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Sir David Jason
A Life of Laughter
By Stafford Hildred, Tim Ewbank
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2012 Stafford Hildred Tim Ewbank
All rights reserved.
The tidy, terraced houses in Lodge Lane, Finchley, were built more than 200 years ago. They were first built as farm cottages for workers on the agricultural estates that swept right down into the edges of north London which have long since been swallowed up by suburbia. On 2 February 1940, as the Second World War raged bitterly across Europe, one of the coldest winters in years had encouraged most residents to stoke up the fires and stay indoors. But Billingsgate fish porter Arthur White and his sprightly little Welsh wife Olwen, who lived at 26 Lodge Lane, were otherwise occupied at the nearby North Middlesex Hospital bringing twin baby boys into the world.
They already had a seven-year-old son, also called Arthur, and they were delighted to increase the size of their young family two -fold. Four days later, a neighbour generously used some of Arthur's precious petrol ration to ferry Olwen and the baby boys home and, for a few days, their joy at their domestic bliss was undimmed, even by the horrors of war. But one of the boys was weak and ailing. His breathing was failing as a massive infection took hold of his fragile frame. Olwen did everything she could to try to breathe life into her sickening son but, tragically, he died after just two short weeks of life.
'I was in such despair,' said Olwen bleakly, years later. 'We had decided to call the twins David and Jason. David was healthy but Jason was so sickly he never had a chance and I felt so helpless. I just had to watch him go. I don't even know what was really wrong with him. I buried the tiny body myself, out the back. I didn't know what else to do. We didn't tell anybody. We had no money for a proper burial. It was war and I had to do it.'
The healthy twin thrived and his birth was registered a month afterwards when Arthur and Olwen later trudged to Edmonton Register Office on 19 March 1940 to record, sadly, a single addition to the family. David John White was a lively baby with a powerful set of lungs which he was always eager to demonstrate to his grieving parents. Olwen and Arthur were devastated by their loss, but they were also determined that their tiny son should not be forgotten, and would often quietly wonder together what might have become of Jason had he been strong enough to survive. Olwen was naturally especially delighted when her surviving twin eventually went on to make the two names so well loved and famous throughout the land.
Yet, in fact, it was not until David was 14 that he discovered the stunning truth that he was a twin and that his baby brother had died soon after birth. It was an enormous shock to the teenager. To outsiders, David has always tried hard to look deeply unimpressed by the revelation but, in reality, it had a shattering effect on the young man. When asked by the authors about his lost brother, he quickly became very businesslike and matter-of-fact, insisting coolly, 'It just came out during the course of some conversation with my mother that apparently I had had a twin.'
David is typically anxious to play down any hint of the family trauma and would say only, 'The bottom line of the story is that one survived and one did not. It happens all the time. Many years ago, my brother Arthur's wife was pregnant with twins and she lost both of them. They now have a son called Russell which is wonderful.' David insists publicly that he does not feel his determination to do well is any sort of compensation for the death of his brother. 'It has never, ever occurred to me,' he said. 'Two little dots came out. One dot lived and one did not. I just found out casually in the course of a conversation. "You did have a twin, you know", said my mother. I just said, "Oh did I? Oh really". At that time, my mother was great and there was no problem. It was never given any weight and it was not a problem for me. I was not made to feel any responsibility. The irony is that we are all made from a moment in time.'
But one school friend remembers it very differently. 'When he came to school the day after his mum told him about his twin dying, he looked terrible. He was shaking with emotion and he looked absolutely shattered. He swore us to secrecy about it and I think he hardly ever mentioned it again. But that day he looked awful, as though all his humour and energy had drained out of him. That day he said he felt guilty but, to be honest, I think afterwards he somehow drew strength from it, as if he had an added responsibility to achieve things on behalf of his brother as well as himself.'
David's parents were determined to do the very best for all their children. Olwen insisted that the long family tradition of looking after your own was very strongly in her mind. In any case, there was a war on and tragedy was an everyday occurrence.
England in 1940 experienced a bitterly cold winter and it was a shivering London that welcomed baby David. The Thames froze over as temperatures tumbled to the lowest of the century. But inside the humble terraced house, with its outside toilet and its tin bath hanging on a nail in the back door, David White spent his first months and years of life in a home which was always warm and happy, air raids permitting.
Baby David did his bit for the family war effort by noisily resisting attempts to put on his tiny gas mask. Whenever the air raid sirens sounded and the family started to move to the relative safety of the shelter erected in the house, David's screams of protest began. 'It used to worry me a lot, that gas mask,' recalls Olwen. 'He just screamed like mad when I put it on him.'
David's cries often had to compete against the noise of German air raids which used to inspire his mother to retaliate by hurling curses in the direction of Berlin as she angrily crashed dishes around in her tiny kitchen. Once, the Luftwaffe almost silenced these outbursts with a near miss, which left the house structurally undamaged but somehow managed to blow out Olwen's cooker. Happily, the only casualty was the cake she was baking at the time.
The War made its grim effects felt as food rationing was brought in and, just four days after the birth of the twins, that most famous of Government campaigns was launched to combat the threat of German spies – 'Careless Talk Costs Lives'. Olwen was determined to protect her brood from the worst of the war. Her native Wales had endowed her with brisk efficiency and a warm sense of humour. A baby girl, June, completed the family four years after David was born. And while there was never much money to go around, the fiercely independent Olwen supplemented her husband's meagre wages by going out and working as a cleaner.
The wartime blackouts frequently disrupted Arthur's trips to work. He had to get up at about 4.00am to cycle to Billingsgate and, soon after war broke out, he overslept. Arthur looked like being very late and was urgently pedalling through a dark and gloomy north London when the road simply disappeared and he went careering into a bomb crater about 50ft wide and 40ft deep.
Arthur was knocked out cold. When he came round about 20 minutes later, he found he was trapped at the bottom of a huge hole and, try as he might, he was unable to scramble up the sides and out. He started shouting for help and, after a further 15 minutes, two men arrived and shone their torches down on an anguished Arthur.
'Go on,' said Arthur, 'get me out of here will you, lads?' The faces looking down were wide-eyed in amazement. Then one of the rescuers said, 'Bloody hell. He's had a 50-ton bomb dropped on him and the bugger's still alive!'
There always was a black side to wartime humour. David's older brother, Arthur junior, was growing up fast and was quick to capitalise when a German air raid on north London blasted a part of a human arm up on to the guttering at the back of 26 Lodge Lane. Enterprising Arthur was charging the other children 2d (two old pennies) a look until his sideshow was interrupted by angry adults. The local doctor was called to remove the arm in a bag, much to the irritation and disappointment of Arthur and his ghoulish young customers.
Arthur was always a boisterous lad and came close to ending one of Britain's most promising acting careers some 20 years before it had begun, with a badly aimed house brick. Arthur recalled the incident with a wince.
'When we were schoolboys, David wanted to come to a camp I had made with my mates. I wouldn't let him, and he was hanging about trying to get in. Unfortunately, he got in the way of a brick I was throwing at our 'enemies'. It hit him on the head and nearly killed him. I was shattered, and to this day he still carries the scar.'
Olwen was the driving force of the family and, on most matters, whatever she said went. Neighbours were always treated with just enough friendliness and respect but kept firmly at a safe distance. The family was well-liked but Olwen saw to it that they always kept themselves very much to themselves.
David's early explorations of his locality were conducted in a somewhat unusual form of transport, a rickety wooden wheelbarrow. Next-door neighbour Ernie Pressland recalls David as ... 'a little ragged-arsed sod in a barrow. His brother Arthur used to get lumbered with pushing him around. All the kids from Lodge Lane used to stick together in one great big sprawling gang. Arthur was our leader – we used to call him 'King Arthur' – and we used to go scrumping apples over near the posh houses in Totteridge.'
The Whites were one important social step up on the Presslands in that their air raid shelter was an indoor Morrison device, while their neighbours relied upon the outdoor Anderson variety to save them from the Germans. But after young Eileen Pressland caught what tragically became a fatal dose of pneumonia after a night of shivering in the cold, the family shunned either form of shelter.
Ernie recalls, 'After Eileen died, we all slept together in the same bedroom, all six kids and my mum and dad. My mother said, "We'll all go together if we go." But we all became close in the Blitz. The Whites were good friends and neighbours.'
Young David was known as 'Whitey' and, it seems, had a real dramatic talent right from his early days.
Ernie Pressland remembers, 'I had been firing potato pellets from a toy gun and David reckoned I'd copped him one in the ear. I didn't really know if I hit him but he went through such a dying spasm act that my mother went bananas and broke the gun to pieces over my back.'
It was certainly obvious to all the family that David's flair for acting was apparent from a very early age. Olwen found her children's favourite game was dressing up. Her frilly blouses and floppy hats, dresses and coats and her husband's trousers and shirts were all in constant demand from the three youngsters who loved to act out their own little plays. Arthur, the oldest, generally took the early lead in the junior White dramatic society, but David and June always seemed to be playing the biggest parts by the end.
When they got older, they pestered their mother to take them to scavenge in junk shops for even more outlandish outfits. Olwen encouraged the artistic side in her offspring. She was steeped in the Welsh family tradition of creating your own entertainment through large gatherings with every relation called upon to deliver a song or a monologue.
In fact, when the children moved on to nearby Northside School, it was June who impressed dramatically with a spirited portrayal of Queen Victoria in an early school play. At Northside School, David's cheeky sense of humour certainly began to develop. His best friend was a lad called Mike Weedon who lived just two streets away in Grange Avenue. The two youngsters made sure that life was never dull for their English teacher, an endlessly harassed lady called Miss Holmes. Mike recalls that one of David's early pranks was to spray on a little extra decoration to her dress.
'I remember once, as Miss Holmes walked up the aisle between desks with a smart blue dress on, David got a pen full of ink and flicked it on to the back of her dress. She never knew it was him as the ink blended in with the colour of the dress.'
David was always the form clown and his high-spirited partnership with Mike Weedon made sure both boys were regularly in trouble with some teachers.
'We were always getting separated because of our antics,' recalls Mike Weedon. 'Every lesson seemed to begin with "White, get down to the front of the class. Weedon, get to the back of the class." We always tried to sit next to each other, but we played up too much.'
Certainly, Miss Holmes did not always fully appreciate David's irrepressible sense of fun. She once caned him very hard on his wrist and hand in front of the class.
Mike Weedon says, 'She was so mad at something he had done, she struck him haphazardly across the wrist and we couldn't believe it when David turned round and said, "I'm going to report you to the headmaster." And he went right along to the headmaster, Mr Maurice Hackett. Huge weals had come up on his wrist and he just stormed out of the classroom and into the head's office. She got into trouble and was told to ease off by the Head. She missed his hand and hit his wrist and it could have been quite damaging.' David was never shy about sticking up for himself. He was well below average height but, somehow, his energy and his ready wit meant that he was rarely picked on by bigger boys.
But Mr Hackett was not always so sympathetic. David and Mike packed countless scrapes into their school careers. A favourite way to start the day was to devise a new way of avoiding assembly in the morning. One day, the pair dodged down into a darkened tunnel area that ran underneath school to get out of the tedious ceremony. Unfortunately, the tunnel contained a drain which swiftly soaked them up to the ankles in water, and much worse was to come when they squelched out after assembly.
Mike remembers, 'We kept quiet until everybody had gone and crept up the stairs and round to the front door. Who should be standing there, but Mr Hackett. He caught us fair and square and we had to wait outside his room before we finally got the cane. One stroke on the hand.'
David certainly did not shine in his first years at school. He was painfully shy and in his early teens lacked any sort of confidence. But a perceptive and thoughtful teacher helped him to develop.
David said, 'When I first started at school I was not very bright and I did not do very well. I always seemed to be very backward. Then I found that there was something I could do well and that helped me a lot. I was always very physical and we had a very good young teacher, called Mr Joy, who taught us gymnastics. Because I was agile and could do things, he said, "That is very good," and he told the rest of the class to watch how I did one exercise and try to copy it.'
David had never before been used as a model for his contemporaries to match, and he thoroughly enjoyed the experience. 'It was the first time a teacher had ever said anything like that to me. That was a big turning point for me, because I thought if I can do that in gymnastics, why can't I do it in History or Geography or whatever?
'I was never very good at Maths, but at English and Science I began to creep up the scale because I realised that if I could do something well physically, it gave me a spur. Before then, I believe that deep down I had subconsciously given up. I always used to feel the lessons were so complicated and I would just give up before I started, so I was always bottom of the class. But Mr Joy proved that I could do something well. That gave me enormous confidence and it opened the door for me. I was a natural gymnast and it has been with me ever since.
'He started me reading a lot and helped me in every way. I worked at science and got an award, and I went on to become a prefect and captain of the football and swimming teams. I owe that man a lot.'
David deliberately avoided pointing out that his improvement at school exactly coincided with his discovery that he was a surviving twin. He prefers not to delve into the psychology of loss but it seems clear that his new-found purpose and sense of awareness had at least some connection with the surprising new knowledge that he was the surviving twin.
Maureen Wanders was another teacher who treated young David more gently. She spotted his flair for entertaining and recalls, 'He was a natural performer who always made the other children laugh. He seemed to stop growing when he was 13 or 14 and I think he was quite self-conscious about being short. But he was high spirited and very popular. He brought the house down in one play we put on.
'And in class he could always be relied upon to liven things up. He wasn't naughty, just great fun, with a great sense of humour. David shone at English, but drama was where his real talent lay. You could not miss his natural flair.'
David frankly recalled, 'At school, I was a well known joker and the reason why was because I was very small and very slight and, in order to survive, I started clowning. I think this is true of a lot of people who are in comedy.
Excerpted from Sir David Jason by Stafford Hildred, Tim Ewbank. Copyright © 2012 Stafford Hildred Tim Ewbank. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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