16 April 2012

Only Fools And Horses

An historic TV listing page from the Sun, 8 September, 1981... The very first episode of Only Fools And Horses is about to be broadcast. Unfortunately, I was hooked on The Flame Trees of Thika, and missed it!

From the Sun:

David Jason blunders into a world of birds, bets and shady deals as the star of a new comedy series tonight.

The funny little man from A Sharp Intake Of Breath plays fast-talking fly-boy Del Boy Trotter in Only Fools And Horses (BBC1, 8.30)

But his deals never seem to come off.

The title of the seven-part comedy series sums up Trotter's philosophy - work is only for fools and horses.

Trotter, a South Londoner, has a younger brother and aged grandfather to support.

He holds a deeply felt conviction that someone somewhere is making an easy fortune and that sooner or later he will do the same.

Jason says: "Trotter feels that because he doesn't take anything out of the State he doesn't see why he should put anything back.

"He doesn't believe in paying any tax he can avoid."

Jason, a bachelor, has a country cottage in the Home Counties, where he writes radio shows.

In tonight's programme, Trotter buys a cargo of executive brief cases - only to find he cannot sell them because they are hot property.

 In 1980, BBC scriptwriter John Sullivan, having completed work on his previous TV series, Citizen Smith, was looking for a new project. Would a comedy set in the world of football set the 1980s alight? The BBC thought not, and they didn't like Sullivan's follow-up idea for a comedy centred on a street trader in London, either. But Sullivan persisted, and, with a little help from producer and director Ray Butt, won the day. The BBC commissioned a first series.

The working title for the new show was Readies, but the show's actual title turned out to be Only Fools And Horses. "Why do only fools and horses work?" was the question posed by the famous theme song (which took a little time to arrive), and Del Boy Trotter wanted to get rich quick. The title was highly appropriate.

John Sullivan was born in Balham, South London, in 1946, of Irish and English parentage. He grew up in a poor community, full of characters and comedy, as he later recounted. At school, he met the works of Charles Dickens and was never the same again.

As a young man in the early 1960s, John Sullivan had several jobs, including one in the used car trade. Interviewed years later, he said that during that time he met "a lot of villains, quite a rich seam to tap into later when I started writing. " In other interviews, he spoke of his need to break away from his poor background and make some money.

In 1962, Sullivan was hugely impressed by a BBC Comedy Playhouse production, featuring the characters of old man Steptoe and his frustrated son, Harold - desperate to break away from his grotty old dad and the scrapyard they ran. Sullivan was impressed by the drama and comedy in the show, and this would later influence his own work.

In the late 1960s, he started sending scripts to the BBC - but each one came back rejected. By the early 1970s, Sullivan was working as a plumber and still nursing ambitions to be a TV writer. He married Sharon Usher in 1974 and took an unusual route into the BBC for an aspiring scriptwriter - working in props, set dressing and scene shifting.  

At the Beeb, Sullivan met Ronnie Barker, who got him to write some sketches for the Two Ronnies, and the legendary comedy producer Dennis Main Wilson, who championed Sullivan's cause. The result was Citizen Smith making its TV debut as a series in November 1977. Wolfie Smith, lead character of the series and head of the Tooting Popular Front, was inspired by a man Sullivan had seen in a pub in 1968. Citizen Smith ran until December 1980. 

And so, we're back to the beginning of this article, with Sullivan finishing work on Citizen Smith in 1980 and looking for another series idea...

Sullivan drew extensively on his own background and life experiences for Only Fools... - Del's love of fancy foreign phrases, for instance, came from a man Sullivan had known when he was working in the used car trade when he was about seventeen years old, back in the early 1960s. Another inspiration for Del was the "fly pitchers" Sullivan had observed at various London street markets throughout his life.

Sullivan said that he wanted to reflect modern working class London - most series set in London seemed to take a rather nostalgic view of life in his opinion. The first series of ITV's Minder, which had a modern London setting, had not troubled the ratings but the 1980 series, tweaked and with more comedy added, saw Arthur and Terry beginning to take a grip on the viewing public's affections. Sullivan worried that his territory had now been covered, but later wondered if the success of the tweaked Minder may have influenced the BBC in saying yes to his idea for Only Fools And Horses.

How it all began... Del Boy ("Lovely jubbly!"), Rodney (bit of a plonker!) and Grandad of Trotters Independent Trading Co - New York - Paris - Peckham.

Filming of series one began in May 1981. The first episode was transmitted on BBC1 at 8.30 pm on 8 September that year.
It didn't do great trade with the viewers, but within three years Only Fools... was one of the most popular shows on the telly.

Del Boy Trotter (David Jason) and his younger brother, Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst), lived in a flat at Nelson Mandela House, Peckham, with their grandad (Lennard Pearce).

Del was a highly lovable character - his "get rich quick" schemes (he even flirted with a yuppie image having seen the film Wall Street in the late 1980s!) could not disguise the fact that he was really just a silly dreamer - and his love of his family was obvious. When Rodney left home after an argument in the very first episode, Del's facial expression on his return spoke volumes. No words were needed.

Grandad immediately leaving his armchair to prepare Rodney a meal (another plate of salmonella and chips?) also spoke volumes. Here were three characters who often grated on each other's nerves, but who loved each other dearly. Del had brought Rodney up from the age of six after their mother died. We later discovered that Del and Rodney were actually half-brothers, and that Rodney was not even a blood relative of Grandad, but nothing could dent the unity of the Trotter family. They were more of a family than many of the 2.4-children-with-same-parentage variety.

David Jason began his acting career in the 1960s. He partly based Del Boy's mannerisms and dress sense on Derek Hockley, a builder he had worked for as an electrician before becoming an actor.

When actor Lennard Pearce died in 1984, Grandad died too, and Only Fools... began to move away from the traditional sitcom mould by including genuinely sad scenes which moved many people to tears. A touch of pathos had been a sitcom ingredient for decades, Sullivan himself spoke of being influenced by the 1960s sitcom Steptoe and Son as we've already mentioned, but Only Fools... moved things on further, blurring sitcom with drama, serving to enrich and enhance the show and to move the show's characters beyond being mere comic devices.

To fill the gap left by Grandad, Buster Merryfield joined the show as the boys' Uncle Albert.

The Trotters and their friends at the Nag's Head became people we liked, in some cases perhaps even loved, and cared about.

My step-father was often mistaken for actor Roger Lloyd Pack, Trigger in the series. He was even interrupted whilst having a pub lunch by a couple wanting his autograph! Of course, in such high esteem did my step-father hold the brilliantly brainless character Trigger and indeed the entire series, he was chuffed to bits!

Only Fools... was sheer magic... favourite scenes? Too many to mention!

The show has won various awards and has been named the best UK sitcom ever in a viewers' poll.

I suspect it might be.

But it was so much more than a sitcom.

Cheers! Nag's Head regulars in the 1980s: Trigger (Roger Lloyd Pack), Rodney (or should that be "Dave"?) (Nicholas Lyndhurst), landlord Mike (Kenneth MacDonald), Del Boy (David Jason), Uncle Albert (Buster Merryfield), Boycie (John Challis) and Marlene (Sue Holderness)


Sarah Jane said...

Totally agree. It's an absolute classic and I never get tired of watching it. So sad that John Sullivan passed away.

Ben said...

Still trying to work out why Trigger called Rodney "Dave"... :))

OFAH Mad said...

Did you know that Grandad's favourite TV programs were Crossroads and the Dukes Of Hazzard?

Drew said...

Can't say I'm surprised - bless 'im!

Drew said...

You and me both! Sooo funny!

Anonymous said...

The early episodes are a brilliant audio visual experience of working class Britain in the 80s and early 90s.