Written By: Mark Armstrong
Parts One, Two and Three charted the majority of the history of Only Fools and Horses. This final chapter looks at the intended final trilogy, as well as what would ultimately be a short series of comeback episodes from 2001-2003.
Christmas Specials 1996
Part one, Heroes & Villains, is remembered for one scene only: Del and Rodney running through the streets of Peckham dressed as Batman and Robin, en route to a fancy dress party. It has been played so often that, to be honest, it’s lost some value to me, especially since they do little besides running to make the audience laugh. At the time, though, it was a massively funny moment, although to me it was funnier that they turned up at the party only to discover that it had now become a wake. In the meantime, we learn that Cassandra is pregnant with Rodney’s first child. This was a good start to the 1996 Xmas trilogy, even if I still believe that the Batman and Robin scene is a bit overrated; it felt contrived, which was not normally the case for Sullivan’s big comedy moments. Perhaps he wanted to ensure that the trilogy had at least one hugely memorable moment.
Part two, Modern Men, is a weird one. It’s based around Del considering a vasectomy, in between Rodney trying to apply for a job that is ultimately his own in a fantastic scene. But then we suddenly jump to Cassandra finding out that she has had a miscarriage. Del’s OTT reaction to this prevents the deeply sad occurrence being a depressing moment for viewers to watch, although we do witness genuine emotion between Rodney and Cassandra before Del flattens an unruly “patient” to at least end this episode on a positive note. I’ve often wondered why Sullivan felt the need to insert the miscarriage aspect, rather than allowing a birth to happen naturally. Maybe it was to give the Trotters a final setback, their biggest yet (besides Grandad’s death, which was necessitated by real-life events), before going from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs in part three.
That part, Time On Our Hands, begins with Rodney breaking down in a very emotional and realistic fashion about the miscarriage before a disastrous dinner with Raquel’s parents unexpectedly opens the door to Raquel’s father James picking up a watch within the Trotter garage that he states has value. Little do Del and Rodney realise that the watch is valued at over £6 million, which after an auction finally makes them millionaires. These scenes are humorous yet touching, as a fifteen-year journey culminates in success for the wheeling-and-dealing Trotters. After making big purchases (Albert gets a ship, which he hilariously crashes once more), the Trotters reminisce on their life experiences before quite literally walking off into the sunset for the intended series climax.
The final chapter attracted 24.3 million viewers, an all-time record for a British sitcom, which illustrates how much OFAH meant to so many. As daft as it sounds, people were happy for the Trotters to finally reach their lifelong target, and the writing was superb; Del casually throws aside the watch early on, with not even the slightest hint that the item could be the one that makes him rich (he even makes a negative comment questioning how a watch like that would make him the millionaire he aspires to be). Only when researching this article did I discover that the seeds were planted in Heroes & Villains when Del potentially hints at the watch for the first time, which if true makes the writing even better. Best of all, with every key goal achieved for the Trotters, Only Fools could finish with dignity and be remembered as the greatest sitcom of all-time.
However, that wasn’t quite the end of the story.
Christmas Special 2001
For unknown reasons (perhaps because the end of OFAH left a major gap in people’s Christmas viewing schedules), by 2001 it was decided that Only Fools should be brought back. On the one hand, people felt that the 1996 trilogy provided the perfect finale, and resurrecting OFAH would tarnish its legacy. But on the other hand, some plotlines had yet to be completely resolved, and the 21st century episodes would have some more memorable moments to boast. Whatever the case, OFAH returned with If They Could See Us Now.
This episode had a lot to cover: the Trotters enjoying their new-found wealth before somehow losing it all via the Central American stock market crashing; the death of Uncle Albert (Buster Merryfield had died in 1999, whilst this new script was being written), which paradoxically leads to a humorous funeral mix-up; and the Trotters looking to bounce back when Del appears on a TV gameshow entitled Gold Rush, and hosted by Jonathan Ross, with the results being somewhat underwhelming for Del and co. (By the way, Kenneth McDonald, who played Mike, also died during the five-year gap; his absence was explained by the statement that he was in prison.)
With 21.3 million viewers representing the BBC’s viewing peak for the 2000s, it was clear that there remained plenty of interest in Only Fools, but the episode still dismayed many fans. It felt unnecessary, because were we now hoping for a way in which the Trotters could become millionaires again? Meanwhile, the teenager Damien simply was not funny, and almost all of his scenes were embarrassing, whether it be down to the delivery by Ben Smith or for the material provided for a modern-day teenager (well, modern by 2001 standards), which flew in the face of the sort of dialogue used by the Trotters up until this point. Add to that how the actors and actresses had seemingly aged ten years in five (Rodney was now noticeably grey), and it’s understandable why many view this as a low point for OFAH.
That all being said, the episode was still funny, and fortunately for the more critical fans, the journey wasn’t over yet.
Christmas Special 2002
Of the new millennium specials, the funniest was definitely Strangers On The Shore. A forgotten gem, this one saw Del and Rodney, who were now in the process of attempting to pay off a massive debt, represent Albert at a naval reunion in France. This allows Del to conduct business with the Nag’s Head via Trigger, Denzil and a French beer store, but in the process they unexpectedly bring home a “tourist”, who cannot speak English but simply says “Gary”.
It’s really funny; even if you don’t care for the modern Only Fools episodes, you should check this out. It wasn’t a classic, but it was the last OFAH episode which truly made me laugh from start to finish. There were also a few side-plots, such as Boycie’s hair continuously smelling of onions thanks to tampering by Del, and some “revelations” from the naval reunion that Albert may have had some, shall we say, “relationships” with a number of women abroad.
Although it’s never revealed in a grand fashion, we find out that Cassandra is pregnant again, which was a weird development. At the very least, shouldn’t this have been a big moment, perhaps one to end the episode upon, after the miscarriage in 1996? Odd writing there; although it’s possible that since a big deal was made of Cassandra originally announcing her first pregnancy only for it to go badly, it was perhaps better to make it more understated this time around.
Christmas Special 2003
The final ever episode of Only Fools (I don’t count the Sport Relief mini-special in 2014 nor other brief versions of OFAH from previous years, because they simply weren’t proper episodes), Sleepless In Peckham ties up a few loose ends with the Trotters’ financial woes being rescued by Albert’s savings, which allows them to recoup some of their lost fortunes; Rodney and Cassandra finally having their first child born successfully; and after revisiting an old plot through a recently-discovered archive photograph, the revelation that Freddie The Frog/Freddie Robdal was indeed Rodney’s father, making him and Del half-brothers. We also get some side-plots like Trigger coming up with increasingly daft invention concepts, and unusual absences for Denzil and Marlene both having surprise explanations.
This was a worthy episode to go out on, since it tied up some remaining plot queries. And whilst the audience of 16.37 million viewers was smaller than that of its peak years, television had dramatically changed since the 1980s, and it still consisted of two-thirds of all British households watching TV that evening. That being said, there are still those who maintain that the show should have ended in 1996 when the Trotters became millionaires, and it’s hard to disagree with them. Besides the Gary situation in the 2002 special, there was nothing in the final three episodes which was massively funny or which couldn’t have been featured in the 1996 trilogy in some form or fashion. In addition, the Freddie-as-Rodney’s dad revelation, which was hinted at back in the 1987 special, could have been the cliffhanger to end Modern Men on, so that Rodney and Cassandra could have had their successful child birth back in 1996, thus allowing everything to be tied up when it was originally intended. Or the situation concerning Rodney’s true father could have been left open, since it still casts a bit of a shadow upon the end of the series that, in the end, Del and Rodney ultimately were only half-brothers (even if their physical differences should have been a red flag pointing towards that direction from the start).
Mind you, OFAH certainly didn’t embarrass itself during its 2000s revival like some other shows have, and fortunately after the 2003 special, the door was finally closed on Only Fools and Horses, ensuring that its legacy remained intact as an all-time comedy classic. Yes, we’ve had the spin-offs like The Green Green Grass and Rock & Chips, and the Sport Relief special, but Only Fools in its original and true form officially ended in 2003, and it is not and should not be coming back. And it won’t, because writer John Sullivan sadly died in 2011. Roger Lloyd-Pack, who played Trigger, also died in 2014, and with David Jason now approaching his late 70s, and even Nicholas Lyndhurst being in his mid-50s, the Trotter dynamic simply wouldn’t work anyway. Any attempt to rekindle the magic now would prove unsuccessful, and what would be the point? There is nothing left for them to do, and adding further episodes to decreasing audiences would only hinder the show’s amazing reputation.
After reliving the history of Only Fools and Horses, it’s clear that there was never a complex formula into why the show was so great. The elements were simple: a strong cast of characters played by some magnificent performers who were perfect for their roles; a mixture of unpredictable comedy chaos mixed with a semblance of logic and a continuous chase for financial and romantic success; a never-ending salvo of great one-liners; some signature trademarks (the theme tune, the three-wheel van, the catch phrases or regular sayings), and an extremely careful and meticulous approach to writing, which makes the show a true titan based on the scripting alone. I enjoy the little details, like the Vicar being seen for a half-second when Del is talking to Aunt Renee about Freddie The Frog, only to offer his thoughts on Freddie later in the show; like the aforementioned flinging/discovery of the watch that would make the Trotters rich; like the deliberate patience shown before unleashing scenes designed to elicit huge laughter (such as Knock Knock, who only came to the Trotter’s flat towards the end of the Albert-was-mugged episode, whereby Albert’s question of “Who’s there?” was unexpectedly yet logically responded with “Knock Knock”). Then there’s the side-plots like Boycie and Marlene’s own struggles to have a child which finally come true, like Denzil changing businesses and this never being rewritten, like the rumours about Marlene carrying on with Del that would never be proven. The show as a whole was simply brilliant. When you watch it, it’s almost like you’re watching family, as ridiculous as that may sound, because the nation simply fell in love with Peckham’s finest.
I don’t think that there will ever be another comedy show that compares to OFAH for a few reasons. Comedy has changed nowadays; although John Sullivan wrote his shows for an older audience, the material was appropriate for the family to enjoy, and you actually had jokes and you had funny situations. Nowadays, the emphasis on swearing and sexual content amongst most comedy shows means that truly funny writing is something of a lost art. It’s like the stand-up comedian who spends ten minutes discussing airport struggles rather than telling you simple yet equally humorous jokes. And in this age of social media, even the funniest episodes would probably be greeted by trolling Tweeters who spread something like #CancelOnlyFools. The BBC or whomever wouldn’t have the patience to commission it for years on end, never mind the 22 years that it ultimately lasted for. And those who played key roles in the show were genuinely good actors, or genuinely good comedy actors, whereas nowadays comedians play comedy roles and try to get their own style of humour over, which weakens the show as a whole. (By the way, it’s interesting how, with the exception of David Jason, none of the cast ever had a role as prominent as what they enjoyed in OFAH; they starred in other programmes and films, sure, but David Jason is the only one who has other works which he can compare to that of his character in Only Fools.) Besides, would any comedy writers have the attention span, the focus on detail and the flair for writing “big moments” like John Sullivan did?
It’s probable that the show did peak in the late 1980s, and perhaps it should have called it a day in 1996, if not even earlier. But unlike The Simpsons, which has dragged on for so long that it is now almost two decades past its prime, Only Fools and Horses still has its legacy intact, with a wealth of classic episodes and dozens of other editions which were still really funny, along with providing many of British television’s most hilarious moments of all-time. So long as no attempts are made to “relive the good old days”, that will remain the case.
There will be many new comedies in future, and some may achieve greatness, but I doubt that there will ever, ever be a better television comedy than Only Fools and Horses. Some may try, but it’s unlikely that they’ll succeed. Mind you, if they do, then this time next year, they really should be millionaires.
Check back tomorrow for my ranking list of every episode of Only Fools and Horses!