David Jason on a career in comedy - and why it doesn't need to push boundaries
The star of The Royal Bodyguard is not keen on swearing, violence - or interviews, he tells Andrew Duncan
We begin inauspiciously. “Interviews are not my favourite occupation,” says Sir David Jason, after ordering fish and chips for lunch – “Will they serve it in an old copy of Radio Times?” – in a west-London pub. “I have a thing about not pontificating. But let’s see how we get on. I hope you’ll be on my side.”
He glances at his watch – the first of many times – and asks if 30 minutes is long enough. “I’m very careful. Journalists are out to trap me with my underwear showing. You have to push the barriers, be ‘edgy’, don’t you?”
Not at all, I lie. He smiles, scepticism crossing his expressive face, but the eyes and voice remain friendly. He’s Britain’s most successful comic actor, garlanded with Baftas and numerous “most popular” awards, but performers can be notoriously frugal with their own words.
“Comedy is a funny business, which you have to take seriously,” he explains. “It requires a lot of thought, energy and adrenaline, so when you return home you want to calm down, recharge your batteries and not be the life and soul of the party.
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“You can’t walk in and joke [he mimics, as he’ll do a lot, this time in a jovial voice], ‘So I said to the vicar…’ ” Perhaps actors are boring, I suggest, blank personalities who use their profession to manufacture someone more interesting?
“You wouldn’t ask my friends or wife that. She’d give you a kicking. I’m not perfect, though. Any woman who takes on someone in this business has a bit of a handful. People have high expectations. You enter a room and know they’re thinking, ‘He’ll be funny,’ and you go, ‘Leave it out, love. I’m having a day off.’ You then become a disappointment.”
He decided to make The Royal Bodyguard, his first new sitcom in 20 years, since Only Fools and Horses completed its final series, because “the script made me laugh.” He plays Captain Guy Hubble, an ex-guardsman promoted from head of security at Buckingham Palace car park to royal bodyguard after saving the Queen’s life at the State Opening of Parliament.
“He’s a silly character who tries his best, but can’t do it. It’s a lovely piece of fun. OK, being an old fart, it’s for viewers who want something safe as well. The most important thing for me is that I can sit back and watch it with my ten-year-old daughter, Sophie, without thinking, ‘Whoops, why did they say that? Oh blimey’ – and then unable get to the ‘off ’ knob fast enough.
“I try to protect what she sees on television, but you can’t. Take the adverts: I was watching SpongeBob, a favourite cartoon of ours, but suddenly a scent advert came on with this girl stripping off as she walks towards the camera. It’s done for mums but they forget a lot of girls are watching these powerful images.
“There wasn’t much on telly the other night so with Sophie and her friend we watched Laurel and Hardy, made in the 1930s, and these kids laughed like drains. That’s humour – doing what funny people have done since comedy began without being edgy and pushing boundaries.”
He agrees with Mark Bussell, the co-writer and director [with Justin Sbresni] of The Royal Bodyguard, who says, “There’s been a trend in comedy in my favourite shows like Extras or Family Guy, to challenge each other to see what taboos to break. Can we make jokes about handicapped people? We wanted to make viewers laugh without that.”
Jason adds, “The trouble now is we have stand-up comedians who have forgotten about innuendo. In music-hall days, and especially at the BBC, you were never allowed swearwords, so they came up with brilliant wheezes in Beyond Our Ken, The Goon Show and Round the Horne – ‘Hello, I’m Jules and this is my friend Sandy’. Everyone knew what it was about and the audience filled in the gaps.
Today they push down barriers,” he continues. “Take the ‘f ’ word. It’s become commonplace. Stephen Fry – I’m a great fan and think he’s clever – puts up a good argument for using all swearwords as a rich part of our language. But he couldn’t persuade me. Language has implications and it’s offensive if it’s meant to denigrate something or someone. Only Fools had nothing unpleasant, really.”
He pauses, looks at his watch. “I shouldn’t be telling you this, but when Del Boy calls Rodney a dipstick, BBC executives thought it was OK because [mimics a posh accent], ‘He’s so tall and thin, how terribly funny,’ so it slipped past. Had they known the cockney rhyming slang they might have taken it out.”
He has no qualms about spending 22 years in the part, which had an audience of 24 million for a 1996 Christmas broadcast. “John Sullivan’s scripts were always very funny, and cast and crew got on well. You can’t convince an audience if you’re not enjoying it yourself.
It was the same with A Touch of Frost [in which he played Detective Inspector Jack Frost for 17 years on ITV], until we got to the point where newspapers said David Jason would be one of the oldest policeman in the universe. Then I thought it was time for him to hang up his hat. I won’t flog a dead horse.
When scripts for The Darling Buds of May [he played Pop Larkin] began to dry up we moved on. Everything I’ve done has been a pleasure, touch wood. I love my job. Ronnie Barker said to me, ‘Aren’t we lucky: being paid very well for making ourselves laugh?’”
So moving on… “quickly,” he says, smiling, glancing at his watch… to his early days… The son of a Billingsgate fish-market porter and a charlady, he trained as a car mechanic then an electrician, as well as acting in amateur productions. “I needed to be an actor more than anything.”
It compensated for being shy and small [5ft 6in] and he discovered in a school play at 14 that audience laughter is “better than any drug. But I had no track record, so no one would touch me even though acting was my vocation, like being a doctor, priest or nurse. I became very depressed at 25 when I assumed I was in the wrong business.”
His break came when a friend of his older brother, Arthur White, also an actor (David took his surname from his favourite film at the time, Jason and the Argonauts), saw a play he was in and phoned him a week later. “The friend said, ‘Be at Bromley theatre next Tuesday. I have a small part for you as a butler.’ I was Sam in Noël Coward’s South Sea Bubble. I had to black up, which wouldn’t be allowed today.”
He then auditioned for the pilot of Dad’s Army with the late David Croft and was given the part of Corporal Jones. “Meanwhile Bill Cotton [who became BBC head of light entertainment], was having drinks with Clive Dunn and hired him. Co-writer/producer David Croft protested. But Cotton said, ‘David Jason? Who’s he? Clive Dunn has a much better reputation.’ What a blow that was, I tell you. I was bitterly disappointed, but that’s showbusiness. Vicious.” He laughs.
He was saved for better things, I say. “That’s why I’m here,” he replies sardonically. Arthur has not been so successful. “He might have been disappointed his career didn’t take the path mine has, but that’s the way it goes. I put him up for a part in Frost [Ernie Trigg]. We’re great friends. He’s not envious, bless him.”
Last year Jason directed, for no fee, All the Way Up, a comedy short that won six awards at a Monaco Film Festival celebrating non-violent films. “I’m sorry to say that we – and particularly the youth – have become addicted to violence.
I grew up with war and cowboy and indian films, which were make-believe, where victims did this romantic dying thing. Now we see graphic shots of legs and arms blown off. And you have such violent video games. They must have an influence, the same as graphic sexual images, which are absorbed into our culture.”
In a way, he thinks, life happened the wrong way round for him. “I had such a good time and my job took me everywhere, so I didn’t have an opportunity to settle down. I couldn’t offer anything and women want a home and family.”
For years he nursed his partner of nearly 20 years, Welsh actress, Myfanwy Talog, before she died of breast cancer aged 50 in 1995. He became a father for the first time at 61 when Gill Hinchcliffe gave birth to a daughter, Sophie Mae, and they married in 2005.
“Marriage is lovely because it gives you roots and a sense of security.” Now he stays at home more, saving time by piloting his own helicopter to locations “and sometimes I’ll go off and have lunch quietly”. He lapses into brisk Second World War Air Force pilot talk. “Fortunately I have a small second-hand, elastic-band model that I fly when the weather is good.”
He’ll spend Christmas and Boxing Day at home with Gill and Sophie. “A wonderful time of year. We really enjoy it, don’t we?” he says mock seriously. “I’m not a huge Christmas fan. I don’t hate it, but it’s not quite the holiday for me. I’m disappointed it’s become so commercialised.”
We’ve been chatting for over an hour. His eyes alight, perhaps in desperation, on a 2ft-long bronze drill bit lying on a table nearby. He picks it up, rolls it lasciviously in his hands, eyes bright. “You may have seen something like this,” he suggests to a waitress, “in a different context.” Everyone laughs. “You see, the age of innuendo is not dead,” he asserts. “Happy New Year!”
David Jason stars in The Royal Bodyguard on Boxing Day at 9:30pm on BBC1