David Jason moves behind the camera
- 3 February 2012
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
Sir David Jason has gone from actor to director for his latest project, taking the helm on the pilot of a new sitcom about a firm of undertakers.
The Only Fools and Horses and Open All Hours star says traditional family humour has been missing from TV screens - but admits his latest show The Royal Bodyguard missed the target.
In a graveyard near Huddersfield, strange things are happening.
Four people in undertakers' top hats and tails are hiding with a coffin behind a tomb after arriving at a church - the wrong church as it turns out - and gatecrashing a wedding.
They hurry back to their hearse. In the window, the floral tribute spelling the name of the deceased, Eddie, has been arranged incorrectly. It says "E died".
Among the onlookers is Sir David Jason, one of Britain's best-loved actors, studying monitors and chivvying the undertakers.
This is a film set for Pearly Gates, a sitcom that Sir David hopes will become a full series for BBC One.
Sir David may have attained national treasure status thanks to roles in Only Fools and Horses, Open All Hours, The Darling Buds Of May and A Touch Of Frost, but this time he is behind the camera.
Pearly Gates has been written by Ben Sweet, with whom Sir David made a short film last year.
"He suggested would I like to play the leading role? And I said 'no' because I've been doing quite a lot," says Sir David.
"But it's a long time since I did some directing and I've been in the business a long time and I've got quite a lot of knowledge. So I said: 'If you get it commissioned, I would like to direct it because I think I've got something to offer.'"
The show is "gentle family stuff", he explains, a return to the "old-fashioned" comedies of the 1970s and '80s. He points out a similarity with Last of the Summer Wine, which was filmed 10 miles down the road in Holmfirth before being cancelled two years ago.
"I do think there is more of a space for this old-fashioned type of comedy," Sir David says from behind his desk in the production office.
"There is enough out there that is what they call edgy and quite hard-hitting and modern and fashionable. There's nothing wrong with that. It's fine. But you can't have a diet of just potatoes. You've got to have meat and two veg.
"And so there is room for this style, mainly for families. The young studs who go out headbanging at the weekend, they want a different form of humour I'm sure.
"But I think we haven't been catering enough for families in general. And I think the BBC have taken that on board and are trying to redress the balance."
The elephant in the room at this point is the fact that Sir David has made another recent attempt at a traditional, broad-appeal sitcom with The Royal Bodyguard.
His comic performance as the Queen's incompetent minder was the best thing about the show. But a blunt script full of forced farce, along with the far-fetched notion of a 71-year-old action man, resulted in a battering from critics and a sharp slump in the ratings after the first episode.
"Comedy is the hardest form of entertainment and everybody who's involved in it gets criticised," he says when the subject is broached.
"You can't get it right all the time. We tried, we had a good go, we enjoyed doing it and, yeah, perhaps I think we didn't quite bring it off and it came in for quite a lot of harsh criticism.
"But there you are - if you don't put your head above the parapet you won't get it shot off. You've got to do that occasionally."
He argues that TV shows are not given the time to develop and improve in the way they were in the past.
"In the old days you would get a second or third chance at doing a sitcom, but the pressure is on so much to be a success straight away that they won't allow you to have another go and learn from your mistakes.
"If you go back and look at your history, you'll find Fools and Horses and Dad's Army, I believe, got the worst viewing figures of any television at the time on their first outing. I certainly know Fools and Horses was pretty low.
"We were given confidence when they said, 'you can get this right so have another go'. We did and we all learnt. It wasn't until series three that we started to rise above zero and so it took off.
"But we were fortunate because in those days they would care for a project and give you another chance and nurture it a bit. But I'm afraid in this day and age you've got to have an instant success or they give you the elbow."
And with a thump of the hand on the Pearly Gates script sitting on his desk, he concludes: "So we're hoping that we're going to give you an instant success with this."
The pilot for Pearly Gates, which stars The Fast Show's Mark Williams and is being made at Sweet's North Light Film Studios, will be screened for BBC executives later this month before a decision is made on whether to commission a full series.
Sir David names BBC One's Outnumbered and the US show Everybody Loves Raymond, which is screened in the UK by Channel 4 and Comedy Central, as his favourite current sitcoms.
With a US remake of Only Fools and Horses in the pipeline, he reveals that he has been negotiating to take Everybody Loves Raymond in the other direction.
"I've always thought it needs a wider audience," he says. "I could never understand why they didn't put it out at prime time because it's so good. And so I said: 'Why don't we do an English version?'
"So watch this space. It could happen."