Only fools and stories f.., p.1
Only Fools and Stories: From Del Boy to Granville, Pop Larkin to Frost, page 1
About the Book
About the Author
ABOUT THE BOOK
‘In my previous volume of memoirs, My Life, I told the story of my journey from north London electrician with his own van, to television actor with his own car. In this volume, I've largely dwelled on a bunch of other people whose life stories I think I know pretty well – the characters I’ve played during that journey.
The chances are you know some of these characters, too. Derek Edward Trotter, maybe. Or William Edward Frost. (Funny how those two shared a middle name. They didn’t share an awful lot else.) Or Sidney Larkin, perhaps. Or the lad Granville, who, it pains me to say, is not so much of a lad any longer – and possibly wasn’t much of a lad to begin with, if we’re being honest.
From their voices to their clothes, their walks to their mannerisms, I’ve written about the things that made these characters who they were, and how I helped bring them to life. I’ve relived my favourite moments, memories and medallions (or not, as might be the case) both on and off the set, and in both real and surreal life.
And finally, because I always find it endearing when people make the effort to share the wisdom and expertise that they have gleaned down the years, and because I would like this book to have, if nothing else, a small practical application, you will learn along the way how to fall sideways through the hole where a pub’s bar-hatch used to be. Apparently I’m quite renowned for that …’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sir David Jason was born in 1940 in north London. His acting career has been long and varied: from his theatre work in the West End to providing voices for Mr Toad from The Wind in the Willows, Danger Mouse and The BFG; and from Open All Hours and The Darling Buds of May to his starring roles as Detective Inspector Frost in A Touch of Frost and, of course, Derek ‘Del Boy’ Trotter in Only Fools and Horses.
He was awarded an OBE in 1993 and a knighthood in 2005, both for services to drama. He has won four BAFTAs and six National Television Awards. Jason is on our screens currently in Still Open All Hours.
For all the brilliant writers past and present who have created so many wonderful characters for me to portray
Your mission, should you choose to accept it
THE GIANT HERCULES banks heavily and then rights itself in the black night sky over Afghanistan. Inside the plane the nerves are biting deep. We are well into our descent now – dropping down below five thousand feet. This, we know from the briefing, is the zone of maximum vulnerability, the point where this massive flying troopship and its human cargo become one huge, low-slung, slow-moving target for the torpedo-touting rebel forces in the mountains.
I’m strapped tight in a cramped row of hard seats, with my back to the fuselage – just one of the hundreds of us, in our helmets and our flak jackets, with our kitbags wedged between our knees. The plane banks again and slowly twists, fumbling blindly for the runway in the blackness.
Seeking comfort, but not wishing to show my own terror, I glance at the face of the soldier beside me in the dim, green glow of the darkened interior. He stares unflinchingly ahead, his jaw set. What’s in his mind? Is he calculating his chances of being blown out of the sky? Is he longing as strongly as I am for the safety of home and the arms of loved ones? Conversation is impossible above the constant, gnawing thunder of the engines. But if I could make myself audible, I know the words I want to say to him – my unknown neighbour, twinned with me by fate and duty, my comrade on this mission into the fathomless desert night.
I would say, ‘This is a hell of a lot of trouble to be going to, just to present a “Pride of Britain” Award for ITV.’
Look, they asked me and, obviously, I said yes, didn’t I? This was back in 2010. ‘Would you present a Special Recognition Award to the British Army’s Counter IED Task Force?’ they said – somehow not mentioning where and how.
‘Of course!’ I replied, straight away. Honour the armed forces? Couldn’t be happier to do so. If you grew up, as I did, in the aftermath of a world war, playing on north London bomb sites, romping around in the holes where people’s houses used to be, respect for the military comes as naturally to you as breathing.
And even if you never played on a bomb site in your life, how could you not respect the work of the Counter IED Task Force? An IED is an improvised explosive device – which might be a landmine or a roadside bomb, something deviously placed in a trap by your enemies to cause carnage. It’s the job of the Counter IED Task Force to go out and sweep for these devices – isolate them and annihilate them before they can do any damage to troops and innocent civilians alike.
In other words, these soldiers head out every day and feel around on the ground for bombs in order to save lives. Talk about bravery.
So, an award for people who do this work, and who have been doing it in extraordinarily dangerous circumstances during the seemingly interminable conflict in Afghanistan? I’m right behind that. Frankly, it’s the least an actor like me, with no military experience, can do.
And let’s face it: it’s not really a hardship. I’ve been around a while – I know how these televised awards ceremonies go. They’re not my favourite thing in the world, as will become clear a little later in our story. They’re certainly not my favourite thing in the world when it’s me who’s up for an award. But this is different. This is doing the handing-over. Step out onstage, bit of a smile, bit of a wave, quick kiss for Carol Vorderman, say your piece, hand over the silverware, step back out of the way – a doddle.
My agent, Meg, says: ‘No, ITV want to do it as a pre-filmed thing, and insert it into the live show.’
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Well, that’s fine, too, obviously. Maybe better, actually. Where do I have to go?’
Picture me, if you will, pausing a moment to digest this tiny detail.
‘What, you mean the actual Afghanistan?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
‘The Afghanistan that’s in Afghanistan?’
Now, I hope you’ll understand me when I say: this put a slightly different coat of paint on things. Jumping onto the stage under the chandeliers at the Grosvenor Hotel, or, as may be, driving over to some suitable external location one afternoon for a spot of light filming: that was one thing. Flying into an actual war zone, on the other hand … well, that was definitely another thing. Another, very different, thing.
The problem was, there wasn’t exactly room for negotiation here, was there? Either I was in, or I was out. I could hardly say, ‘All right, I’ll hand over the award to those unutterably brave Counter IED Task Force people in honour of their selfless
Anyway, setting all that aside and reflecting on it for a moment, there were plenty of positives in this Afghanistan offer, weren’t there? Well, one or two positives. It would mean, for one thing, that I could tick Afghanistan off my list of ‘places visited’. Work, by this point, had taken me to many far-flung and exotic places, but never taken me there. Australia? Yes. Singapore? Yes again. The Pier Theatre at Bournemouth? Indeed. Afghanistan? No. And it wasn’t somewhere that had come up all that much when we were planning family holidays, either, because mostly we like to go to Florida.
So, purely from the point of view of new travel experiences, this trip to a dangerously violent desert state with a long history as a centre for irresolvable conflicts would have to go down as an opportunity. Be honest: how often, in the general run of things, as a civilian, do you get the chance to fly into a war zone? And I’m not counting Aylesbury in the rush hour here (although, don’t get me wrong, I know how rough that can get). Accordingly, I would certainly come back from this little adventure with a tale to tell. Assuming I came back.
In any case, we were only going to be there for one night. How bad, actually, could it be? It was only a … war zone.
So I pledged myself to the cause, and tried not to think too hard about it in the meantime, which proved quite difficult, as it happened. It proved especially difficult when, a week or so before setting off, I had to attend a briefing regarding the trip with the Ministry of Defence. There was me and the members of the production team that would also be flying out: the cameraman, the soundman and a couple of others. The talk, we were told, was to give us the key information we would need before departure on our journey. I suppose it was like the obligatory safety speech on an aeroplane, really. Except I don’t recall the cabin crew on Virgin Atlantic ever having very much to say about waterboarding.
The briefing started out cheerfully enough. Our man from the ministry stood in front of us with one of those big pads of white paper on an easel where you flip the pages up over the top. The first page, as I recall, was about the weather we could expect over there in Helmand Province: sunny and warm in the day, fairly cold at night. It sounded quite pleasant, actually. Then there was some stuff about food – how and when we’d be fed in the camp. That sounded OK, too. I’ve always had fairly simple tastes with regard to food.
However, from there onwards, each time the ministry man turned a page, the overall picture seemed to darken slightly. For instance, the page concerning the logistics of the journey was ostensibly harmless enough. We would be taking a Boeing 747 from RAF Benson in south Oxfordshire to a military base in Cyprus, where we would pause before heading down to Helmand Province, in the south of Afghanistan. Once there, we would transfer onto the Hercules troop carrier for the remainder of the flight into our destination at Camp Bastion, as it was then known. (It later became Camp Shorabak.) But here was where our man, with very little emotion in his voice, stressed the importance of flying in under the cover of darkness and mentioned the mild but definitely disconcerting possibility of ground-launched enemy torpedoes. Then he turned the page again and there was some more troubling stuff about the military and political situation in the region. Pretty soon after that, and with no particular change in his tone, he was talking about emergency first aid in the event of a wounding and instructing us on the making of a rudimentary tourniquet.
By this time, me and the members of the production team were shooting each other looks. Emergency first aid? A rudimentary tourniquet? I was thinking, ‘I bet Carol Vorderman isn’t going through any of this.’
But our friend at the easel had already moved on. Now we were into the section of his talk entitled ‘What to expect if captured’. I’m not making this up. Each of us was issued with a small piece of white paper which we were told to keep about our persons. Not much bigger than a till receipt, this little sheet explained in the tiniest grey print our rights as prisoners of war. These were helpfully repeated underneath in what I was told was Pashto, or Afghan Persian, for the benefit of any non-English speakers among your hostage-takers. Clearly, the traditional English tactic for getting understood while abroad (say it again, only louder) wasn’t automatically going to cut the mustard here.
‘Civilians must be treated humanely,’ it said on my little bit of paper. That was good news. I suppose it was also quite reassuring to know that your captors had an obligation to make ‘adequate provision of food and shelter’ for you – and that you could remind them of that obligation by waving this piece of paper at them, in the event that they forgot. However, that’s assuming you were in a position to be able to wave your piece of paper, or anything else for that matter. ‘There is a possibility that they will put a sack, or similar, over your head and force you to kneel,’ explained the man from the MoD.
This was no longer sounding like much of a holiday.
Too late now, of course. I had to sit there, swallow hard and compose my face into an expression of benign interest, for all the world as if getting lectured on the possibility of being taken prisoner and tortured behind enemy lines was just part and parcel of another Thursday morning as far as I was concerned. Anyway, what was I going to say? ‘Listen, I’ve done farce in the West End, love. I was in a touring production of Look, No Hans. I was in Crossroads when you were a mere slip of a lad, my friend. Nothing you can teach ME about war zones.’
Hardly. I just sat there and tried to encourage my lower lip to stop trembling.
After these words from the ministry man – and still pale and numb from the effect of them – we were issued with our kit for the trip. What can I tell you? It turns out that a bulletproof vest is actually quite heavy. Then there were the desert fatigues and a helmet which was far too big for me and which pushed down on my ears, folding the tops of them outwards at an unflattering ninety-degree angle. A pair of sand goggles completed the outfit. I tried everything on when I got home later and went to look at myself in the mirror. Did I resemble a dashing military hero, poised on the brink of great acts ahead of the bravest day in his life? No. I looked like Dopey from the Seven Dwarves starring in an unfinished remake of The Bridge on the River Kwai.
I was also given a fawn-coloured ID card in a protective plastic envelope – a handy, waterproof guide to my vital statistics.
Name: David Jason
Date of birth: 02/02/1940
Height: 5ft 6
Place of birth: Edmonton, London
Blood type: O
Good to have these things on the record, I guess.
Eventually, after a few more sleepless nights, the day of the mission dawned. Me, my kitbag and my oversized helmet solemnly reported to RAF Benson at the appointed hour, and boarded the promised Boeing 747. Which turned out to be not too bad, actually – maybe slightly more basic in its fittings than a commercial plane, but otherwise not that different. I almost began to relax at that point.
It was when we were on the ground in Helmand Province and transferring to the Hercules that reality began to bite again. Other troops were joining us at this point, so the numbers had grown massively. You walk onto a Hercules through a giant door at the back, so we all lined up across the tarmac in our uniforms. Queuing for that plane in that horde of soldiers was the point where I really and properly thought: what the hell am I getting myself into here?
Onto the plane we trudged. These were clearly not the circumstances in which to start insisting on an aisle seat. I parked up in the first place that was available and, on a nervous reflex, was about to ask the soldier next to me, ‘Do you come here often?’ But that was when the engines started up, immediately deafening everyone. We then rattled and juddered out onto the runway. What a piece of kit that Hercules plane is. It’s like a town with wings. It doesn’t so much soar into the skies as stagger into the air, breathing heavily amid the noise of a million vibrating rivets.
Also, periodically you would hear a succession of sizzles: schf, schf, schf. ‘What’s that?’ I eventually asked. ‘Oh, that’s Americans launching missiles,’ I was told. ‘They’re trying to take a few out in the mountains.’ So much for mundane. Not even in Aylesbury at rush hour is the sizzle of missiles a routine part of the soundtrack.
That said, on the subject of Buckinghamshire, a soldier came up to me in Camp Bastion at one point while I was looking around and said, ‘You don’t recognise me, do you?’ And it was true, the uniform and the context did throw me for a moment – but I did recognise him, in fact. He was the bloke who used to live in a house at the end of my lane. Honestly, you travel all the way to Afghanistan and run into your old neighbour. Small world.
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