TV Feature: The History Of Only Fools And Horses – Part Three

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Image Source: Joke

Written By: Mark Armstrong

In Parts One and Two, I charted the beginning and rise of Only Fools and Horses. In this third chapter, I will recap what was probably the greatest ever year for the series, along with some memorable Christmas specials and the final “proper” series.

Series Six – 1989

In the past, each series consisted of stand-alone episodes, with perhaps the odd reference to a previous show here and there. In series six, however, there was one constant plotline throughout, that being the development of Rodney’s relationship with Cassandra, played by Gwyneth Strong. They meet at a computer class in the first episode of the series and, by the sixth and final episode of the series, they are getting married. In the meantime, however, we were treated to arguably the greatest OFAH series ever.

Yuppy Love features a ton of great moments, none more memorable than what is probably the funniest Only Fools scene ever, as Del Boy takes a surprising tumble through a space left behind by a now-upright bar flap. This was another testament to Sullivan’s first-class writing, because absolutely nobody saw it coming; it was set up so subtly, so effectively, that not a single member of the audience was expecting him to fall in this fashion. Ironically, the basis of the scene was not Del’s fall but Trigger’s reaction because one moment he saw Del, and the next he didn’t, but because of his stupid nature, he had no idea what had happened.

Then we had Danger UXD, which was another fantastic episode as the Trotters ended up with potentially dangerous blow-up dolls, and had a great scene in itself where the dolls began to unexpectedly inflate in the Trotters’ flat. Chain Gang provided fewer laughs, but was another example of Sullivan’s superb writing as Del and friends’ deal with a crooked jewellery salesman is resolved in brilliant fashion, with some subtle yet crucial developments along the way. Another wonderful episode came in the form of The Unlucky Winner Is …, as Rodney is entered into an art competition to win a holiday and triumphs, except that it’s for under-15s only. Cue some truly hilarious situations as the Trotters handle the consequences.

Although this series has the strongest episodes on the whole, the next edition Sickness and Wealth is one of the less fondly-remembered episodes. The scenes where the gang believe the so-called spiritual medium Elsie Partridge are funny, but the possibility that Del is ill because he has possibly caught HIV gives the episode a bit of a depressing feel, even though it is eventually revealed that he is fine and just had stomach cramps. The reference to HIV/AIDS was a bit groundbreaking by late 1980s standards, but whilst Sullivan’s writing was generally strong, I and many others feel that this episode is lacking something, and is a bit dark in places. The series rebounded with Little Problems, where Rodney and Cassandra get married. Perhaps its most memorable moment comes near the end where after the wedding, Del is left alone, with Rodney no longer his little sidekick, and with his own love life still unresolved. In fact, the scene (accompanied by Simply Red’s Holding Back The Years) drew many in the audience to tears. It does end with a quick scene to remind Del that Rodney will always be a “plonker”, even if he no longer lives with him and Albert.

If the previous years elevated Only Fools to legendary status, this series cemented the show as an all-time great. There were so many stand-out moments either for comedic effect or for providing real drama. The performances were magnificent, the writing flawless, the comedy timing immaculate. And yet it would still get even better.

Christmas Special 1989

To me, and a large number of diehard fans, no OFAH episode was better than The Jolly Boys’ Outing. A masterpiece of a Christmas special based around a trip to Margate for a whole host of male characters, this had plenty of genuinely memorable moments, such as Rodney whacking a police officer with a football, a coach blowing up, a hotel from hell which saw its windows potted, two “love-defending” attacks that ultimately proved to be blunders, two other attacks being hilariously implied and plenty more. This was an absolute classic. In my opinion, it is the ultimate Christmas special – even if, ironically, it was set in the late summer.

The writing shone via the set-up of those big moments; for example, Rodney accidentally booting a football into a policeman’s face was unpredictable right up until it happened. And it continued several existing plotlines, such as the Rodney-Cassandra marriage, whilst also revisiting an old situation, since Del unexpectedly bumps into Raquel again in Margate, which plants the seeds for what would become a permanent partnership.

Some would argue that Only Fools went into decline after this. I feel that such an opinion is unfair, because the series provided some real highlights later on. I would say, though, that purely from a comedic standpoint, the peak of OFAH came via The Jolly Boys’ Outing.

Christmas Special 1990

Hmm, this is a tough one to analyse. Whilst Jolly Boys’ was always going to be a tough act to follow, what we received was one of the more depressing episodes in OFAH history, as Rodney Come Home was based around the crumbling of the Rodney/Cassandra marriage, with Del’s attempts to help ultimately proving fatal (although it was done good-naturedly, unlike his actions four years earlier). The split situation feels uncomfortable to watch at times, and although nobody has confirmed this, I believe that Cassandra even let the F-word slip out during one such scene (which may have been edited since then). The ending feels gloomy too, as the usually-jolly music is replaced with a tune which has a more sombre tone. That being said, there are still a good number of laughs to be found, and Albert trying to act surprised at Rodney dating another girl is so funny that even David Jason is visibly laughing.

As a Christmas special, it must have been a bit of a downer – but what John Sullivan was really doing was preparing the lead plotline for what would be the final proper series for the show.

Series Seven – 1991

The series-long storyline was of Rodney and Cassandra trying to rekindle their romance which, after several bumps in the road, they finally do in the last episode. Along the way, we have The Sky’s The Limit (where Del finds ownership of a fairly important satellite dish), The Chance Of A Lunchtime (where Raquel auditions for a play), Stage Fright (Del has Raquel sing alongside a performer who, unbeknownst to Del, has a speech impediment), The Class Of ’62 (where Slater reappears and, after surprisingly using the C-word to describe his father – although this is never audible on the show – it is revealed that he used to be married to Raquel), He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Uncle (Albert is mugged, or so he tells the Trotters) and Three Men, A Woman and A Baby, where Raquel gives birth to Del’s first child. Yes, Del becomes a father, with Raquel announcing her pregnancy in the second show (hence why she can’t accept the acting role). The child is named Damien, which begins a recurring theme of Rodney being spooked by the potentially devilish child. Beforehand, Trigger hilariously suggests that the kid will be called “Rodney, after Dave”.

By now, Rodney is no longer really part of Del’s trading “team”, although he loses his current role by accident and sees his life take a bit of a dip before properly reconciling with Cassandra. Del too focuses more on his personal life than business, although he keeps his business options open, for instance by selling doorbells that play multiple national anthems.

The standout episodes in this series are fewer, as the show now felt more like a soap, albeit a very funny one, and with the laugh-out-loud moments playing second fiddle to the relationship aspects. But there are still some memorable moments during this series, with the biggest (from a comedy standpoint) probably being the revelation that Tony Angelino can’t pronounce his R’s, which is only discovered during a live performance alongside Raquel. Another example of John Sullivan’s fantastic writing, since his speech impediment isn’t event hinted at beforehand, resulting in a greater impact when the truth comes out.

Christmas Specials 1991 

From a production standpoint, Only Fools peaked with the 1991 double-header Xmas special Miami Twice, with the first, more traditional episode (The American Dream) setting up a second show that has more in common with a movie (Oh To Be In England) which details the Trotters’ adventures in America. Although this was all really entertaining, the latter part was definitely a bit drawn out, and whilst the concept that Del was being mistaken for a Mafia boss was humorous, was it a bit too far-fetched, and perhaps a sign that the show was losing some steam? After all, with the relationships now firmly established, the only remaining goal was financial glory, which wasn’t even hinted at throughout Miami Twice. Maybe it’s just me being a sucker for the more traditional episodes, but whilst they are unquestionably funny, the two parts here couldn’t compare to, say, Jolly Boys’ Outing or The Frog’s Legacy from a comedic standpoint. Just my opinion.

Christmas Special 1992

Perhaps my feelings were shared by others, because the following Christmas special (Mother Nature’s Son) went back to basics, with a traditional episode structure based around Del’s latest money-making scheme: via an old allotment owned by their late Grandad (nice hark back to the past there), Del finds a way to sell tap water in bottled form, under the name Peckham Spring. This is another episode where the story is funnier than any particularly big incidents, although there are a lot of laughs to be had from such moments as Trigger saying that a 24-hour depo was closed at night, and the bottled water turning a mysterious colour at night. It also includes Albert’s funniest “During the War” story involving a kamikaze pilot.

Although the remaining episodes were far from poor, this was arguably the last truly great show in terms of consistently providing big laughs.

Christmas Special 1993

Fatal Extraction sees Del and Raquel temporarily split as a result of Del’s increasing gambling habits. They later reconcile, but a planned date by Del with his dentist leads to a sticky situation as the episode ends. Like Mother Nature’s Son, this has a series of funny moments rather than the leading plotline being massively hilarious, but although some instances are laugh-out-loud (like Del, under anaesthetic, remarking he’ll “sit here”, with his speech slurring to come out with something completely different), the episode as a whole feels too long, and feels a bit grim in places. To me, once Del and Raquel are back together, the episode should have ended; carrying on the dentist aspect was unnecessary and even at times creepy, leading to an unsatisfying conclusion. It’s not without merit, but Fatal Extraction is not exactly considered to be a classic Christmas special by diehard fans.

Once again, Sullivan at this point had plans for this to mark the end of the series as a whole. It actually looked to be that way for a little while, with 1994 and 1995 not having any episodes (this was the longest gap between episodes since the series first began in 1981). Maybe the crew believed that the show had peaked in the late 1980s, and with the relationships having nowhere else to go from a comedic point of view, and with the actors aging (David Jason was in his 50s by this point, and he had only recently become a father in the show), some situations weren’t quite as believable. No longer was Del Boy a young happy-go-lucky tradesman; he was getting old, not massively so but old nonetheless, and even Rodney was no longer the youthful figure that he was originally cast as. Mind you, could such a legendary series end with arguably the weakest Christmas special in seven years?

Fortunately, the decision was made to revisit Peckham in 1996 with a trio of specials, which would culminate in the Trotters finally achieving their lifelong dream.

Check back tomorrow for the final part!