Written By: Mark Armstrong
Only Fools and Horses is probably the greatest British sitcom of all-time, if not the greatest comedy show ever period. A moderately-sized group of recurring characters with the central figures having a consistent and clear goal – to somehow become millionaires one day – along with topnotch comedy material, fantastic comedy acting and outstanding writing all combined for a superb television series. It was a slow starter, it has to be said, but it soon evolved into a real gem of a programme, and at its peak, OFAH was responsible for some of the greatest British television moments in history.
In the beginning of a multi-part series of articles, I’ll have a closer look at the history of the series on-screen, reminiscing on the many highs and occasional lows of Only Fools and examining why it was just so damn good.
Series One – 1981
The first series consisted of half-hour episodes, broadcast just before prime time on BBC 1. Back then, there were only a small number of television channels, so the high ratings for this opening series should be taken into context. The series itself had the following episodes: Big Brother (where Del Boy and Rodney have a dispute concerning dodgy briefcases), Go West Young Man (the Trotters sell a used car, which comes back to bite them after they go clubbing and miss out on a potential double date), Cash and Curry (Del arranging a business deal at the expense of two disputing Indian businessmen), The Second Time Around (Del rekindles a romance with old flame with a nasty streak named Pauline), A Slow Bus To Chingford (Del sets up a tourist bus operation, with Rodney also employed as a night watchman) and The Russians Are Coming (where the Trotters prepare for a potential nuclear war). There was also the first Christmas special, Christmas Crackers, where a disastrous Christmas dinner cooked up by Grandad led to the Trotters going out on the town.
Ask any longtime OFAH fan, and they’ll tell you that these were amongst the weakest episodes of the show’s entire run. Which is no surprise: the show would come on leaps and bounds in the future, and certain integral characters were yet to be introduced. What’s more, whilst David Jason quickly settled into the role of Del Boy – a wheeler and dealer not too dissimilar, but far funnier, than Harry Redknapp – the Rodney character played by Nicholas Lyndhurst was more annoying and confrontational at this point. Part of his charm was frequently disagreeing with Del, but at this point Rodney was clearly playing second fiddle to Del (as evidenced by the layout of each plot). Grandad (played by Lennard Pearce) played his understated role well, in the episodes where he featured (some early episodes only included Del and Rodney from the Trotter clan). But things were clearly still being ironed out for the show, as evidenced by the original instrumental theme being very different from the tune which would become the show’s signature a little further down the line. Some aspects are put in place early on, though: for instance, the brilliantly dumb Trigger (played by Roger Lloyd-Pack) calls Rodney “Dave” from episode one onwards (which apparently stemmed from Roger getting names wrong during initial rehearsals). Incidentally, in a side note, David Jason was not the original choice to play Del Boy; Jim Broadbent was, who would later play Slater.
The main reason why these episodes are less fondly remembered, though, is that the plots weren’t quite as funny as those which would come later, and some shows were a bit of a chore to sit through (like Cash and Curry and The Russians Are Coming). And while each episode usually has at least one truly funny moment, the memorable aspects of these early episodes were just highlights of those particular shows, rather than highlights of the series as a whole. Really, only the interplay between the Trotter brothers and the people they encountered in the various clubs in episode two and the verbal exchanges between the Trotter trio regarding the revived relationship between Del and Pauline are truly worth watching, at least from a comedy standpoint. The Christmas episode was the best of the bunch, but even this paled in comparison to later such editions. The episodes still had their moments besides these, but few people will go out of their way to watch these early shows for anything other than curiosity purposes.
The audience at the time agreed, since the viewing figures were disappointing, and the general feedback was only above average at best. In fact, the show was at danger of being cancelled, but strong ratings for repeat showings led to a second series, which ultimately set the show on the right track.
Series Two – 1982
Some of the early gems of OFAH came from series two, which featured the following episodes: The Long Legs Of The Law (Rodney dates a policewoman and brings her back to the flat, which contains all sorts of hooky gear), Ashes To Ashes (the Trotters end up with what appeared to be the ashes of Trigger’s grandfather in an urn), A Losing Streak (Del consistently loses to Boycie, played by John Challis, in poker games, leading to a major game at the Trotters’ flat in Nelson Mandela House), No Greater Love (Rodney tries the dating game again, this time dating an older lady whose husband is currently imprisoned), The Yellow Peril (the Trotters unwittingly paint the inside of a Chinese restaurant with illuminous paint), It Never Rains … (the trio holiday in Benidorm before Grandad is unexpectedly arrested) and A Touch Of Glass (the Trotters are hired to clean chandeliers in a posh mansion).
The quality of the series was higher during this series, with the trademark wit of Del coming to the fore more often, especially when criticising Rodney for dating a woman in her 40s in episode four, as well as the increasingly-funny exchanges between the Trotter clan as a whole in such situations as Grandad explaining how he ended up in a Spanish prison for crimes apparently committed in the 1930s. Meanwhile, there were more “moments” to truly savour, not least the “chandelier” drop in the final episode, often considered one of the very best OFAH moments ever. As well as establishing certain characters as integral figures, such as Boycie, we also had signs of writer John Sullivan’s attention to detail and his excellent foreshadowing of upcoming incidents; for instance, the two-headed coin in A Losing Streak leads to funny results on its own, but then provides a hilarious conclusion.
The only downer was the Christmas special Diamonds Are For Heather, which saw Del pursue his own romantic wishes. It wasn’t terrible, but it featured less comedy and more drama as it marked the first of several episodes where John Sullivan demonstrated how he could create genuine emotion in a comedy setting; however, it wasn’t quite as effective here as it would be in future editions. This was only a minor issue, though, as the ratings were higher for series two across the board, as was the general feedback as a whole.
Only Fools and Horses would definitely be sticking around, then – but few realised just how legendary it would become.
Series Three – 1983
The third series also had some pretty memorable moments. Homesick (Rodney becomes chairman of the Tenants Association, which Del tries to exploit to earn a new home; this, by the way, is the only episode where Trigger calls Rodney by his proper name, albeit only after Rodney corrects him), Healthy Competition (Del and Rodney compete for business, only to eventually reunite; this includes the debut of Mickey Pearce, Rodney’s on-off friend, played by Patrick Murray), Friday The 14th (the Trotters’ fishing trip takes an unforeseen turn when they learn that an axe murderer is on the loose), Yesterday Never Comes (Del dates an antique dealer, whose true intentions are unknown to Del), May The Force Be With You (old enemy, but series debutant, DCI Roy Slater – played by the aforementioned Jim Broadbent – arrests the Trotters for stealing a microwave), Wanted (where Del leads Rodney to believe that he’ll be prosecuted after an incident with a lady, nicknaming him the “Peckham Pouncer”), Who’s A Pretty Boy? (the Trotters think they’ve killed a pet canary for Denzil, played by Paul Barber and making his first appearance here, when decorating his kitchen; Mike, the Nags Head barman played by Kenneth MacDonald, also debuts here) and the Xmas special which was shown only days after the series ended, Thicker Than Water (where the Trotters’ estranged father Reg reappears for one episode only).
By now, the formula of slowly building to a big laugh-out moment and/or a major climax was firmly in place, from the revelation that Rodney squandered his set-up business deal in episode two, to the reveal of who really stole the microwave in episode four, to the clearing up of the canary incident in episode seven. The one-liners and quick wit by all were now a series trademark, including that of Rodney whose character was now an asset rather than the nuisance it initially was. Good examples included the scaremongering between the Trotters concerning the axe murderer and the dialogue between Del and Reg and his reactions to the father’s return in the Christmas show. Grandad’s “Wendy House” crack in episode two was intended to be a quick one-liner in the second episode of the series, but the audience reaction was so loud and prolonged that this became one of the highlights of the third series.
The series had now become a BBC favourite for viewers, as evidenced by viewing figures and overall feedback. But tragedy would strike prior to series four, which would strangely provide John Sullivan with a chance to make a groundbreaking episode.
Check back tomorrow for Part Two!