Book review: Only Fools and Stories by David Jason

Only Fools and Stories: From Del Boy to Granville, Pop Larkin to Frost by David Jason (Published by Century)

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In 1980, as he approached his fortieth birthday, David Jason could look back on an enjoyable comedy and acting career. But he had never hit the big time. And there had been plenty of missed opportunities.

For a few joyful hours in the late Sixties, for example, Jason had been briefly cast as Lance Corporal Jones in a new BBC sitcom about the wartime Home Guard called Dad’s Army. Jason, was only in his twenties then, but already had a good reputation for playing old men. Jason’s euphoria at getting the role was short-lived, however. The casting director’s first choice, middle-aged Clive Dunn got back in touch and indicated that, on second thoughts, he wanted the part which would make him a star, after all. Jason was out.

He could also have very easily been a Python, having co-starred with Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Jones in the 1967-1969 comedy sketch Do Not Adjust Your Set. But for whatever reason, Jason didn’t follow these three into the hugely successful Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

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He was, at least, by the end of the Seventies, an experienced and highly recognisable comedy face. He had played the geriatric convict Blanco in the hugely successful prison-based sitcom,  Porridge. Appearing with Ronnie Barker again, Jason had excelled as Granville, the put upon Yorkshire errand boy in Open All Hours. But though now regarded as a classic sitcom (indeed, Jason appears in its follow-up, Still Open All Hours to this day), the Roy Clarke series was very slow to attract a large audience.

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It took Only Fools and Horses to make Jason a star. John Sullivan’s sitcom began in 1981 and like Open All Hours was to be a slow burner, getting what, by 1980s standards were considered low ratings. But the role of wheeler dealing market trader Derek “Del Boy” Trotter (a performance Jason based on a stylishly dressed cockney building contractor he had encountered in the Sixties) was clearly the role he had been born to play. By the end of the decade, the series was one of the most popular in the land.

Although less of a full-blown autobiography than Jason’s 2013 book, My Life, this should be enjoyed by all Jason fans featuring countless anecdotes about his experiences on the show (notably a series of practical jokes carried out with his onscreen brother Nicholas Lyndhurst) as a well as stories about his other later works including A Touch of Frost, The Darling Buds of May and Porterhouse Blue.

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Book review: Dad’s Army The Story of a Classic Television Show by Graham McCann

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Few sitcoms have aged as well as Dad’s Army.

Whereas many of the comedy series of the seventies, now seem either inexcusably racist (Love Thy Neighbour) or just plain awful in their own right (On The Buses), forty years after its heyday, Dad’s Army looks better than ever. This is partly down to its period setting but not entirely. Laudatory though this 2002 history of the series is, author Graham McCann is absolutely right to praise the pitch perfect writing and casting of the series. And amazingly, despite running for nine years (1968-1977, much longer than the Second World War itself), Dad’s Army did not even run out of steam. Only Fawlty Towers and The Good Life have endured even half as well. And neither lasted as long as Dad’s Army.

It could have been so different. The series was originally to be called Fighting Tigers and co-creator Jimmy Perry originally conceived the series as a vehicle to get back into acting: he wrote the Private Walker spiv part eventually played by James Beck, specifically with himself in mind. He was hugely disappointed when the powers that be decided against casting him in the role. What’s more, future Doctor Who and Worzel Gummidge actor Jon Pertwee was seriously considered for the part of Captain Mainwaring while a young David Jason (already a dab hand at playing geriatrics) was offered Clive Dunn’s role of butcher cum Lance Corporal Jack Jones.

But the show was quick to enjoy success. Some actors were disarmingly similar to the characters they played, John Le Mesurier  consciously played the laidback Sgt Wilson essentially as himself while many thought, Arthur Lowe was too quick to deny any similarity between himself and the pompous bank manager George Mainwaring. The masterstroke here, of course, was to switch the two actors between the two more obvious ranks. The middle class Mainwaring is frequently fuming with class resentment towards his public school educated sergeant. Wilson, himself, meanwhile is totally at ease talking to serving maids as anyone else and seems largely untroubled by the potential whiff of scandal hanging over his relationship with Mrs. Pike.

Others bore less resemblance to their roles. Arnold Ridley, who played the genteel Godfrey wrote the successful play Ghost Train and had been wounded in both World Wars while John Laurie (Frazer) bore many similarities to his character, but had not lived in Scotland for fifty years. Clive Dunn and Ian Lavender had little in common with Jones or Pike, though Dunn, like most of the main cast had war experience.

Although strong to the end, the show lost something with the sudden premature death of actor James Beck in 1973 and wound its way to a natural conclusion a few years after that.

Graham McCann’s excellent book reproduces the famously eccentric radio interview Ian Lavender (who played mummy’s boy Private Pike) from 1987. Having established, not very tactfully, that nearly all of the principal cast had died in the ensuing decade, the interviewer then asks bizarrely: “will you be making any more?”

And here is the final irony. In the thirteen years since this book came out, inevitably still more of the remaining cast and crew have died, notably Clive Dunn, writer David Croft, Bill “Warden Hodges” Pertwee, Pamela “Mrs Fox” Cundell. Virtually only Ian Lavender and Frank Williams, who played the vicar are left. And yet a new version of the story is planned, in the form of a film version scheduled for release next year.

Extreme foolishness or a good idea? Only time will tell if magic can strike twice.

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Tom Sharpe: a tribute

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There are few authors who I can claim to have read every single book they have had published. Tom Sharpe, who has just died, aged eighty five, was one such author. Every one of his sixteen books is both funny and incredibly readable.

That is not to say they are low brow either. Although sex, contraceptives, misunderstandings and even famously, a sex doll, famously play a part, Sharpe’s novels are extremely well written and a world away from the low comedy of the Carry On films which were still being published when his novels first began appearing.

His heyday in fact occurred at that time of great low national self esteem, the mid-Seventies. Porterhouse Blue (1975) in which a reforming Tony Benn-style minister is transferred to the position of Master of an ancient and very traditionalist Cambridge college, is for me, his masterpiece. The efforts of the new Master (driven by his domineering wife) to change the rules to enable women to be admitted as undergraduates lead to a fierce Trollopian conservative campaign of resistance from the college notably Skullion, a porter.  The academic shenanigans predate Terry Pratchett’s imaginings about Unseen University and are worthy of comparison with the campus novels of Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge from the same period. Blott on the Landscape (1975) was similarly excellent while Wilt (1976) drew on Sharpe’s experiences as a college lecturer in an East Anglian polytechnic. Bored of his life teaching English Literature to apprentices and butchers, Sharpe’s hero Henry Wilt soon finds himself wrongly accused of murder after his wife goes missing when Wilt is tricked into being tied to a sex doll at a party. These last misfortunes thankfully never happened to Sharpe.

All three of these books were adapted for the screen in the late Eighties. Porterhouse Blue (starring Ian Richardson as Sir Godber Evans, David Jason as Skullion and John Sessions as the hapless student Zipser) and Blott on the Landscape starring David Suchet and George Cole both worked well on TV, adapted by Malcolm Bradbury. Wilt (1989) a film starring Griff Rhys Jones and Mel  Smith was entertaining in its own way but as a version of the novel, it was poor. Wilt would appear in four more Sharpe novels.

After a hugely successful thirteen years, Shape published nothing after the third Wilt novel Wilt On High (1984) until he produced a sequel to porterhouse Blue Grantchester Grind (1995). Although not a particularly memorable sequel, Sharpe’s later books are still enjoyable, although by this time increasingly less in keeping with the times – characters still, for example, use telephone boxes a surprising amount despite the advent of mobile phones.

But to say Shape’s books are of their time is a weak criticism. The same is true of the works of Dickens, Wodehouse and Waugh, indeed of every book ever written.

The Throwback, The Great Pursuit , Wilt. One hopes such books will endure and continue to be read. It is a shame Sharpe never wrote an autobiography. The details of his past would surely have made for a great book in itself. Sharpe’s mockery of the South African Apartheid regime, a theme of his first two British novels Riotous Assembly (1971) and Indecent Exposure (1973) saw him expelled in 1961, something he remained angry about for the rest of his life. As a child, his family also risked internment. His father who died in 1944 was a fascist sympathiser and a friend of William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw).

As it is, sixteen very funny books is a fine legacy from one of the greatest British comic writers of the 20th century.Image