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: Easily Distracted by Steve Coogan

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Easily Distracted by Steve Coogan

Published by: Century

Let’s be clear: Steve Coogan is not Alan Partridge.

There are similarities, obviously. They both look almost the same. Both are totally car-obsessed.  Both have a love for James Bond. In one episode of I’m Alan Partridge…, Partridge memorably recreates the entire opening sequence of The Spy Who Loves Me. Coogan, meanwhile, admits to having a picture of Roger Moore in a safari suit on his bedroom wall as a child. As an adult, he was overjoyed to be mentioned briefly in Roger Moore’s own autobiography.

But the resemblance soon ends. Partridge seems to be always around ten years older than Coogan himself. Coogan has just turned fifty, Partridge must thus be now about sixty, although the age gap seemed to narrow in Alpha Papa. Coogan is a left winger with an understandable and fully justified hatred of our tabloid press. Partridge is much less politically sophisticated, a Daily Mail reader and “homosceptic” who supports the death penalty. Coogan has been much more successful with women than Alan, who makes largely inept romantic overtures towards beauty show contestants, much younger radio station employees and whose idea of a hot date is going to a “cracking owl sanctuary”. Oddly, Coogan attributes his success in this regard, which predates his fame to his essential geekiness: “they liked the fact that I wasn’t an alpha male. I was a bit square. A bit nerdish.” It has often ended in disaster, however.

There is far more to Steve Coogan than Alan Partridge, however, and despite an occasional failure (like his 24 Hour Party People character, his real life friend Tony Wilson) to wear his learning lightly and avoid pretension (“I’ve learned late in life to understand the true beauty of thoughts and reflections”), this is an enjoyable well written book. The first section deals with various highs and lows: his recent triumph with Philomena, his war with the evil forces of News International, the filming of Alpha Papa and an early nadir at the 1990 Edinburgh Festival during which he “spent far too much time imagining what it would be like to be Sean Hughes” then seemingly bound for superstardom, hard as it is t believe now. The second section is more chronological, describing his generally happy Irish Catholic northern upbringing. His brother later had a top twenty hit with the Mock Turtles’ “Can You Dig It?”

The third segment deals with Coogan’s rise to fame through college, Spitting Image and radio and TV up to the mid-nineties. There is perhaps not enough about Coogan’s actual career since he achieved fame: Around The World In Eighty Days isn’t mentioned, perhaps understandably as it was a big flop, nor is Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible. But successes like Cruise of the Gods and Coogan’s Run are barely mentioned either. Coogan will also doubtless surprise many by admitting to liking Saxondale more than Alan Partridge.

Comedy is a vicious business but while he admits to rightly loathing Bernard Manning who he has met, On The Buses and to not personally being a fan of Michael McIntyre (“not my cup of tea”), he is remarkably generous about almost everyone he has worked with, usually only encountering tension with them if they are unable to work with him again for some reason. He admits to finding Chris Morris “odd” and was “hurt” when John Thomson, by then a big star thanks to The Fast Show and Cold Feet understandably no longer wanted to be Paul Calf’s sidekick “Fat Bob” anymore. Coogan also once almost came to blows with early collaborator Patrick Marber (a regular on Alan Partridge’s sofa, who in one guise was accidentally shot dead on TV by Alan on the last episode of Knowing Me, Knowing You…”) and the two seem to have drifted apart, despite reconciling afterwards. Marber is now better known as a writer and screenwriter but Coogan is still clearly immensely grateful to him. “God bless Patrick Marber,” are words unlikely to crop up in Lee and Herring’s memoirs. They appear here.

In A Cock and Bull Story (and later The Trip) Steve Coogan’s character is continuously annoyed when Rob Brydon repeatedly adopts an Alan Partridge voice to impersonate Coogan. In truth, he seems far more at ease with his inner demons than tabloid mythology suggests. Let us hope so. He is a national treasure.

And the book? Lovely stuff.

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