JASON, DAVID

British Actor

David Jason's career can be viewed in many respects as that of the archetypal modern television actor in Britain. Although he made forays into the theatre in the 1970s and 1980s, and made occasional appearances on film, these fade into relative insignificance when compared to the steady stream of eye-catching and increasingly high-profile roles he has created for television. As a result, his acting persona is circumscribed by the televisual medium. Nevertheless, such exposure, while making him a British "household name", has not made him into a celebrity, for Jason has largely eschewed the paraphernalia of television fame.

Jason's histrionic instincts are basically comic, and the majority of his roles have been in the situation comedy format. His earliest television role of any substance was an elderly professor doing battle against the evil Mrs. Black and her gadgets in the surreal Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967), a comedy show whose ideas and personnel later fed into Monty Python's Flying Circus. But Jason first achieved note through his association with comic actor-writer Ronnie Barker, by supporting performances in the prison comedy Porridge and corner-shop comedy Open All Hours, both starring Barker. In the former, Jason played the dour wife-murderer Blanco; in the latter, and to great effect, he acted the boyish downtrodden delivery-man and assistant to Barker's parsimonious storekeeper. Open All Hours, cast Jason as a kind of embryonic hero-in-waiting, constantly dreaming of ways of escaping the provincial narrowness and boredom of his north-country life. The role provided the actor with an opportunity to develop his acting trademark--a scrupulous and detailed portrayal of versions of protean ordinariness, sometimes straining against a desire to be something else.

A later series, The Top Secret Life of Edgar Briggs, toyed with this sense of ordinariness by having Jason as a Secret Service agent ineptly trying to combine his covert profession with suburban home life. But Jason's greatest success to date has been with several series of the comedy Only Fools and Horses, in which he played Derek Trotter, the small-time, tax-evading "entrepreneur" salesman, living and working in the working-class council estates and street markets of inner-city London. Deftly written by John Sullivan--the series is regarded by some as a model for this kind of sitcom writing--the series cast Jason in a domestic situation in which he is quasi-head of an all-male family, responsible for both his younger brother and an elderly uncle. In the role Jason cleverly trod a path between pathos and the quick-wittedness necessary for someone operating on the borderlines of legality. While the character was, in many respects, a parody of the Thatcherite working-class self motivator, complete with many of the tacky and vulgar accouterments and aspirations of the (not-quite-yet) nouveau-riche. At the local pub, while others order pints of beer Del seeks to distinguish himself from his milieu by drinking elaborate and luridly coloured cocktails. The undertone, though, is salt-of-the-earth humanity and selflessness, called out in his paternal role to his younger brother, who eventually leaves the communal flat to pursue a life of marriage and a proper career. Jason's character is hemmed in by both the essential poverty of his situation but also by a deep-rooted sense of responsibility: though the plots of the individual episodes invariably revolve around one or either of Del's minor get-rich-quick or get-something-for-nothing schemes, the failure of these ventures often owes much to the character's inability to be sufficiently ruthless. Jason's skill was to interweave the opposing forces of selflessness and selfishness, working-class background and pseudo-middle-class tastes, brotherly condescension and "paternal" devotion into a successful balance. The character Del, exuding a deeper humanity as expressed in his ability to imbue the everyday with a well-judged emotional resonance and believability, ultimately embodied a rejection of the implications of an aggressive materialism.

Since Only Fools and Horses Jason has made moves away from overtly comic vehicles, pursuing variations on this rootedness in the everyday. In the adaptation of the Frederick Raphael satire on Cambridge University life, Porterhouse Blue, he played the sternly traditional porter Scullion, the acutely status-conscious servant of the college, dismayed by the liberalising tendencies of the new master, and making determined efforts to put the clock back. In The Darling Buds of May, his other great ratings success, he took the role of Pa ("Pop") Larkin, in these adaptations of the rural short stories of H.E. Bates. Such roles allowed him to develop the range and craftsmanship of his character performances.

Jason's most recent television venture has taken him out of comedy altogether into the crime genre, as the eponymous Inspector Frost in A Touch of Frost. In this series, Jason's Frost is a disgruntled, middle-aged, loner detective, whose fractious, down-to-earth nature has not entirely endeared him to his superiors and therefore--we infer--has hindered his career prospects. In such respects the series is in the mould of the immensely successful adaptations of Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse novels. But whereas Morse's cantankerousness, as played by John Thaw, was epitomised by a certain snobbishness--his love of classical music, his vintage car, his instinctive aloofness--in the Oxford environment of Dreaming Spires, Frost's gradually unfolding history reveals a lower middle-class resentfulness of those with money, fortune, and easily gained happiness. His own life--as we find out gradually--rendered him increasingly a victim of misfortune (his wife has died, his house has burned down). While Morse in effect creates a world of evil-doing amid soft-toned college greens, country pubs, and semi-rural Englishness, the Frost series is nearer to the sub-genre of the detective soaps, its principal character a distinctly unglamorous malcontent, whose ideas and experience are entirely provincial and suburban. This is perhaps Jason's greatest acting challenge yet, for it largely denies him the "punctuation" of comic acting, the rhythm of regular comic pay-offs in any length of dialogue or action, instead demanding a slow building, a gradual revelation of character, as each long episode augments the previous. The first several episodes suggested an increasing sureness of touch in this respect by Jason.

-Mark Hawkins-Dady

 


David Jason (right) with Nicholas Lyndhurst
Photo courtesy of the British Film Institute

DAVID JASON. Born David White in Edmonton, London, England, 2 February 1940. Attended schools in London. Gained early stage experience as an amateur while working as an electrician before entering repertory theater; entered television through Crossroads and children's comedy programme Do Not Adjust Your Set, 1967; popular television comedy star. Officer of the Order of the British Empire. 1993. Recipient: BBC Television Personality of the Year, 1984; British Academy of Film and Television Arts Best Actor Award, 1988. Address: Richard Stone Partnership, 25 Whitehall, London SW1A 2BS, England.

TELEVISION SERIES

1967                Crossroads
1967                Do Not Adjust Your Set
1968                Two Ds and a Dog
1969-70           Hark at Barker
1969-70           His Lordship Entertains
1969-70           Six Dates with Barker
1969-70           Doctor in the House
1971                Doctor at Large
1973-74           The Top Secret Life of Edgar Briggs
1974                Doctor at Sea
1974                Mr Stabbs
1974-77           Porridge
1975                Lucky Feller
1976, 1981-82, Open All Hours
    1985
1978-81           A Sharp Intake of Breath
1981-91           Only Fools and Horses
1986               Porterhouse Blue
1988               Jackanory
1988-89           A Bit of A Do
1989               Single Voices: The Chemist
1989               Amongst Barbarians
1990-93          The Darling Buds of May
1992, 1994     A Touch of Frost

FILMS

Under Milk Wood, 1970; White Cargo, 1974; Royal Flash, 1974; The Mayor of Strackentz, 1975; Doctor at Sea, 1976; The Odd Job, 1978; Only Fools and Horses, 1978; The Water Babies, 1979; Wind in the Willows (voice only), 1980; The B.F.G. (voice only).

RADIO

Week Ending; Jason Explanation.

STAGE (selection)

South Sea Bubble; Peter Pan; Under Milk Wood, 1971; The Rivals, 1972; No Sex Please... We're British!, 1972; Darling Mr London, 1975; Charley's Aunt, 1975; The Norman Conquests, 1976; The Relapse, 1978;l Cinderella, 1979; The Unvarnished Truth, 1983; Look No Hans!, 1985.