Paul Carey, April 5, 2004
DAVID JASON is on a real-life quest to find the two old friends who figure in his latest TV drama. The star of Only Fools and Horses, voted the Best British Sitcom last month, has already used his own adolescent experiences - including flirting with girls and riding motorbikes - as the inspiration for the 90-minute comedy-drama The Quest, shown on ITV in 2001.
Jason swapped his usual position from in front of the camera to behind it to direct the well-received 1950s-set film about three teenage boys and their desperate quest to lose their sexual innocence.
Now he's returned to the director's chair to make the sequel, The Second Quest, which follows the same lads' exploits in the early 1960s. Although their adventures are largely fictional, Jason admits there are moments of his own youth reflected in the on-screen shenanigans. And now he's keen to reunite with the two lads who shared his adventures more than 40 years ago.
"I did go with my two mates to watch the TT races in the Isle of Man as a youngster - that bit from the film is certainly true," says 64-year-old Jason. "And at the moment, I'm in the process of trying to get in touch with them.
"I know one of them is about, but I haven't heard from the other chap for a very long time. One of them was an apprentice at the GPO, the other was at an engineering firm, and I was an electrician's apprentice.
"In the film, the lads all work at the same factory, so we weren't quite as the script suggests. But we were all apprentices. We lived in nearby streets, and we all saw each other flashing about on our motorbikes - so that's how we became mates.
"I do hope, though, at the end of the film, people might want to get back in touch with some of their old friends. It is sad if you lose touch. In our film, the guys are as close as two coats of paint. The older guys, they've drifted apart. David's the one trying to pull them together."
The Second Quest reunites David Jason, Hywel Bennett and Roy Hudd as the three friends in the present day, as well as Greg Faulkner, Max Wrottesley and Jim Sturgess as the same characters as teenage boys determined to lose their virginity.
Scripted by Douglas Livingstone, the film was shot on location last summer on the Isle of Man, Yorkshire and Merseyside.
This time around, the three pensioner pals find themselves reunited once again when Charlie (Roy Hudd) has a serious accident and his two friends visit him in hospital. In the mood to reminisce, they recall their trip to the Isle of Man in 1960, when the young Dave, Ronno and Charlie's chance meeting with three finalists of a local beauty contest led to a holiday they would never forget.
Joining the cast is Les Dennis as Johnny Regal, a flamboyant crooner and beauty contest compere, and former Coronation Street star Jennifer James, as Joyce, an unscrupulous beauty queen contestant.
Greg Faulkner's performance as Dave in particular is a notable stand-out, as he has the voice and mannerisms of a young David Jason down to a tee.
"I can't really see it myself," jokes Jason himself. "I've been told that Greg is meant to be a likeness of me when I was a lad, so I'm thinking about dyeing my hair and having a few spikes put in!"
News that John Sullivan is working on an "early days" version of Only Fools and Horses, however, might suggest that Faulkner would be a shoo-in as the young Del Trotter. "That's a brilliant idea," says Jason. "And maybe I could be Grandad!"
Jason insists that The Second Quest is generally not an autobiographical story.
"The first Quest had quite a lot of incidents from my past - and I won't say which ones they are! The Second Quest I discussed a lot with the writer, Doug Livingstone.
"Doug decided he would take it away from any personal things I'd mentioned, and develop it a bit more with invention, which I was totally happy with. It's an entertainment, an evocation of that period. You have to be a bit careful, because I didn't want people crawling out of the woodwork and trying to sue me for things that didn't happen in the past.
"Most of the story is about the beauty competition, and that's entirely our scriptwriters' invention."
Directing is a new challenge that Jason seized with both hands.
"It's a craft that, at this stage of my career, I feel is something that I am equipped to do," he says. "David Rey-nolds, the executive producer, offered me the chance to direct the sequel because The Quest had been my own story.
"I found the experience very interesting because I felt I could reinvest everything that I had learnt over many years to help the young actors. I also fancied the challenge of pushing the perimeters of my own abilities.
"I certainly believe I was much better the second time around, as I was more confident in my abilities as director. With the first one, I was a bit nervous about working with such highly skilled people on the other side of the camera, but my concerns soon evaporated as I was with friends, and everyone was so helpful. I directed an Inspector Frost episode after that, and with The Second Quest, I did a lot more preparation, and was more insistent on what I wanted."
Jason's major concerns about a piece of semi-autobiographical fiction set in the halcyon days of yesteryear were whether today's young audience would accept the attitudes of the time.
"That period of the early '60s is very innocent compared to today," says Jason. "The world was such a different place for youngsters.
"When our young actresses looked at the bathing costumes they had to wear for the beauty contest, they all freaked and said they would not be seen dead wearing that sort of outfit. But they all got into the spirit of it, and they thought it was a hoot.
"It is quite difficult for people to remember this period, because girls are very much more forward today. There's much more communication between the sexes than there was in my day, so to try and get that sense of period over to today's younger audience is quite difficult. It took quite a long time for our cast to appreciate the subtleties of the script, but the more they learnt about the period, the more they got in tune with it. It's a difficult gap to bridge."
The ending of the film, concedes Jason, is quite melancholic.
"When you get a bit older, and you get past that innocent age, you realise that time seems to speed up," he says. "You say, 'Where did that last 40 or 50 years go?' In that wonderful time of your life, you didn't realise quite how wonderful it was until you're older and look back, and then you say, 'I wish I knew that I was having such a good time then.'
"I'm sure most people can relate to that, when we were all much younger. Times seemed much better. The pressure was all on the male, and that's why they always seem to have this sign over them saying 'I want to sleep with you!' It's a simple story about a time when it was very difficult to lose your virginity - and I can vouch for that!"
Jason, whose partner is Gill Hinchliffe, is the proud father of three-year-old Sophie May. And although part of him hankers for those good old days of The Second Quest, he is in two minds about whether raising a child is a more worrying prospect in the 21st century.
"You can't go back," he says. "We live in a world that's forever changing. Quite a lot of it is good, if you think about medication and so on. Also, everybody has a washing machine and a bath - we never had a bath.
"But, on the other hand, we now live in a world with the fear of terrorism - and nobody would wish that on anybody. If you went back, you'd wish you enjoyed it more. As far as raising young people of today goes, or little kiddiwinks, you just have to work harder to give them a better world to live in. It's very difficult, but that's what our politicians are supposed to be doing for us all. So good luck to them all."
Paramount in importance during the making of The Second Quest was the accuracy in period detail.
"Again, we had to find a fine line in realism," says Jason. "Today's audience might find it a bit odd for the lads to walk about looking like worn-out tadpoles for a start - but those outfits are very genuine. We looked like that and we thought we were cool, we thought we were the No 1s. That bridge is a difficult one to cross.
"Elsewhere, so much has changed, not just costumes, but vehicles, buildings and so on. Everywhere you go, you've got to take TV aerials and satellite dishes down. It's a huge problem now, because we don't have studio lots like they had in the '50s, where they'd make most of their films - now we have to be on film and in actuality.
"The one advantage with the Isle of Man is that it's mostly unchanged from that period, especially with its buildings. That was one of the reasons we were attracted to going there, not only because of the TT races, but the sense of period is excellent."
As a one-time motorbike "king" of the Teddy Boy era, Jason was tempted to ride the Isle of Man TT course himself - but time was not on his side.
"We were simply working such long hours, from morning to night," he says. "We went around the course a number of times, because a lot of our filming was shot there. But if you drive around the Isle of Man, you'll find that you'll be overtaken by some mad lunatic on a 500c Kawasaki doing about 150mph on a bend, and that really takes the desire to ride that course out of it.
"It's pretty dangerous, because the island has no speed limit as such, apart from the towns. "
Cynics may suggest that The Second Quest is little more than a light-hearted wallow in rose-tinted nostalgia, but Jason reckons it's the kind of drama sadly lacking in today's schedules.
"To be honest, there's not much television around where you can sit down with your grandmother and your children and know you're going to be safe," says Jason. "The family viewing audience wants to be reassured that there's not going to be too much graphic violence or sex.
"The first Quest was very pleasantly reviewed and the audience figures were huge, and that was a great delight which led us to suggest there was mileage in the genre, that television is in need of this kind of show, which is old-fashioned, innocent and nostalgic.
"If this one is as successful, I think we'd all be pleased to do it again. It depends on the TV company and viewing figures - so I've got my fingers crossed."