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David Jason: ‘I find it difficult to believe that Del Boy is so beloved’

David Jason started off as a grease monkey and never joined the flying circus, but everything has turned out cushty

David Jason was born David John White in Edmonton, North London in 1940. His father was a porter at Billingsgate Fish Market in the English capital, while his Welsh mother was a charwoman. Jason’s twin brother died during childbirth.

Upon leaving school, Jason began working in a a garage, but become bitten by the acting bug like his older brother Arthur. After struggling for years, his big break came in 1967’s Do Not Adjust Your Set alongside future Monty Python duo Terry Jones and Michael Palin.

He then went on to forge a strong career, which took off in the 1970s with roles in the likes of Porridge, Lucky Feller and most notably Open All Hours alongside Ronnie Barker.

Enormous fame as a leading man came when Jason took on the role of Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses in 1981. The show has become arguably the UK’s best-loved comedy ever, running until the last Christmas special aired in 2003. Jason then also starred in huge roles as Sidney ‘Pop’ Larkin in The Darling Buds Of May and as DC Jack Frost in A Touch Of Frost.

In 2006, he was voted Number One in a ITV’s poll of TV’s greatest stars. he was knighted in 2005, and has won a host of Bafta and British Comedy Awards. In 2001, he became a father for the first time when his partner Gill Hinchcliffe gave birth to a girl, Sophie Mae. He married Hinchcliffe in 2005.

In his Letter To My Younger Self, Jason looks back on an incredible career and explains how he came to become a true national treasure.

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At 16, I was a grease monkey in a garage. That was the colloquial expression for the lowest person there, and I was just a lad working my first job. I had two very good friends, and the three of us got some cheap second-hand motorbikes, because we didn’t have any money, and took them all apart and rebuilt them. That took a lot of time and a lot of commitment and a lot of energy. Because there was very little money about, we had to learn to do it all ourselves. So that was my main hobby – and it took a long time to get it all sorted because finances were very short. It wasn’t until much later that I got any interest in music – and when I got interested, the big thing that happened was The Beatles. 

I was getting more and more interested and fired up about amateur dramatics. That was starting to be my big passion. I was able to subjugate my shy self, because I was very shy in those days, by being in the theatre. I was able to inhabit someone else so I could hide myself – David White, as I was known then – in the characters I was asked to play. I had a very good amateur group that helped me with this, called the Incognito Theatre in Friern Barnet [North London], which was a bit of a bus ride away from where I lived.

It wasn’t until I was 24 that I thought I might be able to act professionally. But I was really driven from the age of about 21. I was spending more and more time doing amateur shows for different amateur theatre groups. Practically every night of the week I’d be out rehearsing a different play. So the passion was growing and I was getting more and more desperate to do it forever. I was driven by it. It took me over – it took me over like some strange monster! 

Do Not Adjust Your Set
1967: With his Do Not Adjust Your Set co-stars, from left: Terry Jones, Denise Coffey, Michael Palin and Eric Idle. Photo: Fremantle Media/Shutterstock

If I told my younger self, when he was doing all the amateur dramatics, what lay ahead, he would say ‘don’t be bloody daft’. I never thought like that at that age. It would be a dream too far. I always thought it would be impossible for someone who had not been to drama school and had only been an amateur to be a professional actor. So if I had whispered in my 16-year-old ear, I’m afraid my 16-year-old earhole would say, “No way, Pedro.”  

I would tell my younger self that whatever dream you have, just have a go. It doesn’t matter if you fail, it’s all about having a go. Then keep on getting up, dusting yourself off, and having another go. If you have a go at it and fail? Well, at least you tried. 

Only Fools and Horses Xmas special 1991
1991: Only Fools and Horses Christmas special with Nicholas Lyndhurst as Rodney and Buster Merryfield as Uncle Albert. Photo: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

I was completely in love with the theatre and performing and acting. The idea of fame and fortune didn’t come into it. What was driving me was the idea of trying to be a better actor. A note I’d give to any aspiring actor is not to go into it wanting fame but go into it for the love and for what it means. Because by enjoying yourself and making entertainment for an audience, you’re doing the best thing you can, which is giving pleasure to others. That has been a driving force of mine forever. And fortunately, I think because of that attitude, success followed – with a lot of luck and a lot of lovely people helping along the way.  

My big break came thanks to a wonderful fellow by the name of Humphrey Barclay. He was a young producer at Cambridge University in a group called the Cambridge Footlights, who were very successful. Then he became a producer and got a job with ITV, or Rediffusion as it was called then. I was doing a summer season and he was putting together a small group of actors for a new comedy series for children. He was told to go down and have a look at this idiot stomping about the stage in Bournemouth, which he duly did. He saw me, and from that I got in a series called Do Not Adjust Your Set. It was a mad sketch show for kids. There was nothing like it at the time. So that was my first big break – and it was also a bit of a breakthrough series because it was the birth of Monty Python… which I wasn’t in.  

When they went on and started to make a great success of Monty Python and both myself and Denise Coffey were sidelined, I was hugely disappointed. Because Monty Python grew and grew and the guys I knew from Do Not Adjust Your SetEric Idle and Mike Palin in particular – were doing really good stuff, getting a lot of television exposure. So I had a bit of a hiccup and went back to the theatre.

It was a disappointment, I was upset but I had to not grizzle about it. It wasn’t the end of the world, and it wasn’t the end of my career. The weird twist of fate of having not done Monty Python allowed me to be available for other things. I started on a different journey, not reliant on anybody else. For example, I started doing Weekending, which was a radio show every Friday that took the mickey out of the government. So I was doing satire. And Humphrey Barclay went on to produce shows with Ronnie Barker and introduced us. I then worked with Bob Monkhouse. So my journey started with nice people.  

The connection with an audience is what means the most to me. It’s the most important thing. Only Fools and Horses, A Touch of Frost, Open All Hours and The Darling Buds of May – it all grew from what I learned in the theatre. If I felt there was something we were missing or there was a laugh needed somewhere, I would wonder how I could lift the audience. So I’d do all sorts of little experiments. That, of course, meant I was learning the trade. I was learning by longhand how to entertain, what audiences expected and how to make them laugh. And it is not an easy journey, let me tell you. 

I would give my younger self the same advice about love as I would about acting. Because you’re going to get hurt – or you’re going to have disappointments, maybe that’s a better word – but you will meet the right person. It will happen. So just get out there, have a go.  

David Jason and family
2022: With daughter Sophie and wife Gill at Cirque du Soleil’s Luzia premiere, Royal Albert Hall, London. Photo: Mike Marsland/WireImage

If you try to talk to a teenager about anything you will get a poke on the nose. Because they think you don’t know their situation. But I would tell my younger self to just be honest, enjoy the journey, enjoy your life. Try to get a job that brings you pleasure about getting up in the morning – and it doesn’t matter how much you earn or how much you have, it’s about trying to be a decent and trustworthy person.  

If and when you are fortunate enough to have a little family of your own, enjoy it for as long as you can. When I had my daughter [Sophie, born in 2001], the very best time was from the age of one to seven because she was so funny. She was like a little comedian. They are the cutest, funniest little people you could imagine. It brightens your day every day because they’re like miniature clowns and don’t know they are being funny. That’s a lovely time of your life. 

I find it difficult to believe it that Del Boy and Only Fools and Horses are so beloved. One gets a bit humbled by it because one has affected so many people and so many people’s lives. But I was very fortunate with a great team around me and loved every minute of it. That enjoyment, that love of doing what I love doing, the joy I had from being an amateur on stage is still there – and I just think some of it spilled out onto the television screens and into the homes of so many people. I’m delighted to be able to say that.  

If I’d told my younger self that he would be part of so many people’s Christmas, with millions watching me on Christmas Day, he would be terrified. First of all, he wouldn’t believe it. And second, I seriously think I would be terrified at the responsibility and the enormity of such a thing. Imagine that as a 16-year-old? But then, I would say to him, chin up, get on and enjoy it. Which I have. I loved it and I still do.  

The Twelve Dels of Christmas by David Jason is out now (Century, £22)

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy!

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The new book Letter to My Younger Self: Inspirational Women is out now, you can order it here.

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