Only Fools and Horses: Del Boy wishes England luck
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Despite almost being axed after its second series, of which more later, the appeal of this most quintessentially British show endures to this day. Repeats constantly pull in huge viewing figures while its fan base stretches far beyond our shores (its appreciation society boasts more than 2.5 million followers from as far afield as Fiji and Alaska). They all have one thing in common: they can’t get enough of Del Boy, the lovable wideboy, his hapless brother Rodney and the rest of the motley crew from Peckham.
The show ran for 23 years starting with the first episode, Big Brother, on September 8, 1981, after which 63 episodes were enjoyed by millions of viewers. Most notable was Time On Our Hands, the final instalment in 1996’s Christmas Trilogy, watched by a whopping 24.3 million people – still the UK record holder for a sitcom audience.
Little did the late writer John Sullivan – who also penned Citizen Smith and Just Good Friends – know that when he sat down to write the opening episode in 1981 he was embarking on a 20-year journey.
And no one could be prouder to celebrate the birthday of Only Fools And Horses than his youngest son, Jim Sullivan, who is playing a fundamental role in keeping the Trotter legend alive.
Not only has he written several books about the sitcom, originally titled Readies, but he is the co-writer with Fast Show star Paul Whitehouse of Only Fools And Horses The Musical. Launched to rave reviews at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in February 2019, a year before Covid struck, tickets are back on sale as performances resume next month.
“Since Dad passed away, it’s been my aim to both protect and celebrate his work,” says Jim, 43. “It still amazes me how he managed to create such a rich world full of memorable characters and stories, let alone how he managed to make it so funny. There’s still so much love out there for the show.”
The characters, actors and settings are so indelibly etched in our minds it’s hard to imagine the sitcom any other way but the actor Jim Broadbent was considered for Del Boy before David Jason landed the role.
And when John Sullivan began writing, he started with a man and his cousin, later to become a brother.
Reflecting on why the show became such a phenomenon and led to catchphrases like “lovely jubbly” and “cushty” entering common parlance, Jim Sullivan explains: “Beyond the jokes and laughter, it tapped into some timeless universal themes, such as family loyalty, sacrifice and the struggle of the plucky underdog.
“In real life, no person is either all saint or all sinner, so the characters feel very real. The sitcom also didn’t shy away from dealing with more painful subjects and hardships. I think people relate to that and see themselves and their own experiences – that partly explains why it has endured.”
But it was never plain sailing. With the opening six episodes averaging a disappointing seven million, Sullivan feared the axe. A second series was commissioned but viewing figures remained stagnant. John Challis, 79, who played car dealer Boycie, recalled: “I think it got about 7.9 million, which today would be very good but in those days wasn’t considered great at all, so it was sort of put on the back burner for a bit… luckily there was a strike at the BBC.
“They started repeating stuff and they put it out again, word went around, and the figures went up by a couple of million.”
Jim recalls: “It was a bit of a crisis period because the ratings for the first two had been unimpressive. Dad already had ideas for a third series. I was only little at the time, but we were on a caravan holiday in Hastings when Dad bought a newspaper and saw that the viewing figures had shot right up. We rushed home and he was immediately asked to write a further two series.”
From that moment on, it was a hit.
Sadly, Jim believes his father’s comedy classic would not be commissioned today.
“If you went to the BBC today and handed them the script to Only Fools, the only thing they would see is three white men. I’d wager they wouldn’t get beyond page one before spitting their tea and accusing you of all kinds of ‘isms’.
“I noticed that in the introduction to the character of Trigger in the original 1981 script, his colour was described as being ‘of no importance’, a notion that here now in 2021 would not be tolerated. Sadly, it seems that everything now must first be viewed through the prism of identity politics.
“So rather than focusing on the real substance of what makes people laugh and what unites us as human beings, the focus is on surface appearances and what keeps us all in our separate boxes.
“It’s all very shallow and narrow-minded. I could be wrong but, when it comes to comedy, I think most people just want to laugh.
“As a kid, I remember my dad tucked away in his office and the sounds of the typewriter clacking away and he was working through the nights to get everything completed.
“I think it did take its toll on him, but he always thrived under pressure and that year won the BAFTA writer’s award.
“As I got older and became more interested in the craft, I’d talk to him about his ideas and how he approached the work. He’d often let me read new scripts before anyone else, but I eventually stopped doing that because it ruined all the surprises!”
Sullivan took his three children to watch episodes being recorded and introduced them to the actors, including David Jason, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Lennard Pearce, who played grandpa before his death during filming of the fourth series.
“As a kid, I remember visiting David Jason’s house for Sunday lunch. En route, our car suddenly began emitting eye-watering fumes. We were hurtling along the motorway with all the windows down and Dad panicking. But we finally made it and, thankfully, David had the mechanical know-how to fix the problem. I’ll always remember his pet dog, Peg, who only had three legs. After lunch, we all took the dog for a walk.”
It’s clear from talking to Jim that his father was a loving, family man.
“If he had two passions in life, I’d say they were work and family. Even when he had to go away for filming, he’d find any excuse to return home. Like Del Boy, he was tough in many respects but also had a big heart.”
John died in April 2011 after a bout of viral pneumonia, having become ill shortly after filming the final episode of the Only Fools’ prequel, Rock And Chips. He was just 64.
“The onset of the illness was very sudden but he fought it and was in intensive care for two months,” says Jim. “We were there at his side every day and, whilst the illness did eventually get the better of him, he retained his sense of humour right to the end.”
A decade after his untimely death, there is no doubt John Sullivan’s legacy survives – not least with the musical which is reopening on October 1.
Jim’s co-writer Paul Whitehouse, who also plays grandad in the musical, said: “I’m over the moon because the last year or so has been very difficult for a lot of people, so I know I speak for the whole cast when I say that we genuinely cannot wait to get back on stage in front of a live audience – we’ve missed it so much. Mange tout!”
Jim admits: “The bar was set very high and you never know for certain how these adaptations will translate and be received. Ultimately, it was crucial that we respected the original work.
“I always try to think of the fans first – being one myself – and so from the off we set out not to reinvent the series but to pay an honest tribute to it.
“Amazingly, I uncovered an old cassette tape that turned out to be a recording of a song – This Time Next Year – which my dad and Chas & Dave had worked on.
“It was such a cheerful, uplifting song that I knew it would make a perfect final number.
“The first time I watched the cast perform it during a workshop, it was so emotional I had to walk out.
“There I was, watching all of these actors and performers, none of whom even knew my dad, enjoying themselves as they belted out this song that until recently only a handful of people had heard.
“Without wishing to sound too soppy, it made me realise that my dad is still with us.
“A lovely jubbly moment if ever there was one!”
Lovely Jubbly: A Celebration Of 40 Years Of Only Fools And Horses (Ebury, £20) is published Sept 30. For free UK delivery, call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832. Only Fools and Horses The Musical reopens October 1 at Theatre Royal Haymarket. Tickets from Onlyfoolsmusical.com
Del boy falling through the bar has once again been voted the nation’s favourite moment in Only Fools And Horses history.
The scene sees Del, played by David Jason, now 81, fall sideways through an open bar.
The iconic moment featured in the opening episode of series six, Yuppy Love, and was first broadcast in 1989.
Sir David told RadioTimes.com: “The show seems to go from strength to strength and I feel very fortunate to have been involved with such an iconic show.”
In second place was Del and Rodney dropping the chandelier from the 1982 series two finale, A Touch of Glass. Both were based on incidents John saw in real-life.
The third moment was Del and Rodney running through Peckham dressed as Batman and Robin, which featured in Heroes and Villains – the first part of the 1996 Christmas trilogy.
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