It was January 1989 and two blow-up rubber dolls, a Simply Red number at a wedding, and a hinged bar top changed British TV comedy history.
1989's sixth series of the BBC's Only Fools and Horses was the pukka deal. It was the series that solidified the show's already record-breaking audiences and critical success. It was the series that launched a new decade of Trotter characters, Trotter iconography and Trotter love.
And it was the series where show creator John Sullivan bravely and instinctively transformed the half-hour sitcom (and staple of all British TV sitcoms to that point in time) into a 50-minute format that could carry the comedy, drama, and emotions his story world was already strong enough to handle.
Flashback to September 1981 and comedy writer John Sullivan has already written for The Two Ronnies, his homespun Marxist sitcom Citizen Smith (1977–1981) had already been a hit and his skills for long-term characters, scene-stealing sidekicks, zeitgeist gags and that South London comedy cadence had more to prove.
His background as a delivery driver, plumber’s mate and keen Charles Dickens fan was never more apparent than that 1981 launch episode where the Trotter trio played by David Jason, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Lennard Pearce are already bickering about film actors on TV.
Like all shows that hit the ground running in their Trevor Francis tracksuits, Only Fools and Horses was instantly populated by characters, grievances, and a working-class soul we felt we had known for years.
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Grandad, Trigger, Boycie, Mike, Denzil, Marlene, Sid, Slater, Mickey Pearce and later Raquel, Cassandra and Uncle Albert all became both household names and adjectives. The BBC may have not fully embraced the show on its first run – giving more PR love to their more middle-class comedy hits. But the audiences did.
The parlance of the Trotter world became not just known for great lines of TV comedy bullion. It became part of the vocabulary of a nation. 'You plonker!', Alright, Dave', 'Rodney, you tart!', ‘Lovely Jubbly’, ‘You know it makes sense’, a Jolly Boys Outing, 'this time next year we'll be millionaires' and all of Del Boy's bad French assurances still bounce about British popular culture like Nervous Nerys in a speeding Robin Reliant.
That was all down to Sullivan and his unwaveringly light knack of nailing the gag, the situation, and the character. We immediately knew the old school and pub world of Derek Trotter and his moddy school mates. We knew that world of offscreen mums, nans, and all those Auntie Reenies spilling all the gossip.
In the white goods decade that was the 1980s we all recognised the comedy one-upmanship of that neighbour bragging about his mobile phone the size of a VCR, and the potentially dodgy origins of a backstreet VCR the size of a small plane's engine. We all thought a splash of knock-off aftershave and a Paul Young album would be enough to pull on a first date.
With a great ear to the real chats filling the nation, Sullivan would always over-write - peppering each script with up to the minute quips about designer fads, disgraced celebs, bad cabaret singers and pop hits about foreign holidays. Sullivan would create faux slang that needed zero explanation. And he crafted a whole network of characters all stitched together with a shared history we never needed to see.
As The Liver Birds, Bread and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads were rooted to the wit and comedy beats of the north, Only Fools and Horses took the greater London realism baton from Steptoe and Son – and created wondrous moments of dramatic zeal and vulnerability. And just like Galton and Simpson's rag and bone men, Only Fools justified using the acting acumen of its cast.
When Lennard Pearce passed away in real life, the role of Grandad could never be recast. Sullivan responded with a funeral scene of earned humour and sight gags, but also one of David Jason's best scenes as Del Boy. In what could have been a farcical display of easy wit in an apparently easy show about market traders and their fake David Bowie LPs, Sullivan writes a speech for Jason that explains all Del Boy's hang ups, begrudged responsibilities and penniless exhaustion at the modern world.
Just as all good comedy is simply tragedy plus time, Only Fools and John Sullivan pulled at a thread of humanity and vulnerability. That is no more apparent than the successful 50-minute seasons where 'Holding Back the Years' sound-tracked a suddenly alone Del on the night of Rodney's wedding. Or when Rodney loses a baby with wife Cassandra. The show was no longer hinged on the impoverished foot soldiers of Thatcher's Britain. It was now a show that could be nominated for BAFTAs and major awards.
We all knew a Trigger and his surreal logic and inability to get one person's name ever correct, a brassy leopard-print Marlene and her slipped attempts to be Joan Collins posh at a car auction, a gossipy cafe owner Sid, a battle-shy war veteran grandfather and an overly snobby Boycie. Sir Anthony Hopkins nearly became a local villain regular (but work commitments got in the way) and the likes of David Thewlis, David Beckham, Wanda Ventham, Richard Branson and Jim Broadbent all frequented Trotter’s Peckham world (and one rarely actually filmed in Peckham, but often Bristol).
Taking a punt from Morecambe & Wise's landmark Christmas ratings, Only Fools created trending TV shows before such phrases existed. The best stand-ups would warm up the BBC studio audiences for the recordings. However, it was Her Majesty the Queen who would often be Del Boy's warm-up act every Christmas Day afternoon. Having witnessed John Sullivan and some of the ensemble at work, that palpable sense of family, professionalism and warmth welcomed me into when Shazam Productions were prepping a new season of spin-off show, The Green Green Grass.
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Whilst not every later Christmas special could match the extended brilliance of 'The Jolly Boys Outing' — the one episode that could have been a feature film hit — the show was able to evolve because the characters were so grounded in a now world. Of course, seeing Del and Rodney finally become millionaires was a bittersweet move. But they and Sullivan had bloomin' well earnt it. And then losing that fortune enabled more later comedy.
Other spin-offs followed including Boycie and Marlene's The Green Green Grass (2005 – 2009) and prequel drama, Rock & Chips (2010 - 2011). And just as Britain assumed the Trotter world had maybe passed with the early demise of John Sullivan in 2011, his writer son Jim and the family get behind Only Fools and Horses The Musical — a genuine West End hit and critical diamond in the rough.
Other comebacks were mooted, and Sullivan would no doubt have had Del, Rodney and the gang enjoying great Nag’s Head fun with London 2012 alone. Although how many yellow Robin Reliant three-wheelers feature in the closing ceremony of Olympiads as the whole world did witness in August 2012?!
David Jason did however step back into the cap and jacket for a fun online nudge for Gareth Southgate and our Euro 2021 boys.
As long as Del is still pottering about his garage convinced a suitcase of new rubbish is the customer’s future, The Trotters and Only Fools and Horses have not shut up their stall at all. As Del might say… it is not goodbye. It is just bonjour. Magnifique Hooky Street.
Only Fools and Horses is streaming on BritBox.
Watch: Only Fools and Horses musical preview