Fifty years ago, the BBC broadcast the pilot of Open All Hours, the sitcom that would soon have 17 million viewers tuning in to watch the antics of miserly corner shop owner Arkwright and his errand boy Granville.
And now David Jason, who played Granville, has explained the secrets of the show and told how important his “mentor” Ronnie Barker, who played Arkwright, was to his early career.
David, who is 82 and in 2005 was knighted for services to acting and comedy, says that away from the Open All Hours set, he called Barker “The Guv’nor” and when Barker retired, he passed the “Guv’norship” to him.
He says: “Ronnie B was the head of the team and because he was such a nice man, and so creative, and very funny and stimulating in his own right, he passed that on to the rest of the cast.
“He loved showbiz, he loved acting, and he loved giving pleasure to people, and he passed that on to me, if you like.
“It was me that used to call Ronnie The Guv’nor and then when Ronnie retired he decided that he would hand over The Guv’norship, as he called it, to me. I was his apprentice – so if you ever see me you can either call me Sir David or just The Guv’nor, I don’t mind.”
His close friendship with Ronnie began in 1969, when he was cast in the sitcom Hark at Barker, taking the role as a 100-year-old gardener. Ronnie then cast him in a comedy called The Odd Job before they teamed up again most memorably in that corner shop from 1973.
Sir David says: “The reason I got to work with Ronnie on Open All Hours was because of the little bits that I had done in his other series.
“He played this wonderful, bumbling character, and I was playing this hundred-year-old gardener. It was just working with him and understanding how he approached things.”
On their other later work together, he says The Odd Job, about a man who asks an odd job man to “bump him off”, was “basically a two-hander”.
Sir David says: “I said to Ronnie, when we had the read-through, I said, ‘Odd Job’s the best part. Why are you playing the husband?’
“He said, ‘Well, because I knew that you would do it better.’ I had always been in awe of Ronnie B, but my respect for him went up through the roof.”
Despite their early chemistry, he still almost turned down the role of Granville alongside Barker’s Arkwright, worrying that he was not right for the role.
He says: “I thought I was too old to play it. Meaning that if Granville was delivering groceries at that age, would he be not as bright, maybe? That was the thing that held me back.
“But when I explained this to the director and to Ronnie B, they both understood, and said, ‘It will work. It will be alright.’ Those fears were put to rest and I just – well, we just all loved it.”
After the pilot the show initially ran for four series, in 1976, 1981, 1982 and 1985.
Middle-aged miser Arkwright was always out to maximise profits, while long-suffering Granville never had much luck – or love – in his life.
The shop, as well as its “till with a mind of its own” were also stars of the show, as was Lynda Baron, who died last year aged 82, as Arkwright’s beloved Nurse Gladys Emmanuel.
While the scenes inside the shop were filmed in a warm studio, the exterior shots were shot in a less glamorous location.
Sir David says: “The shop was in Doncaster on an extremely cold, windy street corner, and it was a hairdresser’s. The construction team would go ahead of us and they would block in all the wash bowls and the hair dryers with shelves which made it a very narrow shop.”
Art director Les McCallum says: “Saturday morning, I’d set off and we’d arrived about 12 o’clock and there were still ladies under the hairdryers, those great big blue things, if I remember.
“And the lady who owned the hairdresser’s, Helen I think she was named, she would go off on holiday with the location fee and leave us to it.
“The hairdresser’s shop was only about 10 feet deep, so we would cover the glass window with lots of adverts and stickers so you couldn’t see inside.”
After Ronnie Barker died, aged 76, in 2005, a sequel, Still Open All Hours, began in 2013, with Granville running the shop and James Baxter playing his sidekick Leroy.
In both the original series and sequel, the shop’s till was temperamental... a danger to fingers as it snapped shut with alarming force.
Nina Wadia, who starred as Mrs Hussein in Still Open All Hours, says: “I mean, I don’t know if I can ruin it for the audience but it is a man behind a wall. And even then getting the timing right is important because that till will take your fingertips off if you don’t get the timing right.
“They would pull and occasionally bang the back of the wall at the same time for the tin to fall down.”
Speaking in a new Channel 5 documentary, Sir David says: “It would be for the audience, for them to sort of go, ‘Here’s that till,‘ they’d say, ‘I wonder what it’s gonna do, is it gonna take his fingers off?’
“You’d see Ronnie putting the note in and you’d see in his face. ‘When am I gonna let this go, is it gonna get my fingers?’ And it would snap shut. He’d have to almost see if his fingers were still there.”
In the later series, Sir David had to switch between two of his great creations, Granville and Del Boy as he worked on both Only Fools and Horses and Open All Hours.
He says: “One minute I was being this, you know, flash, up-front fella, Mr Jack the know-all, with all the body language and all the wheeling and dealing and the fast words and all of that.
“And on the other hand, I was playing this lovely, warm, cuddly character who’s just wistful and was always dreaming that one day his ship would come home. It was a wonderful position to be in and how many actors could say that?”
Open all Hours: 50 Years of Laughter is on Channel 5, on Saturday, at 8.50pm and then any time on My 5.