When John Sullivan’s classic sitcom ‘Only Fools and Horses’ wound up poetically with its Christmas trilogy back in 1996, all was right with the world.
In the final episode, ‘Time On Our Hands’, we’d rejoiced as the Trotters finally became the millionaires they’d always dreamed of becoming thanks to a rare antique watch. The show finished with Rodney, Del Boy and Uncle Albert walking into a cartoon sunrise (see below), with Del Boy quipping: “This time next year, we’ll be billionaires.” It was the snug dovetail that all fans of the show had hoped for.
They should have let it lie. But then it all went a bit wrong.
Five years later, writer John Sullivan revived the show for three more Christmas specials in 2001, 2002 and 2003. Though produced and directed by Gareth Gwenlan and Tony Dow, the duo which presided over the latter day success of the show, the results were a far cry from the glory days, when priceless chandeliers were in peril and bar hatches were left perilously open.
The first was 'If They Could See Us Now…’, broadcast on Christmas Day, 2001, and which became the most-viewed BBC show of the decade with a massive, England game-rivalling audience of 21.3 million people. It saw Del and Rodney in money trouble once again, having invested their riches in the 'Central American markets’, which promptly crash.
With Del facing bankruptcy, a massive tax bill and a possible spell in prison, things took a turn for the completely ludicrous, as Del hopes to win back his fortune on a fictional 'Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ style game show called 'Goldrush’ (ITV refused the rights to use the actual ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ and its host Chris Tarrant), hosted by Jonathan Ross.
It ends clumsily with Del accidentally giving his winnings to charity after mistaking a call from the show’s producer as being a wind up by Mickey Pearce.
The critics were underwhelmed, with the Mirror’s TV writer particular scathing, saying: “From David Jason’s bad dye job to the toe-curling creakiness of the gags and plot lines, this was a huge disappointment.”
In his book on ‘Only Fools’, Graham McCann correctly points out that the episode’s biggest problem was undermining the previous one in such a mean spirited way. “After trying for so long to be millionaires, Del Boy and Rodney have lost everything in the most irrational and irresponsible of ways and now, at the ages of fifty-six and forty-one respectively, they find themselves right back where they used to be,” he writes.
The second special, 'Strangers On The Shore’, was no less disappointing, with fans voting with their feet – just over 17 million watched the Trotters this time around, suggesting that their comeback was a misstep.
This time the hapless brothers are on their uppers again, with Del working as a driver for Boycie and involved in booze smuggling from France, while discovering that the now-deceased Uncle Albert was something of a, ahem, 'swordsman’ during his often-recalled time in the Forces, and seemingly the father of a generation in the French village where he was stationed.
Del then becomes the unwitting kidnapper of an 'illegal immigrant’ who, in a stroke of unlikely coincidence, is the son of a Iranian businessman doing a deal with Boycie.
“I would like to thank Only Fools and Horses warmly for all they have done, and urge them to stop doing it now,” said Nancy Banks-Smith in The Guardian after the episode aired in 2002, summing up the mood of many critics.
Last, and perhaps least, was 2003’s dismal 'Sleepless In Peckham’, a look into the back story of Rodney’s parentage (spoiler, it’s ne'er-do-well thief from the olden days Freddie 'The Frog’ Robdal).
Viewership dropped again - to just over 16 million - and suffice to say that critics didn’t love it either, despite the decades of goodwill built up by Sullivan, Lyndhurst and Jason. It was not the last ever episode that anyone had wished for. That had come in 1996.
Tim Glanfield of the Radio Times pleaded to the BBC to stop wheeling out the Trotters for ratings, adding that the shows since the classic 1996 felt 'forced and contrived’ when compared to their 'effortless’ predecessors.
“Please don’t spoil our memories of their beautifully crafted characters, incredible on-screen chemistry and fantastic comic timing by wheeling out ageing parodies of the pair to deliver media friendly soundbites and catchphrases,” he wrote. “The Trotters, and the viewers deserve better than that.”
Though it didn’t appear on screens until years later, 'Sleepless In Peckham’ also suffers the ignominy of shoe-horning in the new Only Fools prequel series 'Rock & Chips’, also written by Sullivan, set in the 1960s and starring Lyndhurst as Freddie The Frog and 'Inbetweeners’ star James Buckley as the young Del Boy.
It ran over three episodes, suffered seriously dwindling ratings (starting with 8.4 million, falling to 3.7 million), and it’s fair to say that critics hated it. The Daily Telegraph called it an 'ocean-going stinker’, while Jim Shelley in the Daily Mirror called Lyndhurst’s performance 'laughable’.
And the less said about Boycie spin-off, 'The Green Green Grass’, the better.
Luckily, 'Only Fools’ is largely remembered for its glory days, but that’s in spite of the final three specials, and certainly not because of them, and also in no small measure to frequent repeats of the show’s prouder moments on cable channels like Gold. The jubbly, in the main, has remained lovely. But it almost wasn’t for a lack of trying.
Image credits: BBC