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).

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