So, you think you know David Jason? Think again
As Del Boy in Only Fools And Horses he played a cocksure Cockney, but David Jason, who has just written his autobiography, tells Julia Molony it was low self-esteem that propelled him into acting. He also tells her about the death of his partner, finding love again and his teenage daughter
I must admit I'm a bit surprised by how grandfatherly David Jason is. I mean, I shouldn't be. He is 73. But he had remained frozen in my mind around the 50-year mark. Even as Jack Frost, the central figure in A Touch of Frost, the role from which he retired just six years ago, he seemed not really to have aged, but rather to have just slightly changed shade, going from brown coloured to white and grey around the edges, as if someone had turned down the colour saturation on the screen.
But sitting in a hotel room, munching on biscuits and chatting about his new book, in a very dapper candy stripe jumper, he's unmistakably a man enjoying his retirement. He's almost uncannily familiar in the flesh. He has the sort of fame that doesn't extend the gap between him and his public, but rather shortens it. People don't just think they know him, they think they own him. Which can be annoying.
He recounts in his book a day not long ago when he was watching a tennis match and Jack Nicholson was sitting in a row in front of him, his wife Gill and he thought: "Great: no question of us getting bothered, people will be too busy bothering Jack."
But he was wrong. "While Jack sat there utterly untroubled, watching the tennis, a steady stream of well-wishers made their way along our row to say hello – to the point where, eventually, people around us felt obliged to intervene: 'Leave the poor bloke alone!'"
He's not complaining, but he does admit that, "sometimes you end up deciding it'll be more comfortable for everyone if you stay at home".
Perhaps that's why he's so reluctant to give interviews. He's always insisted he's shy. In fact, he says, it was shyness that propelled him into acting.
"I was not driven by fame and fortune," he says. "It was the need to do it for it's own sake, because ... I tell you what I think was the reason why – I was very low in self-esteem. I was a very shy sort of person, and by acting different characters, I could immerse myself and make them do what perhaps I wouldn't do."
Jason has finally written his memoirs. He's called them My Life, a does-what-it-says- on-the-tin sort of title, which is fitting for such a no-nonsense sort of a man. He's described it as a "warts and all" account, but Jason is a man of his era, emotionally restrained and not prone to too much self-analysis.
The book reads like the man himself speaking to you from the page, talking you through his childhood in Finchley, North London, where he was born as the bombs fell during the blitz.
His mother was a housemaid and his father a fishmonger, so the knighthood and the four Baftas and all that came eventually to Jason, wasn't exactly on the cards. In fact, he almost embarked on a career as an electrician – he and his mate had trained and gone into business together. His parents weren't exactly thrilled when he quit to pursue the dramatic arts, and his relationship with his first girlfriend, Sylvia, whom he was supposed to marry, fell apart when he wasn't taking a career with a steady job.
It was just as well, really, because he was determined to dedicate himself "monk-like" to acting. For years, he pursued this goal to the exclusion of all other things, including romance.
"When I made my first decision, come hell or high water, that I would try to be a professional actor, I was burnt. Emotionally, I was burnt. By that very first relationship that I had." Does he mean Sylvia?
"Yes," he says. "We don't use her surname. I had a moment, where was it? Oh yes, at the book signing. And I was signing these books, and this lady came up and I was just opening the book and I said, who is it for, and she says, 'Sylvia'. I looked up and I went ... " his eyes pop open with pantomime surprise.
"It wasn't her, I don't think," he says, sounding, even now almost 50 years later, extremely relieved.
"We used to be very unsuccessful with the female gender," he says, remembering his youth on the dance floors of London in the late '50s and early '60s. He's fond of a yarn, and immediately launches into one that's clearly stayed with him, from a night at the Athenaeum Ballroom, when he and a friend were chatting up girls.
"Bob and I walked onto the middle of the Athenaeum dancefloor. And these girls were dancing, very nice, very attractive. And he said, 'excuse me girls, do you mind if we break you up?' One of them turned and looked and me and said, 'Nah, he's too short.' I was so bloody embarrassed."
Still, despite a declared fragile ego, he's withstood crushing setbacks to become one of the most popular actors of his generation. In My Life, alongside the triumphs, the record-breaking viewing figures for Only Fools and Horses, and the awards he's picked up along the way, he anthologises the many near-misses and lost chances.
There was the failed stab at a Hollywood career, and the time he was shouldered out of the comedy troupe that went on to create Monty Python's Flying Circus, with whom he'd worked on the television show, Do Not Adjust Your Set. And then, more prosaically, were the endless auditions he went for but didn't get. Did he take rejection hard?
"A bit. But I used to be philosophical and say it was showbiz ... Maybe you get a bit disappointed, but you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and go on to the next one. Some of them were just sort of desperate, heartbreaking," he says.
It was only when he felt confident that he'd started to crack it, that he even thought about settling down. "I started at the Incognito Theatre as an amateur. I spent six or seven years there and from that, no training, to end up winning a Bafta for the best actor in Porterhouse Blue, that, I think, was the moment that I said, 'well, I've done it. So I can relax a little'," he says.
"Probably mentally I was a bit more secure, safe, so I think that probably helped for me to view my personal relationships, (he adopts a hammy, theatrical voice) and then the fatal day came when this woman came into my life and she made me change all that."
The woman in question was the Welsh actress Myfanwy Talog, whom he met through a mutual friend in 1977.
How did she manage to finally pin him down? "I was probably ready, wasn't I? I was ripe for the plucking," he says.
They had almost 20 happy years together before tragedy struck in 1994, when she was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer, before eventually passing away the following year. He found this episode of the book the most difficult to write. "I avoided it," he says.
"Pretended it hadn't happened. Time went on, and I was doing it (the book) sort of chronologically. And then I reached this point, when I was doing Darling Buds Of May or something, and I was writing about that and I suddenly went, no, that's unfair. I didn't want that to happen. I didn't want to go through that experience, but I did, and I thought, for Myfanwy's memory, it was unfair that I shouldn't talk about it or put it in the book. So then I had to go back, and put it in the book. And it was a struggle."
He preferred writing about the good times, the West End hits and the triumphs.
"Because to go back and grab hold of things and go, 'God I really, really wish I could do that again' like (the hit play) No Sex Please, We're British, to have such a ball, every night. What a turn on that was. It was better than any drug you could take. Not that I've taken many in my life – none at all, really, except once." Amazingly he lived through the '60s and '70s in the entertainment industry and only tried pot once.
"But that opposite, that total opposite," he says, dragging himself back, it seems almost by force, to the subject of loss. "You have to do it in her memory. Because it wasn't always like that – it was a great time. And that bit was a long, unhappy time. And, heaven forbid, people who have been through it know – and you wouldn't want anyone to go through it, whether you are the patient or whether you are a loved one concerned with it. That's when life's really hard," he says, biting pensively into a biscuit.
A few years after Myfanwy's death, he met Gill, a statuesque blonde 20 years younger than him and a floor assistant with Yorkshire Television. As he explains in the book, "very quickly I realised, as surely and as firmly as I had ever known anything, that I was in love with Gill and I wanted us to live together".
They were married the morning he received his knighthood, and have a daughter together, Sophie, born when he was already into his sixties, and now almost a teenager. They have a quiet life, though the threat of disruption is close by, because Sophie is about to be a teenager, and it's a transition that he admits he's not facing with relish. Already, she doesn't treat him with the same child-like wonder that she used to.
"It's getting a bit more difficult now, because she's going to be 13 in a minute. What it is, is she's beginning to be more positive about her own personality. Which means, she's getting a little bit more positive about what she says to her parents. Which has not happened before. Normally she's the one that was the little person that you take and you tell her that we're going to do something, we're getting on the bus or we're going in the car and ... oh yeah, lovely, all that goes on. Now it's like, 'I don't want to do that on Saturday. I don't really want to sit there, it's a bit boring'."
Still, he was a handful himself in his teenage days – even getting arrested once for stealing copper piping, so it just takes a moment of memory to understand. He found the nostalgia of shaping his life for the telling, and putting it down on paper, bittersweet. "When you go back – most of the time it's been a fantastic career and I've sort of loved every minute of it. But when you go back to write it down and you remember things and you go, 'oh yeah, that was really good, I really enjoyed that', you realise that you can't get that back. That fun of that time was so good. You go, 'oh, I remember that and I remember that'. And you can't do it again. And those bits, you go – 'oh yeah, (disappointed voice) it's gone'."
'My Life' by David Jason is published by Random House, priced €28.99