The Parts They Didn't Play

by snapperscribblings

Sir David Jason is one of our foremost British television actors, but do you know how close he once came to a part in a long running classic comedy series?

Did you know that the first choice for the lead role in Who film 'Quadrophenia' was John Lydon? Or that Sir David Jason was only the third choice to play Del Boy Trotter in 'Only Fools and Horses'? In a regular series of articles called 'The Parts They Didn't Play', I will be looking at the parts the stars were due to play, but didn't, and the reasons they didn't. My first article looks at the early career of Sir David Jason.

Sir David Jason

Snapper's Scribblings

It is a little known fact that British comedy actor Sir David Jason auditioned for the part of Corporal Jones in 'Dad’s Army', was offered it, and then had the offer withdrawn – all in the space of a day!

At the time, 1968, he was a young up-and-coming actor with stage experience who was just starting to break out into TV. His agent at the time, Ann Callender, was married to 'Dad’s Army' co-writer David Croft (who wrote the show in collaboration with Jimmy Perry) and he had cast Jason in one or two stage shows he was producing.

Sir David attended an interview and undertook a reading for the part. Having attended at 10am, by 12.30pm he was told by his agent that he had the part. He got the job because the first choice, Clive Dunn, was working with Spike Milligan and unavailable.

But meanwhile BBC chief Bill Cotton had told Dunn over lunch that they were not making any more of the Spike Milligan shows, but at least he had the 'Dad’s Army' role. David Croft then had to withdraw the offer. Sir David was told by his agent at 3pm the same day.

But in spite of all the possibilities of going into what became such a classic comedy show, Sir David is philosophical about missing out on the 'Dad’s Army' part. He told his biographers Stafford Hildred and Tim Ewbank: “If I had gone into 'Dad’s Army', then the whole of the rest of my career would have been different. I would probably never have done 'Open All Hours' or 'Only Fools and

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Corporal Jones - Dad's Army

Sir David Jason

The Man Himself in Print
David Jason: My Life

The long-awaited autobiography of one of Britain’s best-loved actors Born the son of a Billingsgate market porter at the height of World War II, David Jason spent his early life...

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A Career of Old Men Roles

Sir David Jason

One of the things that make it such a shame he missed out on the part, is that Sir David Jason went on to forge a reputation for being good at old men roles. Not that Clive Dunn wasn’t good at playing old men too – he was also playing a character much older than his real age, not to mention the fact that he was so brilliant in the role of Jones.

But in the 1970s Sir David was starting to look like he was going to make a career out of it.
He played elderly gardener Dithers opposite his old friend, the late Two Ronnies star Ronnie Barker as Lord Rustless in 1969, 1970 and 1979; he was a regular guest in the popular 1970s Doctors series ('Doctor At Large', 'Doctor In The House', 'Doctor at Sea' etc) as an elderly patient who creates havoc in the offices of doctors played by stars such as Robin Nedwell and Richard O’Sullivan; and of course he played old lag Blanco in three episodes of prison comedy 'Porridge', again opposite Barker as wily prisoner Fletcher.

In fact I bet writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais are kicking themselves for not bringing Sir David back for follow-up 'Going Straight'. This one featured Nicholas Lyndhurst as Fletcher’s son, five years or more before their wonderful partnership in Only Fools and Horses. What a dream team that would have made – Sir David Jason, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale (late father of Hollywood star Kate Beckinsale and British television actress Sam Beckinsale).

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Jason on Barker

Do Not Adjust Your Set

Sir David Jason

But as if once wasn’t enough, Sir David also missed out on another big opportunity the following year. In 1967 he joined four other newcomers for the children’s comedy show 'Do Not Adjust Your Set', an anarchic sketch show that was one of several that sowed the seeds for the forthcoming 'Monty Python’s Flying Circus' (another was 'The Frost Report', featuring future Pythons John Cleese and Graham Chapman plus Ronnies Barker and Corbett).

Besides Sir David and Denise Coffey the others were Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Jones, who all went on to form the Python team with Cleese and Chapman. The second series featured an American animator, Terry Gilliam, who also joined Python to provide those surreal cartoons. He later directed a series of successful films, including one of the Python films as well as other classics such as 'Brazil', 'Twelve Monkeys' and 'The Fisher King'.

'Do Not Adjust Your Set' was a forerunner to much of the comedy that was starting to appear in the late 60s and early 70s, not just Monty Python but other shows such as 'The Two Ronnies'.

In one sketch, Palin plays a shopkeeper while Sir David plays his customer. When he reels off a whole list of groceries including bacon, eggs and bread he is rewarded with a tin of boot polish, and no amount of explaining will convince the shopkeeper that he has given him the wrong item.

The two hander involving a culture clash between a shopkeeper and his customer was a mainstay of 'The Two Ronnies' for many years, with the classic 'Four Candles' sketch being the most famous.

But the concept of an ordinary member of the public coming up against a very difficult individual who lives in a world of altered realities is also a regular Two Ronnies theme. A memorable example of this is when Ronnie Corbett claims to have bought a racing pigeon off a man in a pub and then produces a duck. Barker tries to convince him, without success, that he’s been conned into buying a duck, with the penny failing to drop even when Corbett admits that the duck’s name is Donald!

Another brilliant example is when Corbett wants to buy an ice cream from Barker’s stall and asks for flavours such as cheese and onion, smoky bacon and ready salted. Just as Palin’s shopkeeper can live in a parallel world where a tin of boot polish constitutes bacon and eggs, Corbett’s pigeon fancier can live in a world where a duck is a racing pigeon and it is perfectly normal to have smoky bacon flavoured ice cream!

As well as team sketches, 'Do Not Adjust Your Set' featured a weekly serial (another idea resurrected by 'The Two Ronnies') starring Sir David Jason as superhero (or zero) Captain Fantastic.

The show ended because the actors were frustrated by restrictions caused by it being a children’s show. They all wanted to do more adult material and began discussing a late night version. But the powers that be at Rediffusion turned the idea down. The next thing Sir David knew, Palin, Jones, Idle and Gilliam had declined to sign a new contract and were forming Python with Cleese and Chapman, effectively cutting him and Denise Coffey adrift.

The final episode of 'Do Not Adjust Your Set' was broadcast on May 14, 1969, and the first episode of 'Monty Python’s Flying Circus' was broadcast on October 5, 1969. Ouch! as it said on the television set in one of the promo photos Sir David and the others posed in for the show. Not that it had any long term effect on his friendship with them. He is on record as saying he liked both Palin and Jones, and in fact a few years ago when Sir David was given an award for his TV work it was Palin who presented it to him.

In his published diaries, Palin recalls being very embarrassed to be doing a dog food commercial in the 70s. For a comic actor with his background it was regarded as selling out to be doing TV ads, not to mention the suggestion that his career must be on the slide, so he was hoping not to be seen by anybody he knew. So who should come walking down the road but his old mate from 'Do Not Adjust Your Set' days, Sir David Jason! Followed a few minutes later by John Cleese! Palin then spent the rest of the filming trying not to laugh while Sir David and Cleese fooled around in a doorway opposite!

In his autobiography, Sir David also recalls a chance meeting with Eric Idle in a restaurant. The ensuing conversation was very cordial, with each asking the other how they were and what they were up to, until Idle, by this time working in Hollywood, asked him if he was ‘still f*****g around on television’. The peels of laughter from Idle weren’t returned by the stony-faced Sir David, probably because breaking into film was one of his few unfulfilled ambitions (his two attempts were dispiriting flops – he later described 'White Cargo' [1973] as ‘The kiss of death’ while in 'The Odd-Job Man' [1976], he played opposite Graham Chapman after Who drummer Keith Moon was forced to pull out, resuming the role he originally played on television opposite Ronnie Barker).

Of course, Sir David later proved that ‘f*****g around on television’ could be very profitable indeed! Nowadays he doesn’t need the money or the fame, of course, but back then it was a different matter.

He later told Hildred and Ewbank: “Yes, I did feel disappointed. I certainly was not doing so many things at that time that I couldn’t have been a part of that. But Denise and I were more actors coming from an acting background. And the other guys were all from an academic world of Cambridge and the Footlights.”

Written by Robert Owen

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Do Not Adjust Your Set

Photos by Robbow


Sir David Jason
Sir David Jason: A Life of Laughter

David Jason is Britain's best-loved star. From his wonderful characterization of Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses to Detective Jack Frost and Mr. Micawber, he lights up the tele...

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David Jason Story

An authorized biography of David Jason, one of Britain's best-loved televisions stars.

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David Jason: The Biography

David Jason has created many of television's best-loved characters. Hildred and Ewbank reveal the man behind the characters, a man whose real-life could not be more different to...

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Sir David Jason: A Life of Laughter

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Arise Sir David Jason by Hildred, Stafford; Ewbank, Tim published by Blake Pub Hardcover

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Updated: 04/02/2016, snapperscribblings
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