says his appearance in the soap 'Crossroads', where he played a motel guest for several episodes, did give his parents a lot of pleasure.
Several high-profile roles followed including the voice of the cartoon secret agent Danger Mouse, the lovable Pop Larkin in comedy drama 'The Darling Buds of May', Detective Inspector Jack Frost in ITV’s 'A Touch of Frost', the hapless Granville in sitcom 'Open All Hours' and of course the most famous of all - Derek 'Del Boy' Trotter in the BBC’s 'Only Fools and Horses'.
He says: “After I had got that character reasonably right, then it was just like putting on an old pair of carpet slippers. It came back to me just like that.” He won’t say if Del Boy was his favourite acting job as he’s enjoyed the variety of everything he’s done but acknowledges it was the most successful and “was such fun to play.”
He jokes, with a serious face, that out of all the characters he’s played, he relates most to Danger Mouse. “Living dangerously,” he says and makes his twinkly eyes dart from left to right.
Obviously a man of many talents he claims in his book that “very few people blow a raspberry as well as I do.” He recounts a tale where his great friend and mentor, the comedian the late Ronnie Barker, conducted him very earnestly through a raspberry-blown version of the entire '1812 Overture' for a sketch on the comedy show 'The Two Ronnies'. Does he still have this skill as he suggests in his book? He looks around the plush restaurant. “Yes I do but I’m not doing it now. Talk about getting into trouble!”
The last thing Sir David wants is to attract attention. He admits when he first started being recognised it was quite exciting. “Ooo people recognise me – it gave me a bit of a thrill but then slowly it becomes more intrusive and then you realise it’s eroded your privacy away and makes life a little more difficult and uncomfortable,” he says. He now tries to live quietly in the countryside with his wife Gill and 12 year-old-daughter Sophie Mae. “If you’re doing what I do for fame and fortune forget it. You’ve got to do it because you love it,” he maintains.
So what’s he learnt from all these years in show-business? “Enjoy what you’ve got because you cannot predict what’s going to happen. Oh yes, it’s also very true that you are a fool if you’re rude to people on your way up, because they’ll be rude to you on your way down,” he says very dramatically.
This leads us on to the occasion where he was unceremoniously dumped by Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Jones after working with them on the hit 1969 children’s television show 'Do Not Adjust Your Set'. He reveals in his book that after a successful second series his three colleagues became frustrated with the format of the show and wanted a chance to air their adult material. They therefore decided not to sign their contracts when they came up for renewal. Sir David writes he was “disappointed about the way the others went about it. Mike, Terry and Eric didn’t discuss it with us; they just told us this was what was happening. The next thing we knew they were gone and so were we, because without them there was clearly no show. I minded that. It rankled a lot.” Michael, Eric and Terry then went on to plot their move into adult television and the hugely successful 'Monty Python’s Flying Circus' was born - without Sir David.
He says he’s philosophical about it all now because “look what’s happened to me.” He adds: “I’m glad that I didn’t do it. If I had taken that path yes my career might have been completely different. Maybe I would have been in Hollywood and become a big star or maybe I would have fallen by the wayside. But the journey I have taken is one which has given me a tremendous amount of pleasure and I think I’ve given a lot of pleasure to other people.”
Sir David is suddenly distracted by a flurry of activity in the restaurant as afternoon tea is served around us presented on dainty little cake stands, along with champagne. He points to some of the other customers nearby. “Look they‘re having three glasses of champagne each! Good grief Penfold!” he exclaims, moving deftly from Del Boy to Danger Mouse. I hope they drink it all, as Sir David admits he has a "waste not, want not" attitude. "I hate waste of any description," he states. "That comes from my upbringing after the war."
Back to the interview, the comedy legend says these days he finds some British comedies “very difficult to watch.” He discloses: “There’s some very strong language going on now. Any show which has strong language in I avoid.” He likes documentaries and enjoys watching 'Strictly Come Dancing' with his wife and daughter.
He reveals he was once offered a role in 'Coronation Street' but dithered so much about the part that they offered the role to someone else. He says: "I hesitated and hesitated. In the end they couldn’t wait and said we’ve cast someone else. So they let me off the hook and I didn’t have to make the decision."
Sir David is currently looking forward to playing Granville once again as the BBC brings back the 1980s sitcom 'Open All Hours' for a one-off Christmas Special this year. However he acknowledges it’s going to be tough without his old friend Ronnie Barker who was “without question” the biggest influence on his career. “Not only was he one of the most talented of actors that I worked with but also one of the most generous and the nicest.” he tells me. “As a person I learned a lot from him and miss him very deeply. Of course it’s going to be difficult without Ronnie and really hard to live up to his standards - but you know – ‘he who dares wins’ as we used to say. I’m an actor. I go where the work is and where the characters are.”
That may be true but there is no doubt that one character will stick with Sir David forever. Interview over, as he leaves the restaurant, a waiter turns to me and asks in hushed tones “Was that Del Boy?”