TV's David Jason champions the Yorkshire Air Museum
PUBLISHED: 00:10 12 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:07 20 February 2013
Tony Greenway catches up with actor David Jason as he opens the new Bomber Command exhibition at the Yorkshire Air Museum near Elvington. PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDY BULMER
It's a freezing cold day in March at Elvington Airfield near York, and Yorkshire Life is scanning the skies. Actor Sir David Jason will be flying in via helicopter in a minute, and we're here at the Yorkshire Air Museum to have a chat with him.
Unfortunately, we're not the only ones, because approximately 300 other people have the same idea, including his fans, assorted York dignitaries, TV crews, radio journalists and newspaper reporters. It's a Cecil B DeMille crowd scene down here.
Sir David - an Honorary Member of the Yorkshire Air Museum and who holds his own pilot's licence - is coming to open a brand new exhibition called Against the Odds, which tells the story of RAF Bomber Command in the Second World War.
So when Andy, our photographer, spies a large military whirlybird circling the airfield, he barges through the Press line and takes up pole position. 'This must be him,' he says. It isn't, though, which is a bit disappointing.
Five minutes later, another large helicopter flies over and the camera crews start jostling again - but, oh dear, that's not Sir David either. But then there's a high-pitched humming and a frankly unimpressive-looking aircraft lands smack dab in front of us. It is dinky. It is yellow. To our untrained eye, it's the Robin Reliant of the helicopter world - and if it had 'Trotter's Independent Trading' emblazoned on the side, we wouldn't have been a bit surprised.
Sir David isn't at the controls, but he is in the passenger seat. He steps out onto the tarmac to a ripple of applause and gives a wave. He's looking tired - a mix of Blanco from Porridge and Inspector Frost - but he still has that old Del Boy car coat charisma.
We have been briefed not to mob him because he'll be going straight to the Against the Odds exhibition... but, of course, being journalists, no-one takes a blind bit of notice, and everyone - camera crews and wellwishers included - crowd around him. 'Which one is he?' shouts a seven-year-old girl. 'There, right in front of you!' says her 40-something dad, possibly a bit too loudly.
Sir David manages to extricate himself from the scrum and disappears into Against the Odds, which is housed in the main exhibition hall, to chat with former members of Bomber Command who are here for the grand opening.When no-one is looking, we sneak inside on your behalf. It's an impressive, moving and humbling exhibition.
The initial task of the Bomber Command airmen was to drop propaganda leaflets urging the German people to withdraw their support for the Nazis. In the end, with most of Europe overrun by Hitler's forces, only Bomber Command was able to prosecute the war effectively; but with 55,800 men killed in action or as a prisoner of war, no fighting group saw such heavy losses. And later, because of the controversy of aerial bombing on civilian populations, no campaign medal was ever issued to the aircrews (many of whom were in their late teens and came from all over the world).
York Air Museum is an apt place to house Against the Odds, because the Elvington Airfield was a former Bomber Command station during the war. Sir David appears an hour later looking visibly moved. He uncovers the plaque on the wall inside the reception, steps outside, gives a short speech and cuts the ribbon, declaring the exhibition open. Then we all stick our Dictaphones and microphones under his nose and our cameras in his face. 'It's quite daunting,' he tells us.
'There are photographs and pieces of memorabilia here which are very moving. There were over 800 Bomber Command crew members who left from this field and never came back. This museum is a memorial to those who had their lives taken from them in order to defend the freedom we now enjoy. I feel very close to this because I'm a pilot myself. Perhaps the Museum will serve as a reminder to our younger generations just what a sacrifice they made.'
Spot on. Sir David is, rightly we reckon, a national treasure, a comedy genius and one of our finest actors. And his celebrity has certainly helped turn the spotlight on Against the Odds. But do you know what? In this instance, the cameras and the journalists were all looking at the wrong guy.
In the exhibition hall, there were some real honest-to-God heroes - veterans such as Ralph Tailford of Huddersfield, who flew from Elvington with 77 Squadron, and Air Gunner George Martin, of Harrogate, who survived severe shrapnel injuries. 'I got a load of flak all down my side and went into hospital,' says George. 'It was May 23rd, 1943. The following night, my crew went out to Dusseldorf. And they never came back.'
Then there's 92-year-old Donald Wilson, also from Harrogate, who flew Whitley aircraft in the propaganda raids in 1939. Donald was shot down in Germany, caught and tried to escape from one of the camps. 'I got caught in a tunnel,' he said. 'I was digging, but the Germans knew we were in there the night we started. I came out the tunnel and there was an officer with guards all around him. He said: "Mr Wilson. You are a very naughty man."' And, like his comrades, an extremely brave one.
Against the Odds. Yorkshire Air Museum. 01904 608595. www.yorkshiremuseum.co.uk