Wednesday, 25 January 2012

ONLY FOOLS and HORSES.... A broadcast history: 1986-87 (Part 3)

1986 and what was undoubtedly John Sullivan's year began with the transmission of his fourth BBC1 sitcom, Dear John...., the story of downtrodden divorcee John Lacey (former Hammer horror star Ralph Bates) and his fellow members in the 1-2-1 Singles Club.  Seven episodes from Monday 17th February at 8.30pm were watched by an average 13+ million.

I remember being very excited by the prospect of a new Sullivan sitcom and not being disappointed.  Another very funny and touching show, with supporting player Peter Blake as tactless braggart Kirk St. Moritz stealing most of the honours, although all the cast were excellent.

(l to r) Peter Blake as Kirk, Belinda Lang as Kate and Ralph Bates as John in Dear John...., a 1986 hit for John Sullivan
Only Fools began production on its fifth series in April, David Jason having spent all of the seven months since filming 'To Hull and Back' appearing in the West End farce "Look No Hans!".  A university friend of mine went to see this - Jason played a car firm sales rep getting mixed up in industrial espionage in West Berlin.  He said it was completely predictable and not very good, but David Jason put so much into it that it was hilarious.

Still at their peak
And knowing that he had recently played on stage seven times a week for such a long time actually colours watching Series 5.  Only a shade below 3 and 4 in terms of quality, David Jason seems to be in particular command of the studio audience in these six episodes, enjoying himself enormously.  The opening episode, "From Prussia With Love" with Del trying to sell the unwanted baby of a German au pair to prospective parents Boycie and Marlene, is uproarious.  I'm not sure the cast is taking it as seriously as they should, but it doesn't matter.

Vas Blackwood as Lennox: "They seek him here, they seek him there, those policemen seek him everywhere.  Is he in Heaven, or is he in Hell - that damned, elusive Sh-a-dow!"
At least three more classics followed: "The Longest Night", the Trotters held hostage overnight in a supermarket by a would-be bank robber (Vas Blackwood as Lennox, surely the greatest guest of the entire run); "Tea for Three", Del and Rodney arguing over Trigger's niece, with Rodney's hang-gliding revenge on Del; and the heartbreaking finale "Who wants to be a millionaire?" with Del finally getting a real chance to be a millionaire thanks to former schoolfriend Jumbo Mills.

The series began on a new day for the show, Sunday 31st August at 8.35pm with some tough competition from ITV: a Bond premiere, For Your Eyes Only.  Roger Moore's fifth 007 outing attracted 14.7m to the Trotters' 12.15 - a strong result for both.  Thereafter a series of US TV movies aired opposite Only Fools, and the public's growing adoration of the programme can be seen simply by looking at the numbers for all six weeks: "From Prussia With Love" 12.15m; "The Miracle of Peckham" 14.20m; "The Longest Night" 16.65m; "Tea for Three" 16.50m; "Video Nasty" 17.50m; "Who wants to be a Millionaire?" 18.80m - an average of almost 16m.  Woot!

The series ended on 5th October.  Given how relatively early in the programme's history this was, it is hard to believe that these were the final episodes produced in the half hour format!

The 30 minute episodes are the best.  There, I've said it.

13th November saw the start of John Sullivan's third new series of the year, a final run of Just Good Friends, more popular than ever with an average 15+m.  A colossal 20.75m tuned in on Christmas Day at 6pm to watch the final chapter in the story of on-off lovers Penny and Vince.

Meanwhile, in Peckham.... "To Hull and Back" had assured another Christmas Day special for Del, Rodney and Albert.  "A Royal Flush" told the story of Rodney's burgeoning relationship with a young member of the aristocracy, Vicky - Lady Victoria Marsham Hales (charmingly played by Sarah Duncan, now an author).

Things didn't go smoothly for the production: filming was held up by the weather and David Jason losing his voice, amongst other problems.  It was only just completed in time for transmission.  It's an odd episode: like "To Hull and Back" it is minus audience laughter and shot on film.  However, it's not all on film - the Trotters' flat sequences are on VT as usual and I'm not sure whether this is due to the filming difficulties, or because it was felt that viewers were so used to it looking that way that to change would be too jarring.

The show went out at 7.05pm, half an hour after Just Good Friends and was watched by 18.75m.  Opposite was another James Bond premiere, Sean Connery's 1983 comeback Never Say Never Again - the worst performing Bond premiere ITV had in about 25 years, not even making the channel's Christmas Top 10.

Victoria (Sarah Duncan) and Rodney try to enjoy 'Carmen', despite Del and Juney (Diane Langton).  Cringe!
So, all good?  Well, as it turned out, not this time.  "A Royal Flush" didn't meet with the approval Only Fools had become used to.  Viewers were disgruntled by Del's behaviour: a scene at the Opera, where much to Rodney's chagrin he turns up unexpectedly with an old girlfriend in tow (Diane Langton, a riot), drew flak.  More especially, the climactic scene of the weekend dinner at Victoria's home, with Del getting drunk and - think some, not I - becoming mean, proved the most controversial.  Needless to say, the episode ends badly for Rodney.

I remembered a review from a local paper, the 'Ballymena Times', the other day and tracked it down.  From edition dated 7th January 1987 (reviewer anonymous): "One black mark goes to Only Fools.  It was a fine show, but scenes of unadulterated embarrassment are no substitute for one liners.  That opera scene went on far too long and was way over the top".

That's a pretty good summation of the general feeling towards the episode, even amongst its makers.  John Sullivan hated the show, going so far as to completely re-edit it in 2004.  15 minutes were removed, and a laughter track added.  I've never seen this version, but it's now the only one available on DVD.  It even got a showing on BBC1, on 16th July 2005.

And yet, I love "A Royal Flush".  So Del gets drunk at a society dinner and completely nawrses up Rodney's life?  Of course he does, this is a comedy!  And I refute the accusation that he behaves unkindly - yes, he's trying to earn out of the situation, but he doesn't deliberately ruin Rod's relationship with Vicky.  And it wouldn't have lasted anyway.  Also, the episode just before was 'Who wants to be a Millionaire?' - watch them one after the other and see how Del comes across.
Albert: "Don't you worry Rodney, by the time he's finished with you you'll look just like one of them"/Rodney: "That's what I'm frightened of!" - 'A Royal Flush'
Given the last scene and Rodney's reaction to preceding events, it's probably too downbeat for festive viewing - but who cares 25 years later?  It's marvellous: as sharply funny as ever, also poignant and brilliantly acted by all.  Jack Hedley as Vicky's father, the Duke of Maylebury, is particularly funny with Del proving a real thorn in his side.  But a laughter track is inappropriate, people shouldn't be guffawing at this one.  Deserving of a better rep, it's some of the best work the team ever produced.

So hiccups aside, a sensational year for John Sullivan, and one for which he won the BAFTA Writer's Award the following Spring.  In celebration, BBC1 devoted an hour of programming to him on Sunday 12th April 1987 - the premiere episodes of Just Good Friends and Only Fools were shown back to back from 9.25pm.  Both gained far more viewers than had watched first time round - 13.4m for Friends, 13m for Fools.

This was the first time I had seen the opening episode of Only Fools (or heard the original theme).  Loved it, but I remember being surprised that Rodney was dissatisfied working for Del from the off.  I had assumed it was gradual!

'87 was a quieter year for Mr Sullivan, but a second series of Dear John was shown September/October, with viewership down to 10.7m.  A 50 minute special on 21st December got 9.2m.  That was it for (the British version of) Dear John unfortunately - a third series in 1989 was cancelled when Ralph Bates fell ill.  He sadly passed away in March 1991.

That year's only Only Fools, "The Frog's Legacy", was filmed in November/early December and dealt with Del's hunt for a missing fortune, the takings from a 1960s bank robbery perpetrated by the late Frederick Robdull, gentleman thief and friend of their mum - who may or may not have been Rodney's real dad.  This issue of parentage is still up in the air at the close of the episode, as is the whereabouts of the loot.  It's a so-so episode, funny enough verbally but not amounting to a great deal.

'The Frog's Legacy'.  Meh.
It went out at 6.25pm on Christmas Day to 14.5m, opposite a festive Blind Date.  And that could've been it.  John Sullivan had no immediate plans to write any more, with five series and numerous specials he had racked up 39 episodes - already a higher count than many sitcoms of comparable quality which continue to be repeated to this day: Porridge, Fawlty Towers, Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, Rising Damp, The Good Life, etc.

So even if it had ended with the damp squib of "The Frog's Legacy" in 1987, I feel the show's reputation was already assured.  But the story was far from over.

NEXT TIME: The series revolutionises the sitcom format and reaches even greater heights (again).

Monday, 9 January 2012

ONLY FOOLS and HORSES.... A broadcast history - 1985

Perhaps because John Sullivan was busy with the second series of Just Good Friends, followed by a 90 minute Christmas Special, the fourth run of Only Fools didn't begin filming until December 1984.

Incidentally, why did Just Good Friends get the feature length treatment before Only Fools?  No complaints, it was superb, but it seems an unusual commission in that only one series had been shown when it was given the green light.  The BBC must've loved that show.  Anyway, its second series averaged 13½m, more than justifying the decision, and the special was shown on Christmas Day 1984 at 7.25pm to 15.2m.  Fools, if you're keeping up, had yet to reach these heights. 

Just Good Friends' huge success was no doubt cheering to John Sullivan and producer/director Ray Butt, but Christmas '84 wasn't the celebratory time it should've been.  As mentioned, Fools' production had begun earlier that month with the few weeks filming on location that usually precedes weekly studio recording.  David Jason, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Lennard Pearce kicked things off with the outdoors scenes for an episode called "Hole in One", in which Grandad falls through an open cellar door in the Nag's Head pub and the Trotters try to claim compensation from the brewery.

The team back together again in December 1984
Unfortunately, it turned out to be the last work Lennard Pearce completed for the show, for he suffered a heart attack shortly thereafter and passed away in hospital, on Saturday 15th December.

Hard to try and be funny after that, I'm sure.  The decision was made to carry on however, and so after a Christmas break, the replacement figure of Uncle Albert was devised and cast at some considerable speed.  John Sullivan adapted five of his scripts for Albert, and penned two new ones to write out Grandad with the sensitivity the character and actor deserved.

Given the extremely difficult circumstances under which it was made, it is perhaps surprising to note just how good Series 4 is.  My joint favourite with Series 3, it is gloriously funny and "Strained Relations", which simultaneously writes out Grandad and introduces Albert, is in my opinion just about the best thing John Sullivan ever wrote, being hilarious and moving all at once.  And in 30 minutes too.

Buster Merryfield as Del and Rodney's long-lost great Uncle Albert.  The garrity old goat!
The new series began on Thursday 21st February at 8pm, half an hour earlier than previously - but had anything else changed, apart from the cast?  Well, yes.  In September 1984, BBC1 gained a new Controller in the form of Michael Grade.  Amongst many changes he initiated, some of them not particularly liked by me, he freshened up the schedule.  From Monday 19th February, BBC1 began on-the-hour and on-the-half-hour programming - something which continues to this day, more than a quarter century later.

Previously, BBC1 had some, shall we say, relaxed early evening scheduling - for instance that 7.20pm to 8.10pm slot Blake's Seven was usually shown in.  Feeling it was time BBC1 took on ITV more aggressively, the new controller introduced 7pm/7.30pm/8pm programme starts, and anchored the change with the thrice-weekly Wogan chatshow and a brand new soap, EastEnders.  Into this mix was placed Only Fools (a show Grade loved).

Whether it was this fact, or simply that it was finally the programme's time to blossom, the ratings increased considerably.  The opener, "Happy Returns", won a cracking 15.15m opposite, in most regions, a repeat of hugely successful YTV sitcom Duty Free.  It was 6th in the overall week's ratings.  The following week Grandad's funeral was watched by 14.9m opposite a Rising Damp rerun.

"Don't give us all that Quincy cobblers, Rodney!"  The episode 'Hole in One' was rewritten for Uncle Albert.
The rest of the run played against a new US import in the shape of Street Hawk (crime fighter with turbo-powered motorcycle), which didn't trouble the Trotters much.  Average audience for the 7 week series was 14½m, over 4m up on Series 3.

A triumph, for which the cast deserve considerable credit.  David Jason was BAFTA-nominated; Nicholas Lyndhurst should have been, for this is possibly his finest hour as the awkward Rodney; and the debuting Buster Merryfield, a most likeable old fella, didn't dent the show's popularity at all - and cast changes have killed many a sitcom.

Given such huge success, this time it was Only Fools time for the feature length Christmas film, a tradition pioneered a couple of years earlier with Last of the Summer Wine.  Commissioned in April, 'To Hull and Back' saw Del, Rodney and Albert head to Amsterdam for a diamond-smuggling caper hatched by Boycie and Abdul.

But it might not have come to pass had it not been for the intervention of Michael Grade.  With the budget coming out at far higher than they had anticipated, the BBC Comedy Department baulked.  Finding himself seated next to the BBC1 controller at the Montreux Television Festival in Switzerland in May, Ray Butt told him the story.  Grade approved a £850,000 budget.

£850,000 incidentally, is far higher than many if not all of the budgets for the wave of theatrical sitcom spin-offs that proliferated during the 1970s, even taking film industry inflation into account.  In 1979 for instance, just six years before 'To Hull and Back', the Porridge feature cost £250,000 and Rising Damp just £125,000.  I feel TV history is doing them a disservice by not including the Beeb's own cycle of comedy films.  They're much better too, on the whole.  David Jason said at the time: "We have always wanted to do the show on film because it produces a quality of its own, like Minder" [quoted from "How poor Granville became a loveable streetwise trader" by Garth Pearce, Daily Express 24 December 1985].

To Hull and Back: "So you've never actually studied navigation at all?"/"Boiler maintenance men didn't have to - see, the boiler has a tendency to go wherever the ship's going"
Michael Grade decided to play a hunch with 'To Hull and Back', though how much it cost might have proved a factor.  He scheduled it directly against Minder on the Orient-Express, ITV's own big feature-length spin-off, on Christmas Day.  That was quite a big deal in those days, when VCR ownership was far from widespread.  Newspapers made much of the competition.  The shows were of course quite similar too - John Sullivan has acknowledged that he had Minder's existence to thank for getting Only Fools commissioned in the first place. 

Before we get to who won, Series 4 was repeated 16th November to 21st December, Saturday nights around 8pm, to an average of 13.75m.  Funnily enough the episode "It's Only Rock and Roll" in which Rodney joins a rock band fronted by 'Mental' Mickey McGuire (Daniel Peacock), wasn't repeated in this run, and wasn't seen again until 1991.  Either someone didn't like, or maybe as simple as they only had six slots available.  Fair enough, but Nick Lyndhurst's "You claimed that mum said, on her deathbed, 'send Rodney for the fish'" speech didn't deserve to be unseen for so long.

The repeat of ep 7 on the 21st, "As One Door Closes" with Del and co. on the trail of a priceless butterfly, outstripped its original screening by almost a million, with 15.05m tuning in.  Peter Fiddick in his weekly ratings column in 'The Listener' on 9th Jan said of this: "Only Fools and Horses.... becomes not just the top BBC programme but nationally is barely pipped for the top slot by the best Coronation Street can do.  ...This should come as [no] surprise: we now have a long list of comedies whose popularity has matured in the can".  Chasse de forme!

So - Christmas night 1985, and both Only Fools and Minder were on at 7.30pm.  Theoretically, it could've gone either way - Minder's most recent series, shown Sept-Oct, had averaged 14.28m, only a smidgeon below Fools.

The Radio Times double issue for Christmas 1985.
Anyway, the winner was 'To Hull and Back' by quite a margin, 16.9m to Minder's 12.5.  I reckon Michael Grade took a flyer that Fools was on the way up, whilst the other was on the way down, and he was proved right.  Qualitatively, I think the better man won too.  In fact, the BBC thoroughly trounced ITV that Christmas, and continued to do so from that point on more or less.

Myself, I was annoyed at not getting to record both.  I plumped for Fools, and watched it endlessly with great pleasure.  My parents maybe not so much, unlike the Trotters we only had the one TV.  The Minder pic came out on video just a few months later for £9.99 or something so it all worked out okay.

So perhaps the best year ever for Fools came to a end - a BAFTA for Best Comedy Series of 1985 was forthcoming - and yet it was one which had started on such a cheerless note.

John Sullivan wasn't however the king of the Britcom just yet, that moniker probably belonged to Roy Clarke: his Last of the Summer Wine chalked up its eighth series with an average audience of 17m, often beating at least one Coronation Street each week; and a fourth and final run of Open All Hours saw David Jason enjoy even greater success with 16.6m.  A Christmas Summer Wine film, introducing Michael Aldridge as eccentric ex-headmaster Seymour Utterthwaite, won a stupendous 18.1m.

A strong year for situation comedy in the ratings also saw the return of Alf Garnett in In Sickness and In Health enjoyed by almost 15m; and over on ITV, the gentle husband and wife series Fresh Fields peaked with its third series, a 15.83m average and once or twice edging out Coronation Street for the top slot.  Those were the days, my friend.

NEXT TIME: 1986, and ratings climb even further, but no one seems to like the Christmas special apart from me.

With acknowledgments to several marvellous resources: 'The Only Fools and Horses Story' by Steve Clark (BBC Books, 1998), 'The Complete A to Z of Only Fools and Horses' by Richard Webber (Orion, 2003), 'Only Fools and Horses: The Story of Britain's Favourite Comedy' by Graham McCann (Canongate Books, 2011) and the incomparable 'Radio Times' Guide to TV Comedy' by Mark Lewisohn (BBC Books, 2nd edition 2003).