After Lennard Pearce died of a heart attack just 10 days into the filming of Only Fools and Horses’ fourth series, the show's producer, Ray Butt, knew he would have to find a replacement for the show’s beloved Grandad.
As Butt sat in his office, wading through piles of letters from actors desperate to join the cast of one of the jewels in the BBC’s crown, there was one that stood out. This letter didn’t have the stench of cold opportunism about it.
Instead, it was a handwritten note, businesslike in tone, and without much obvious knowledge of the show. There was also a photo attached, showing a man that, to Butt, looked like a cross between Father Christmas and Captain Birdseye. Even the name — ‘Buster Merryfield’ — was intriguing.
Little did Butt know quite how unusual this letter-writer’s story was. Aged 64 at the time, Merryfield had been a professional actor for just seven years. For much of the previous four decades he’d worked in banks, rising steadily through the ranks of NatWest to become, by the time of his retirement in 1977, manager of their Thames Ditton branch.
Yet acting had always been in Buster Merryfield’s blood. And had it not been for a promise to his mother early in his career, he might well have jacked the job in earlier and committed to thesping full-time. “I wanted to leave but my mum made me promise to stay there,” he told Steve Clark for the book Only Fools and Horses: The Official Inside Story.
“She said that with a wife and baby to look after, I’d be stupid to give it up. My parents hadn’t had the opportunities that I had and I felt I owed it to them to stay in my secure job.”
And that he did, flexing his acting muscles out of office hours in a succession of am-dram productions, his bank career interrupted only by the outbreak of war in 1939. If the real Buster Merryfield ever began an anecdote, like his Only Fools character Uncle Albert famously did, with the words “During the war…”, he was certainly not short of stories.
Like the time he was attacked by vultures in India or when he was put in charge of a ship carrying 1,000 German POWs, tales he would regale with theatrical relish. During those years he’d rise up through the ranks to become a Lieutenant — where he taught recruits the secrets of jungle warfare — while also indulging his love of the arts, by staging shows for the troops.
He was also a fitness fanatic having excelled at physical sports as a child. He was something of child boxing prodigy, being named British Schools Champion in 1936, and his dedication to physical fitness led him to being a teetotal non-smoker his entire life, which helps to explain his surprising physique.
The clean-shaven Buster Merryfield of the 1940s is unrecognisable from the one we know from Only Fools and Horses. That bushy, silvery beard would become Merryfield’s trademark, but it was only in the years after WW2 that he cultivated the whiskers for which he would become famous, initially for a part he was playing.
Turning up to work with a four-day growth, the part-time actor was chided by his boss. “In those days there was never anyone in a bank with a beard,” he recalled, adding that, soon after, various colleagues grew theirs too, as a protest against Merryfield’s ticking off.
Merryfield retired from NatWest in 1977, at the age of 57. Keen to devote his life fully to acting, he was happy to work for £40 a week as an assistant stage manager at Worthing’s Connaught Theatre, sweeping up and making tea and being, in his words, “the oldest ‘boy’ in the business”.
After joining Equity, he began to land some TV roles – an old Navy captain in the BBC’s Hannah, an academic in The Citadel – and was in panto in Windsor when the call came through from Ray Butt. Could he do cockney, was the question asked at his interview. Sure, replied Merryfield (despite his Queen’s English accent, he’d been born in Battersea to working class parents).
The part, of course, was Albert Trotter, a salty sea dog who comes into Del and Rodney’s life on the day of their Grandad’s — and Albert’s brother’s — funeral.
Merryfield had no idea at the time if the Fools and Horses gig would be a couple of episodes or whether he’d become a bona fide regular (“I’d enjoyed doing it and didn’t think I’d done badly and hadn’t let them down which was always my main concern,” he reflected).
Making his first appearance on 28 February, 1985 in the episode Strained Relations, Buster Merryfield would end up playing Albert Gladstone Trotter for the next 11 years, across 36 episodes.
“The most pleasurable thing about playing Albert,” the actor said in 1998, “is that I can walk down any street or get on any bus or train and people smile and go, ‘There’s Uncle Albert’ – and that’s magic.”
Sadly, Buster Merryfield, bank manager turned sitcom legend, died in 1999, 11 days after being diagnosed with a brain tumour.
Three years later, despite airing what was intended as its last episode in 1996, Only Fools and Horses returned for a (this time) final run of Christmas specials. But while those episodes saw the Trotters having lost the millions they’d won in ‘96, it would be a parting gift from their late uncle – leaving his nephews £145,000 each in his will – that closed the series for good.
“He was a gentle, sweet-natured man,” Nicholas Lyndhurst said upon Buster Merryfield's death in June 1999, “and he will be greatly missed by everyone who knew him.
"He made the part of Uncle Albert a national institution."
Only Fools and Horses is streaming on Sky, Now, ITVX, and Britbox.