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Sir David Jason credits flying as having a key role in his amazing career as he reaches 80

© Nils Jorgensen/ShutterstockDavid Jason
David Jason

Whisper it. Del Boy Trotter is 80.

I suppose we shouldn’t really be shocked, considering David Jason has been a fixture on our screens since his debut in Crossroads in 1964.

But it still comes as a surprise to learn that it was on February 2 1940, that he was born David White – his twin brother died at birth – to a Billingsgate fish porter and a charwoman.

Iconic roles such as Derek Trotter, Granville, DI Jack Frost and Pop Larkin saw Jason win four Baftas and top a 2006 poll to find our Top 50 TV stars.

But as the man himself, who was knighted in 2005, says: “At the moment there is a desire for instant, X Factor-style fame. But I started out as an unknown, lonely theatre actor on tour; we had to struggle to get an audience.

“The night-by-night learning curve was huge but that was part of my journey and it’s been a journey of love – love for the sheer enjoyment of acting.

“Without the writers and the teams I’ve worked with, I’d have had nothing.

“Nicholas Lyndhurst summed it up best when he was talking about the dearly-departed John Sullivan, who wrote Only Fools And Horses.

“Nick said: ‘John creates the ammunition, we just fire it’ and that explains it in a nutshell.”

© Allstar / BBC
Only Fools And Horses

Jason had no formal acting training after jacking in his first job as an electrician, and admits that makes it surprising that strangers still stop him in the street to quote his most famous lines at him.

“Particularly with Del Boy, as I had nice black hair when I was playing him, but now there’s a lot of snow on the roof and a lot of the timbers are coming through!” he laughs.

“People do still say: ‘Lovely jubbly’ and: ‘This time next year, we’ll be millionaires’ on a regular basis and, particularly with Fools, the thing that I’m most proud of is that it has reached and entertained so many people.”

Oddly, David credits learning to fly for giving him the confidence to become an actor. Now a qualified helicopter pilot and a gliding enthusiast, he first took to the controls of an aircraft when he was 28, while working in amateur dramatics.

He says: “I never thought I was academically gifted at school.

“But when I started flying, I found you didn’t need an academic mind – you just needed determination and dedication.

“I don’t think I would ever have taken on professional acting roles if I hadn’t had the ability to fly. I had quite low self-esteem and it gave me the self-confidence to believe I could do anything that I put my mind to.”

David is still close to small-screen little brother Lyndhurst and admits that when the two get together, they often descend into full Del and Rodney banter.

“We have a nice cut and thrust when we meet,” he says. “But I daren’t go as far as calling him a plonker as he doesn’t like that – which I can understand!

“We’re both very proud of what we’ve done. Few actors can say they’ve had such a profound effect on people’s lives.

“I’ve been told many a time that after a hard day’s graft, people love to come back home, put their feet up, watch us being stupid fools and lose themselves in the escapism of it all. And that’s a great tonic.”

© Allstar / BBC
Open All Hours

It was working on a pair of 70s sitcoms with Ronnie Barker that made DJ a star, and he admits filming Open All Hours had some unexpected perks – not least the attractions of the canteen at the BBC’s rehearsal studios in West London.

“We adjourned there for a restorative repast of sausage, eggs, chips and beans, or sometimes beans, chips, eggs and sausage,” he recalls. “And if we timed our lunch break to coincide with the arrival of the dancers from Pan’s People in their rehearsal leotards, we considered ourselves doubly refreshed!

“For me, however, the real treat was working with Ronnie Barker, who I called the Guvnor. It was just a jokey nickname at first, but it grew to express exactly what I felt about him.

“It wasn’t just about the depth of his comic gift, about the abilities that he had as a writer and performer.

“It was the way he conducted himself, the kind of man he was. I’ve always tried to emulate him a bit and to feel him on my shoulder.

“When I first saw the script, I secretly found the part of Granville a little thin and disappointing,” David admits.

“I had no idea that this rather lost character in his Fair Isle jumper would propel my career to another level, but if Ronnie thought it worth pursuing, I felt there must be something to it.

“While we waited to see whether the BBC would commission a first series, Ronnie asked me to do a stint in Porridge as an old lag called Blanco.

“Then, in 1975 we were given the go-ahead for Open All Hours.

“By the time we did the fourth and final series, in 1985, we were averaging 15 million viewers.

“Ronnie used to say that it was the comedy series he most enjoyed doing – even more than Porridge, which was arguably the more successful of the two.

“And he once gave an interview in which he said: ‘I enjoyed it all the more because of David.’ I was very touched and flattered by that.

“Soon after it finished, he told me that he was going to retire.

“He was 56 at that point and we had recently lost Eric Morecambe and Tommy Cooper, which I think played on his mind. He didn’t want to work himself into an early grave, and I respected him so much for it.”

© ITV/Shutterstock
David Jason as DI Jack Frost

With that in mind, you’d forgive David, whose daughter is now 19, for wanting to put his feet up a little more now his ninth decade looms.

But he’s having none of it.

“There’s always time to create one more big character,” he smiles.

But whichever direction David takes, and however many millions are beguiled by his next creation, the chances of more adulation going to his head are slimmer than a pair of Rodney Trotter’s trousers.

“I’m very grateful for all that national treasure terminology but fortunately it’s not turned my head,” he insists.

“It doesn’t affect me. I just ignore it and get on with it.

“Another of the things I’m really proud of in the shows I’ve done is that we had no graphic sex or graphic language, yet we managed to reach so many people.

“John Sullivan didn’t include sex, violence or bad language, which proves a point – if you’re good enough and your story’s good enough, you don’t need these trappings.

“It was the same on Frost.

“It was a big success and we never had any strong language.

“I have never, ever had one person ever come up to me and say: ‘I didn’t like that Frost because you didn’t swear’ but I have had a number of people say: ‘I don’t like that programme because they swear a lot.’

“If you tell a story well enough and entertain, you don’t need it. But you try telling that to the modern producers.”

People were stunned when, after 18 years as a huge hit, Jason retired DI Jack Frost.

But maybe there’s a hint of what his future holds when he says that in hanging up Frost’s battered old tweed trilby, he wished to abide by the old showbiz motto: “Always leave ’em wanting more.”

“I was asked to make some more,” he confirms. “And I said: ‘I can’t keep on, because you’ll have me coming on in a wheelchair soon.’

“I would have liked Frost to go on forever but you don’t want people in the press hammering you, saying that you have outstayed your welcome or that it’s just not believable any more.”

Somehow, I can’t see anyone saying that of Sir David Jason, 80 or not.