Certain words – cushty, luvvly-jubbly, twonk, plonker – instantly summon up the image of a loveable little chancer in a sheepskin coat. Del Boy.
It’s 30 years since Derek Edward Trotter and the rest of his oddball family first hit British screens in a comedy that was to last through 63 episodes and specials over 22 years.
To celebrate that anniversary, a new book Only Fools and Horses: The Story of Britain’s Favourite Comedy is published tomorrow. Its author, Graham McCann, has previously written books on Frankie Howerd and Cary Grant. His story of Dad’s Army was superb.
And Only Fools and Horses gets a similarly diligent treatment. The book is full of wonderful little nuggets of information, for example:
• Elizabeth Hurley auditioned ‘enthusiastically’ for the part of Rodney’s girlfriend Cassandra but was rejected because she was ‘deemed too model-like’.
• The original title of the series was The Readies but Sullivan had insisted that Only Fools and Horses was a more apt title. He had used it before in the title of an episode of Citizen Smith.
• The first choice to play Del Boy was a Scottish-born actor called Enn Reitel. When David Jason was sent the script he thought it was to play Grandad Trotter.
• The actor who played Uncle Albert (Buster Merryfield) really had been a war hero – in the Royal Artillery and as a jungle warfare instructor – but he had also been a bank manager in Thames Ditton.
• The early series were filmed in North Acton but when it became too dangerous to film there, the programme was moved out of its London setting and filmed in Bristol.
• Designer Phoebe DeGaye wanted Del Boy to have permed hair but David Jason declined. She found Rodney’s green camouflage combat jacket in a throwaway pile in the BBC costume department.
McCann provides hundreds of interesting details but is also good on the overview of how the show crept into the British consciousness and captured the British public’s imagination with its characters and humour. Only Dad’s Army and Fawlty Towers had really done this before.
He pulls together the interesting story of how John Sullivan – who’d had success with Citizen Smith, based on a Walter Mitty character he’d seen in a pub in Balham – came to write such a memorable sitcom. Only Fools and Horses was grounded in a working man’s reality. Sullivan’s father has been a plumber and David Jason (who played Del Boy so brilliantly) had a father who had been a Billingsgate fish porter. The series was a sharp counterpoint to the cosy suburban world of Terry and June.
Sullivan had worked in Hildreth Street Market and knew some of the market characters, who existed in London. Many had a natural ‘gift of the gab’. Tommy Cooper, for example, was once a market trader in Holborn’s Leather Lane.
The setting of the series was perfect too – Nelson Mandela House in Peckham. As Sullivan said: “In those days, I had a lot of mates who lived in Tower Blocks. The lifts never worked.”
David Jason as Del Boy
Sullivan had to fight to get the title Only Fools and Horses (an old English saying, ‘Why do only fools and horses work’) past Jimmy Gilbert, the BBC’s Head Of Light Entertainment. Gilbert used to judge matters by the axiom ‘Will they understand it in Wick?’ (a Scottish town near to where his wife grew up). An exasperated Sullivan eventually suggested calling his show ‘Dip your wick’ adding later: “I almost got the sack on that one.” In the end, it was the inability of BBC executives to come up with an alternative that allowed Fools to remain as the name.
It took three series for Only Fools and Horses to really take off in terms of viewing figures and during that time there were suspicions among the actors and backroom staff that the BBC felt a series about a family in Peckham was “beneath them” as a broadcaster. Sullivan even wondered if they were trying to “suffocate it”. But succeed it did and one episode attracted 24.3million viewers, still a record for a British sitcom.
The tales of the characters are skilfully weaved within the book, including how Lennard Pearce transformed himself from a struggling alcoholic into a happy OAP actor playing the Grandad Trotter. The back stories of the actors and actresses are engrossing and how the theme music came about is a comic tale in itself.
Most people have favourite moments from Only Fools and Horses. For some, it’s Del Boy falling through the bar as he tries to impress a group of women; for others it is the smashed chandelier in the episode called ‘A Touch Of Glass’. McCann recounts the story of that episode in detail, which was based on a true tale from his father’s days as a plumber, when a chandelier had been smashed at a manor house.
Sullivan remembered rolling on the floor laughing when his dad told him the tale, adding: “He was really angry with me. He said: ‘Fifteen people got the sack for that!'”
And yet it became an iconic moment of television. Never mind, eh? Viva la France, as they say in Rome.