Sir David Jason reveals the classic Only Fools and Horses moment that almost never happened and how Del Boy "haunts" him
Helen Daly chats to Sir David Jason about his new memoir, One Del of a Life, Only Fools and Horses and how it feels to be called a national treasure.
Throughout our Zoom meeting, Sir David Jason, dressed in a berry-red jumper while sipping on a cup of tea from some fine china, radiates that same charm that's made him a certified National Treasure.
However, if you ask him how he feels about that title, the star - famous for his role as loveable trier Del Boy - brushes it off. "I don’t think about it, really, but people have said that I’m a legend. I tell them, 'Yes, I am the leg end. What the front end’s all about, I don’t really know, but I am the leg end!'."
Like it or not, he is one of the most beloved actors this country has every produced. To discuss Jason's career in full would take hours. As it is, he's condensed his life into 316 pages in his new book, One Del of a Life (though it must be noted this is his third memoir).
Throughout, we hear tales from his early days as an actor in a tiny Newman Street flat in London, right through to the coronavirus pandemic and how he's coped with lockdown.
"As you know, I put in the book about the difficulties with this coronavirus, and it’s affecting everybody. It’s difficult – really difficult – for everybody.
"So I wanted to mention that – that it’s been difficult for me. But listen, not nearly as difficult as it is for an awful lot of people. But I had to put it in the book because it was happening now. It’s what is happening. In your writing or everyday whatever it is you’re doing, you can’t behave normally because of coronavirus," he tells me.
One thing becomes clear throughout his memoir and speaking to him: David Jason likes to keep busy, and after celebrating his 80th birthday earlier this year, he's showing no signs of slowing down yet, even though the COVID pandemic did make him stop for just a second.
"My Hollywood movie is still in the wings, waiting to happen," he grins, before teasing that he wants to do a new film with "Tom" – Cruise, of course. "There’s going to be a new series with me as his sidekick called Mission: Possible, starring Sir David Jason with Tom Cruise."
No-one would put it past him either, having well and truly conquered Britain, most notably playing DI Jack Frost in A Touch of Frost, Granville in Open All Hours, Pop Larkin in The Darling Buds of May, Danger Mouse and of course, Derek Trotter in Only Fools and Horses.
Without a doubt, his most famous character is the latter, Del Boy. The Cockney market stall trader crashed onto the BBC in 1981 and has since been recognised as one of the greatest comedy characters born in the UK.
However, in Jason's book, Del has become a complex character who has brought the actor highs and lows. I ask him how he feels about Mr Trotter today. "Occasionally, it comes back to haunt me because it’s being repeated all the time, and it’s gathering new audiences, which I’m extremely proud of, being associated with it – because what you’ve got to remember is that it’s a brilliant script written by a very talented writer. And without him and the other actors in the show, we wouldn’t have had the success that we had, and that we still share now.
"What happens is, it’s a two-edged sword in a way, because I’m still being recognised for playing Derek Trotter, and yet that was 30 years ago. So time has taken a bit of a toll on me. But when you see Derek Trotter, he’s how I imagine myself to be – still. But it’s like… none of us, except for an actor like myself, is constantly reminded of what you used to look like, and where you were all those years ago. People very rarely have that constant reminder."
Jason adds: "So I’m constantly reminded wherever I go, if I go out for a restaurant – not that we do very much now, because of COVID – and people come up and stick a napkin under your face and say, 'Would you sign that?' – more often than not, they stick a camera in front of you, and say, 'Can I have a selfie? Go on, give us a selfie!'.
"That’s the downside. But the upside is that, of course, it’s still bringing a lot of pleasure to a lot of people, and especially in these rather dark and gloomy days. I’m very pleased that at least that bit is working for most people."
Del Boy's legacy is undeniable. Only Fools is forever noted as having some of the greatest comedy moments of all time, often making multiple appearances in various round-ups. Ask anyone what their favourite moment is and you'll almost always get a different answer. The falling chandelier? Batman and Robin? Del falling through the bar? The list goes on. But for Jason, the real highlight lies in the fun they had as a team.
"Mainly, the memories that I have is working with a team that really, really enjoyed doing what they were doing, and were so proud to be associated with such a wonderful show that was entertaining so many people," Jason recalls.
An infectious smile comes to his face. He adds: "And just one of the things that I have said a number of times is working as Batman and Robin with Nic Lyndhurst, and how when we were sitting in the van and doing that scene before we ran out to the lady who was being robbed – trying to do the scene in the van with Nic Lyndhurst looking like the boy, Robin, and me looking like Batman, and trying to be serious. Well, we couldn’t do it. It took us ages. We couldn’t do the scene, because we’d get halfway through or a quarter-way through, and we’d just fall about laughing at each other. That is an abiding memory that will live with me forever, because it was so silly, and so funny, and it reminds me of how much fun we had working together."
There were also a number of well-known moments that simply wouldn't have happened if Jason didn't have full understanding of his character and trust in writer/creator John Sullivan. Most notably, he tells me how he was out for lunch with Sullivan who told him how he saw a man almost fall through a hatch in a bar. Jason immediately pitched in and suggested Sullivan writes the scene but has Del Boy actually fall through the bar... and thus history was made.
Another example is when Uncle Albert headed to the kitchen to make himself a sandwich, only for Derek to take it without asking. On the moment, Jason says: "It’s little things like that, which add colour to the whole thing. We never mentioned it. We never said anything about it. I just walked in, and would say, 'Yeah, anyway…' I was talking to Rodney. 'Anyway, what I said was…' – and I took his sandwich.
"It was left totally unsaid, but the audience would be watching that and they would put two and two together. Sometimes, you make the audience work. If you say, 'Did you see that? He came in, pinched his sandwich…' – I knew it would amuse people, because we’re not making a joke. We’re making a piece of business that would happen in real life. it would happen with people at home, you know, with their family."
Though Jason admits he has a complex relationship with Del Boy today, it's clear he doesn't look back and wish he changed anything.
"Listen, you can’t do anything in life where you don’t have a few regrets. But I don’t dwell on them. I don’t dwell. What happens is that, on the course of your journey – all of us, that is – you have some ups and you have some downs. But the thing is that you don’t dwell on them, and you don’t stay down. You know, you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself down, and start off again. It’s because you need to also live in the moment, which is quite important.
"You pick yourself up, dust yourself down, and off we go. Keep calm and carry on – as they say in the old times."
As Del Boy himself would probably say: "He who dares wins... you win some, you lose some...Boeuf à la mode."