Del Boy and Rodders face the end: inside Only Fools’ darkest hour

·7-min read
Nicholas Lyndhurst and David Jason take shelter in The Russians are Coming - BBC
Nicholas Lyndhurst and David Jason take shelter in The Russians are Coming - BBC

“I’d never wear a British uniform on principle,” says Rodney Trotter, contemplating World War 3 in an early episode of Only Fools and Horses. “What principle?” asks Del Boy. Rodders – the more socially-conscious of the Trotter brothers – is firm in his anti-war stance: “Well, on the principle that the Russians might shoot at it.”

The gag comes from The Russians Are Coming, the final episode of Only Fools and Horses’ first series. Broadcast on October 13, 1981, it takes the Trotters into unusually dark territory as Del Boy, Rodney, and Grandad build their own nuclear fallout shelter. Barely remembered by casual viewers – certainly not in the league of Del Boy falling through the bar – The Russians Are Coming is sometimes cited among the fans’ least favourite episodes.

That's perhaps because the plot of The Russians Are Coming is very different from the usual get-rich-quick scrapes. Instead, it's a poignant, almost theatrical three-hander that swaps bolshie catchphrases – “Shut up you tart!” – for big, bleak questions. “If the entire civilisation was wiped out,” says Del Boy, “we’d all be equal, wouldn’t we?”

Forty years on, with tensions flaring between Putin and the West, it’s easy to believe that the Trotters might be preparing for WW3 again – dusting down the fallout shelter, stockpiling bottles of Peckham Spring, and cramming the freezer with one-legged turkeys.

Only Fools and Horses was always political ­– it was rough-and-ready life in Thatcher’s Britain. Creator John Sullivan wrote London as he saw it – vibrant, multi-ethnic, and buoyant in the face of social unrest. The black market, unemployment, privatisation, recession, right to buy, and deregulation of the financial markets all figured into Only Fools’ gags and storylines.

Even Del Boy’s dodgy French phrases (“Bonnet de douche!”) came from a proliferation of European lingo after Britain joined the Common Market. Del Boy was the embodiment of free enterprise, or as Rodney says in The Russians Are Coming, “a ruthless little mercenary”. During the Brixton riots, Del Boy had rushed down in the van to sell paving slabs to the rioters.

“Rodney is the conscience of the show,” says Steve Clark, author of Only Fools and Horses: The Inside Story. “But Del takes every political twist and turn as an opportunity to make money. That’s Del for you. It’s a comedy but John Sullivan had his finger on the pulse of current affairs. It reflects what people would have been talking about down the pub.”

In the early Eighties, one political issue loomed large: a heating-up-fast Cold War and the threat of nuclear war. Armageddon was in the air: the Protect and Survive campaign prepared the public for an attack, while nuclear anxiety was detonated across the pop charts and television. The Young Ones had an atom bomb in their kitchen, and One Foot in the Grave’s David Renwick co-wrote the 1982 sitcom Whoops Apocalypse (recently made available on BritBox) about the build-up to nuclear annihilation. Only Fools and Horses’ foray into nuclear panic belongs to the same politically-anxious cultural commentary as Threads, the harrowing 1984 drama about a nuclear attack on Sheffield, and When the Winds Blows, Raymond Briggs’ heart-breaking story about an old couple preparing for the bomb.

Rodney Trotter was clearly paying attention. When Del Boy unwittingly discovers a do-it-yourself nuclear fallout shelter, Rodney urges him to build it. “What have we got in this country to combat the might of the Soviet Union?” asks Rodney, chiming uncomfortably with present-day fears. “Three jump jets and a strongly worded letter to the Russian ambassador.” Del Boy, however, wants to sell the shelter for £1,000 – he’s got his eye on one of the flash “Rollox” watches.

John Sullivan was inspired by news stories about couple who had bought their own air-raid shelter but couldn’t get council permission to build it. Similarly, the Trotters argue about where to build their shelter, and attempt a dummy run of the four-minute warning. Their three-wheeled van is ill-equipped for such situations. As Rodney says in a later episode, the Trotters Independent Traders van couldn’t do 70mph if you pushed it off a cliff.

Del Boy and Rodney in The Russians Are Coming - BBC/YouTube
Del Boy and Rodney in The Russians Are Coming - BBC/YouTube

After finally settling on a safe place to build their shelter, Del, Rodney, and Grandad do a weekend’s trial. Huddled together, they ponder the complexities and realities of nuclear war: whether Britain should fire first; the futility of surviving if everything is dead or contaminated; hideous radioactive mutations; and the impracticalities of living in a lead bunker for two years. “All in all, and taking everything into consideration, Rodney, I think I’d rather be outside and go instantly with the bomb,” says Del Boy.

Unusually, the episode belongs to Lennard Pearce’s Grandad, who rebukes Del Boy’s ignorant glorification of war. Del Boy believes that the modern youth are frustrated ­– the first generation to be denied their birth right of a proper war. But all Del Boy knows about war is what he’s seen in old timey movies. “Glorious, valiant war,” says Del Boy about Errol Flynn’s panto heroics.

“Tomato sauce and stuntmen,” Grandad tells him. His brother was at Passchendaele – “Nigh on half a million Allied troops died there,” says Grandad, “all for five miles of mud” – and recalls watching soldiers return from WWI. Limbs missing; lungs destroyed by mustard gas. “While the nation celebrated, they was hidden away in big grey buildings, far from the public gaze,” says Grandad. “I mean, courage like that could put you right off your victory dinner, couldn’t it? They promised us homes fit for heroes, they give us heroes fit for homes.”

It's a stirring, sobering speech. “One of John Sullivan’s great moments of pathos,” says Steve Clark.

Grandad also recalls how teenage boys were conned into signing up for king and country – boys of 14 pretending to be 18, just so they could fight. Grandad’s own brother lied about his age. “Pretended he was 18?” asks Rodney. “No, he was 18,” says Grandad. “He pretended he was 14.” John Sullivan’s writing is never far from a stellar line.

Sullivan wrote from second-hand experience. His grandfather opened up about his First World War experiences after drinking, and his father had been a POW during the Second World War. He swore that he came face-to-face with Hitler, hiding in a barn, after the war was over.

“John said to me at various times that every old fella had a war story back then,” says Steve Clark. “And every time they had a bottle of beer the stories would get taller and taller – which I guess is what Uncle Albert is like.”

Lennard Pearce recounted his own run in with the Fuhrer: he shook hands with Hitler after performing for Nazi top-brass on a theatrical tour of Europe. Pearce told Nicholas Lyndhurst: “Had I known then what I know now, I would have drawn the pistol from one of the bodyguards and I’d have done my best to kill him.”

The punchline to The Russians Are Coming is that the Trotters have built the shelter on top of Nelson Mandela House – their 14-storey block of flats. The episode says something about the eternal optimism of Derek Trotter: even a nuclear holocaust couldn’t stop him from wheeling and dealing. We might all be equal if civilization gets wiped out, but Del Boy’s got £1,000’s worth of lead to flog. As Del Boy says himself: “The end of the world could be just the break we’re looking for.”

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