Award-winning actor Sir David Jason, best known as Derek ‘Del Boy’ Trotter in Only Fools And Horses, is pondering how comedy has changed since his acting career began more than 50 years ago.
“Maybe we’ve lost censorship,” says the actor, whose performances in the iconic sitcom, and other shows including The Darling Buds Of May and A Touch Of Frost, have won him a clutch of awards.
“We had censorship when you couldn’t say certain things, you couldn’t show certain things because it was disrespectful or bad manners. You needed to be clever with your dialogue in order to get round things – now you just say it and we are going further in a downward spiral.”
“Bad language is becoming more and more graphic and is supposed to be acceptable,” he continues. “If it’s a drama or a powerful story of everyday life, you’ve got to have everybody swearing their heads off.”
The star, who turned 80 in February, points to his TV detective series A Touch of Frost, in which he starred as DI Frost, to argue it’s not necessary.
“When we did Frost, we refused to swear in that, and not one person in my entire time of playing the role ever came up to me and said, ‘You know what, I didn’t enjoy that programme because you didn’t swear’. If the story is good enough, you don’t even notice that people are not swearing.”
Yet Only Fools has not been beyond the realms of censorship in today’s world. Britbox airs the shows, reflecting their continued popularity, but some episodes now come with warnings about content that could cause offence.
It’s something Jason seems unaware of and says is ‘beyond his remit’ although he doesn’t believe that comedy has become too politically correct. But he doesn’t want to join the debate today.
The actor has no thoughts of retiring. He is hoping to film two World War Two documentaries next year, and in lockdown he has been busy with DIY projects and his hobby of model-building, and still has a licence to fly a helicopter, passing the aviation medicals each year.
“Turning 80 was all right,” he says understatedly. “One minute you’re 35 and the next you’re 80. You’re so busy getting on with life and I’m lucky that everything’s still in good working condition.”
For all his fame and fortune, Jason remains a private character living a quiet life away from the screen at his home in Buckinghamshire with his wife Gill Hinchcliffe, 20 years his junior, who was a floor assistant at Yorkshire TV when they met, and their 19-year-old daughter Sophie. He says they keep him young.
He’s also written his third memoir, A Del Of A Life, a collection of memories and anecdotes of his life and career.
While there are plenty of behind-the-scenes tales of shenanigans on set featuring Del Boy and Rodney, he admits that he had always resisted attending the Only Fools And Horses conventions, until February 2020, just before lockdown, when he went to his first.
“Over the years I felt that it was a bit exposing. I never realised how important it was to so many people. I thought it was just a few serious fans who would gather and want to talk about the show.
“I didn’t realise how it had changed so many people’s lives, and once I started to realise that, I thought perhaps I should go and see them and thank them for being such loyal viewers.”
He had previously declined invitations to the conventions which have been held since 1998, partly because he doesn’t feel comfortable appearing in public as himself, without the comfort of a role to hide behind, and partly because people would expect him to be Del Boy when he turned up – and without a John Sullivan script to hand, he didn’t want to disappoint fans.
He’s not one for red (or in his words ‘Dread’) carpet events either.
“It’s because I can’t quite accept the adulation or the pressure of people being interested in me. My life is spent hiding behind characters. So I find the ‘Dread’ carpet difficult because I have no-one to hide behind.”
He also admits that there have been times when he wanted to distance himself from the Del Boy character, when he couldn’t go anywhere without people shouting, ‘Oi, Del!’.
“It does get you down a little bit,” he reflects. “I’m delighted it’s brought so much pleasure to so many people but there are only so many times that you can talk about falling through a bar or trying to not catch a chandelier. It gets a bit tiring.”
Was he worried about being typecast as a one-dimensional character?
“There was an element of that, but it was a small element and I’ve done so much in other spheres of the business,” he says now.
“Del did cost me a few pieces of work along the way and, in other cases, I had to fight really hard just to be able to get into the room and start persuading people that there was more to me than a south London wheeler-dealer,” he writes.
But he came through with many other roles, including Pop Larkin in The Darling Buds Of May and as DI Jack Frost – all entertainment which he acknowledges is a far cry from some of today’s darker TV offerings.
“It’s just a fact of life that today’s programmes favour the hard-hitting, the callow, the angry. The tone is louder, more shouty,” he writes.
Trailers also give away too much these days, he adds, with punchlines of comedy shows and key moments of dramas revealed before they’ve even been aired.
So, does he see any genius comedy talent coming up through the ranks? “There must be but I haven’t seen it yet,” he says dryly.
Do people need gentler television, like The Darling Buds Of May, which featured warm-hearted characters in life and love situations on a rural Kentish farm?
“We need a mixture. There are so many people of different ideologies and religions – you have to try to give something to everybody – but there does seem to be a preponderance of journeys of dramas going in one direction, while there is still a huge audience for shows like The Darling Buds Of May. Some of the repeats get a huge audience.”
He says he would never resurrect the role of Del Boy because the writer John Sullivan is no longer with us, he says. But he’s hoping that Granville will return in Still Open All Hours – a show filmed in Doncaster – and would like to bring back his dedicated detective in A Touch Of Frost, which ran for 15 series, ending in 2010.
“I’ve always thought we could bring Frost back, but as a private detective doing the same sort of things he used to do. I’m still hopeful that might touch a few people in the commissioning department.”
Jason missed out on Corporal Jones role
Sir David’s book reveals some of his career disappointments.
He was offered the part of Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army for two hours before the offer was rescinded when producers found out that Clive Dunn was available to play the role.
He was hurt he wasn’t asked to join Monty Python’s Flying Circus after working with Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Eric Idle on its children’s predecessor, Do Not Adjust Your Set.
But his hard-working ethos paid off as he soared to new heights as Derek ‘Del Boy’ Trotter, in the iconic sitcom Only Fools and Horses which ran from 1981 to 1991, with 16 Christmas specials until the end of the show in 2003.
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A Del of a Life: Lessons I’ve Learned by David Jason is published by Century, priced £20 hardback. Available now.