David John White was born on 2nd February 1940 in Finchley, North London. His father, Arthur, was a porter at Billingsgate Fish Market and his mother, Olwen, a charlady, was employed to clean houses. David had an elder brother, also called Arthur, and his sister, June, came along later. The family lived in a modest terraced house and David went to school nearby. It was at school, at the age of 14, that the acting bug first bit young David White, although he was, at first, something of a reluctant performer. He was drafted into the play (a Civil War drama – Wayside War), to play a Cavalier, when one of his classmates was forced to withdraw due to contracting measles. David had up to that point considered acting to be something that only girls did, and really didn’t want to be involved at all. However, to his surprise he discovered that he actually loved every minute of it and as a direct result of this play, David joined an amateur dramatics society.
Leaving school at 15 David pursued his parent’s wishes to get himself a trade by working in a garage as a trainee mechanic. However, after a year he decided that working on cars was not for him and he switched courses to become an electrician. He continued to tread the boards in a number of amateur productions hoping to follow his brother Arthur into professional acting. For the time being though, David continued to learn his “trade” and by the time he’d reached his twenties he had set up a business with a friend, Bob Bevil, called B & W Instillations.
In March 1965, a golden opportunity presented itself when his elder brother, Arthur, pulled out of a Noël Coward play called South Sea Bubble in favour of a television role in Z Cars. Arthur recommended that David take his place in South Sea Bubble, and after seeing him in an amateur production, the director offered him the part, which earned him £9 per week. David made his professional acting debut in the play for Bromley Rep on 5th April 1965. On turning professional David decided to change his surname to Jason, as there was already a David White in the acting world. After his professional debut other work followed, but acting jobs were few and far between. David returned to Bromley Rep on a one-year contract where he played various roles, usually comedy ones, which directors had noticed he had a flair for. It was while at Bromley Rep that David first met Lennard Pearce, who would later play Granddad to David’s Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses. They were both appearing in an eighteenth century comedy called The Rivals, and despite getting on well would not meet again for another fifteen years.
After Bromley Rep David continued his stage career and worked with such stars as Bob Monkhouse and Dick Emery during summer seasons. In 1967 he made his television debut appearing with Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Jones in the children’s programme Do Not Adjust Your Set, a forerunner to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. One of the characters that David played became a firm favourite in the show, that of Captain Fantastic, an ordinary looking “superhero” who was pitted against his arch enemy Mrs Black (the most evil woman in the world) as played by Denise Coffey. DNAYS had a very successful run on ITV and ended in 1969, but it was during this run that David missed out on what eventually became one of the most famous roles in British television history; that of Corporal Jack Jones in the new Jimmy Perry and David Croft BBC comedy Dads Army.
The original choice for the part was Clive Dunn, but unfortunately Clive was appearing in the Spike Milligan Show at the time and was not available. David Croft had worked with David Jason before when the former had produced a comedy series for the BBC called Hugh and I, which starred Hugh Lloyd and Terry Scott as two friends who lived together in south London. Although Jason had only played some minor parts in the series, Croft had been very impressed with the youngster and knew that he had the ability to play a man much older than his own age. After reading for the part David was told that it was his, only to be told later (about three hours later, in fact), that Clive Dunn was suddenly now available and could perform the role after all.
When Do Not Adjust Your Set ended in 1969 and David landed a small role playing a gardener in the ITV soap Crossroads. His next television job gave him his biggest break. He again played a gardener, but this time his character, Dithers, was one hundred years old! Humphrey Barclay, the man behind DNAYS, was producing a new series of comedies for Ronnie Barker called Hark at Barker, and was casting for an actor who could play this decrepit old gardener whilst being young enough to perform the numerous stunts that were going to be asked of him. Barker and Jason hit it off immediately. Josephine Tewson, the actress that played Bates, secretary to Barker’s Lord Rustless in the series, remembers what Barker had to say about David Jason in 1969. “I can remember Ronnie saying then ‘he’s going to give us work when we get old and crotchety.’ He could see the potential David had and how good he was.”
In 1973 Ronnie Barker made a series of seven one-off comedy shows and David was offered a part in one of them called Open All Hours in which he played Granville, the nephew of the miserly Yorkshire shopkeeper, Arkwright. The series was not an instant success when shown on BBC2 but on its repeat run on BBC1 it became a big hit. One of the highlights of the series was the two perfectly pitched performances of two top flight comedy actors whose rapport was in total synch not only with each other, but also material of the very highest quality.
Another of the one-offs was called Prisoner and Escort, which was also made into a series -re-named Porridge. David appeared in three episodes of Porridge playing an elderly prisoner called Blanco Webb. In 1974 David had got his first television-starring role in The Top Secret Life of Edgar Briggs and in 1976 (the year that the full series of Open All Hours was made) he starred as Shorty Mepstead in Lucky Feller. In 1978 he played Peter Barnes in A Sharp Intake of Breath.
In 1980, director Ray Butt was casting for a new sitcom about a South London “wide-boy”. The series was to be called Only Fools and Horses and most of the principal parts had been cast. However, the main character, that of Derek Trotter, had been offered to and turned down by a number of actors. Butt was sitting at home one evening watching the television when an episode of Open All Hours came on. Ray had actually directed some of these episodes, but until that moment he hadn’t even consider David for the part, but he then began to think back on the times when David and he had played pool at a hotel where they stayed after filming. Ray had a very strong East London accent and David used to mimic him. As Ray Butt put it himself, “The penny dropped”, and he sent David a copy of the script for the pilot episode “Big Brother”. However, there were two very important people to convince first that David would be right for the part. The first of these was series creator John Sullivan who had a hard time envisaging David as being able to put over the hard edge required to play Derek. The second was the BBC’s Head of Light Entertainment, Jimmy Gilbert. But for Gilbert the reason was quite different. Gilbert was worried about upsetting Ronnie Barker. Barker was such a major star at the BBC at that time that Gilbert feared offending Ronnie by offering his co-star a major role of his own. These fears were, of course, totally unfounded, as Jason and Barker have always had the utmost respect for each other. Barker has described Jason as one of Britain’s finest actors and comedians and recognises Only Fools and Horses as “…at worst excellent, at best brilliant.”
During the run of Only Fools, David also secured other TV roles including the part of a Cambridge porter, Skullion, in the TV adaptation of Tom Sharpe’s black comedy novel Porterhouse Blue which was made in 1987, and the role of Ted Simcock in 1989’s A Bit of a Do. The Darling Buds of May helped David to create another memorable TV character in 1991, that of Sid “Pop” Larkin, the head of the Larkin household in rural Kent during the 1950’s. Not dissimilar to Del Boy, Pop earned a bob or two wherever he could although he was seldom in financial difficulty and usually had an answer to every problem. Written (originally) by experienced TV writer Bob Larbey the series was adapted from H.E. Bates original (five) novels and perfectly captured the feel good factor running through the gentle stories. In the process the British public were given another catchphrase in Pop Larkin’s summing up of a satisfying situation, which was always “perfick”.
In 1992 David tackled possibly one of his most daring roles to date. With him firmly in the publics mind as a comedic character actor he took on the role of the deeply pessimistic and ageing policeman Detective Inspector William “Jack” Frost in the TV series A Touch of Frost. Based on R.D. Wingfield’s stories and set in fictional Denton, Jack is a scruffy looking detective in the Columbo mould, perceptive and thorough but with a grudge against authority. It could have failed -but it didn’t. Thanks to a perfectly pitched performance by it’s star A Touch of Frost was an instant hit with the viewing public and brought in an average audience of 16million viewers during its original five year run. In 1999 Frost again returned this time to replace Inspector Morse in the publics affections as the nations favourite detective. However, Jason was not the first choice to play the role. That distinction fell to Ronnie Barker.
Awarded an OBE in 1993 for his services to the entertainment industry, David’s narrative credits also include the voice of Mr Toad in Cosgrove Hall’s production of Wind in the Willows, and as the voice of cartoon characters Dangermouse, Count Duckula, and the animated version of Roald Dahl’s The BFG. His films include Under Milk Wood as Nogood Boyo (1973), he played The Mayor in Royal Flash (1975), The Odd Job Man in The Odd Job (1978), and appeared in Amongst Barbarians in 1990. In 1993 he took on the part of Billy Mac in The Bullion Boys and in 1998 he played the character of ex-MI6 agent Steven March in March in Windy City. He also pursues one of the passions of his life, which is deep sea diving, and made a documentary series David Jason in His Element in 1997. In 1999 he made David Jason with Killers and Koalas and David Jason in Search of Paradise – in which he went diving off the remote South Pacific Island of Chuuk where he discovered many of the 100 or more Second World War Japanese ships and submarines which rest at the bottom of the lagoon. At the end of 1999 David starred in the First World War I drama All The King’s Men playing Frank Beck, an agent at Sandringham, who turns royal servants, grooms and gardeners into a crack battalion who fight – and disappear – at Gallipoli in 1915.
Recognised by his peers and fans alike, David Jason has received many accolades including the Royal Television Society’s Award for Best Actor and Top Television Comedy Actor at the British Comedy Awards. In spite of this he has never courted publicity and prefers to keep his life away from the screen as private as possible, avoiding showbiz parties and chat shows. He does however acknowledge that his fame has made him, in his own words, “extremely privileged”.
In the very truest of showbusiness tradition, David Jason’s climb to “overnight” stardom has involved long years of toiling to hone his comedic and almost chameleon-like characterisational skills to a peak matched only by those of his friend and mentor, the great Ronnie Barker. Through a fortuitous combination of talent, dedication to his craft and immense personal warmth and charm, David Jason holds a continued special affection within the heart of the nation’s television viewers. His place among the “TV Legends” is not only assured, but also rightfully fitting and well deserved.