David Jason is lost on the edge of the Pacific. Not, admittedly, in a literal sense – for he is sitting in an armchair in the Covent Garden Hotel, stirring a cup of tea. But his thoughts have been distant for a minute or so now – away on the west coast of the US, where they are revelling in images of San Francisco and its antique tram system. Even the soft clink of the spoon on his saucer – that most English of sounds – does not draw him home.
“I tell you, they almost had to drag me screaming out of the control house,” he muses. “Because I was so fascinated with how they do it. There’s this giant hawser [cable] that goes around San Francisco, underground, and pulls the trams along. You’re talking 1870s technology, but it’s still running. It’s a piece of history really. And to get the opportunity to find out how it works…”
He sets his crockery back on the table, and returns to London.
The oily guts of a 19th-century transport system in a Californian city might, perhaps, seem a curious topic to have snared the attentions of a British icon who turned 79 last month; a strange sideline for a star who is so familiar to television viewers in the UK that he could be a favourite uncle perched next to them on the sofa as they watch his latest programme. But then, before the roles that made him a household name – before Open All Hours, Only Fools and Horses, The Darling Buds of May and A Touch of Frost; before Granville, Del Boy and Pop Larkin – there was an early slog to make it as an actor, and a trade-to-fall-back-on training as a car mechanic, which has remained with him half a century later.
“That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed it all so much,” he smiles. “I have a fair knowledge of how a car works, how its braking system operates. And I know how aircraft fly, how helicopters take off. I understand the mechanics of that San Francisco tram. So I was always going to love this journey. In a way, I was halfway there before I’d even left.”
The trip to which he is referring took place in September and October, and is about to be shown in five episodes on UKTV Gold as David Jason: Planes, Trains and Automobiles. The series covers an odyssey that saw him travel almost the length of the west coast of America – 1,200 miles (1,930km) from Seattle in Washington, into Oregon, and through California to the stardust streets of Los Angeles.
But while southbound in basic direction, this was a tour that took pleasure in veering off course, in search of modes of transport that shaped the history and growth of the region – from horse-drawn wagons and steam-powered logging trains to Hollywood stunt cars and traffic-report helicopters. It was a topic that sang to Jason’s soul. “It was a project that appealed immediately,” he nods.
Yet if some of these clanks and clangs of moving parts were familiar to the actor, their context was not. “This was the first time I’d filmed anything in America, really,” he explains. “I know Florida well, because my family have been going to the Gulf Coast for years. But I didn’t know the other side of the country at all. And what struck me instantly was the beauty of the scenery – all those mountains and forests, those broad deserts. I’ve always associated America with big cities – with Chicago and New York, and all that brash metropolitan stuff. I maybe hadn’t appreciated that the countryside is just stunning.”
While the Pacific cities did offer their stories – a day at the Boeing headquarters and the adjacent Museum of Flight, near Seattle; a helicopter flight over Hollywood – it was the wilder side of the region that chimed most closely. Another foray by helicopter saw all urban life left behind – swapped for an elevated glimpse of Washington’s snoozing fire-kraken. “We flew over Mount St Helens,” Jason continues. “As we were circling it, I could see half a dozen people on the rim. So I asked the pilot, and he said, ‘yes, you can take a trail right to the top’. And I was thinking, ‘blimey, who wants to walk up an active volcano?’. When I looked down again, I could see this swirl of smoke coming out. It was incredibly dramatic – but I thought, ‘well, I wouldn’t want to live down the road from it’.”
As we talk, it becomes clear that Jason is rarely happier than when in the air. Another segment of the trip carried him back to the early Sixties, and his life before TV stardom – when his dreams of soaring upward were not confined to a career on the stage and screen.
“I’ve always loved to fly, but I couldn’t afford it when I started out,” he says. “So I found a cheaper alternative – and that was gliding. I was in a play in the West End and on Sunday, which was my day off, I used to take my girlfriend for a drive. We would sit and watch the gliders at Dunstable Downs [in Bedfordshire]. I kept lusting after them, going ‘it must be wonderful’. She must have been sick of hearing about it because, one day, she said ‘well why don’t you go and learn?’. So I did, and got my pilot’s licence to fly gliders.”
His American journey gave him the opportunity to fly something with a little more oomph. A vintage Douglas DC-3 – that propeller-driven pioneer of Thirties and Forties aviation – via the Historic Flight Foundation, north of Seattle.
“I’ve flown powered aircraft before, alongside qualified people,” he says. “So when we were up in the DC-3 and the pilot asked if I wanted to take control, I didn’t need asking twice. Once he was sure that I knew what I was doing – and it was a dual-control plane, so I wasn’t too much of a risk – he asked me to do a left turn, do a right, take her down a bit, pull her up. You have to build your confidence with an aircraft – find out what she does and doesn’t do. But she flew like any other plane – except that I had to be quite heavy on the controls. She needed a bit of welly.” He pauses, briefly adrift again with his memories. “Lovely, lovely. Things like that – you maybe get to do them once a lifetime.”
He was rather more tethered to earth in learning to be a stunt driver in the rarefied atmosphere of Los Angeles – though even here, his old knack with a car served him well.
“Yes, that was interesting,” he grins. “If you have an understanding of how cars work, it’s relatively easy to learn to do a 180-degree turn. My instructor said to me: ‘I want you to race down that way, and when you see a police car coming from the left, I want you to do a 180, put the hammer down, and get away before he catches you.’ Fair enough, why not? I gave it a go. And because I know how the brakes work, I picked it up quite quickly. You spin the car around, but you put your foot on the throttle before it stops. And if you do it right, you get the wheels to skid, and a big burst of tyre smoke. Wonderful.” He laughs, retrieves his teacup from the table. “That’s all part of the drama of making films, I guess.”
And yet, for all the glamour of Hollywood, it was not the land of movies – but a more innocent realm – that left him most enchanted. Coming south, Jason had halted at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center – a shard of the Old West that salutes the wanderers who pushed further and further across the land mass in the mid-19th century.
“The museum is full of memorabilia,” he recalls. “Bits and pieces once owned by the gold prospectors and travellers who came along the Oregon Trail [the 2,170-mile/3,490km wagon route between Illinois and the West, established by traders between 1811 and 1840]. I was staring at the wagons they used, and I had to remember that proper roads did not exist back then. So the sheer effort involved… these people with a couple of horses or donkeys, trying to start a new life. And the children, if they were old enough, walking alongside. That’s something I hadn’t thought about – all these teenagers, doing the journey on foot in order to save the horses, following their parents on a hope and a prayer. It pulled me up short. That whole optimistic idea that ‘this time next year we’re going to be millionaires’.”
If he is aware that he has let Del Boy into the room – that he has just paraphrased one of his sayings – he does not show it. He is away again in the US – happily lost on the road.
David Jason: Planes, Trains and Automobiles will begin on UKTV Gold on March 28 at 9pm