Saturday, 3 March 2012

ONLY FOOLS and HORSES.... A broadcast history (part 4): 1988-89

What many consider the very pinnacle of Only Fools was just around the corner but to backtrack a little, Series 5 was repeated 10th Sept to 15th Oct 1987, Thursdays at 8.30pm.  Aside from a blip caused by being up against ITV's premiere of Romancing the Stone (14.2m, 3rd for the week against "From Prussia With Love" with 6.5m, 57th for the week), the usual 13m or so tuned in.

These repeats didn't make BBC1 Northern Ireland - we got them on Fridays at 8pm, on BBC2.  Presumably some regional programme took precedence.  The gall!

And as mentioned the first series finally got a repeat, six years down the line, when following on from the single showing of "Big Brother" in April, the other five episodes were shown mid-October 1987 - albeit during daytime.

BBC One's daytime schedule had launched a year earlier, in late October 1986, a development which brought Australian soap Neighbours into the zeitgeist.  So why throw the show away in such a slot, when repeats were a guaranteed smash?  Was it felt by everyone that Series 1 wasn't up to the usual standards?  Or that the theme tune would be too jarring?  One can only speculate, but I think I only watched one in this run.  I've no idea why - I absolutely loved the show, and we certainly had a VCR.  I have a feeling I thought it was substandard.  Or perhaps I was particularly busy at school at the time (hey, anything's possible).

Episode 3 of Series 1, 'Cash & Curry' - I think this is the one and only episode I watched from the 1987 afternoon repeats.  Why isn't Lennard Pearce in it?  Was it originally planned that Grandad wouldn't always feature?  If so, thankfully they changed their minds.
Controversial Christmas '86 episode "A Royal Flush" was reshown Sunday 6th December, winning 13.2m, 10th for the week.  In its original 76 minute form, I believe this was seen on terrestrial telly only once more, in 1992.

Into 1988, and apparently it was possible the show was over.  This was presumably John Sullivan's decision as David Jason was particularly keen for the programme to return; a reversal of a couple of years before when it was Jason who had considered calling it a day.

But with Dear John.... and Just Good Friends no longer in production, it would be 1992 before Sullivan created a new show.  Instead, he concentrated on Fools exclusively for the next few years - other than adapting some of his scripts for the US version of Dear John, starring Judd Hirsch of Taxi fame (and which ran to four seasons).  Funnily enough, as I write this, another Taxi alum has been cast in the new US version of Only Fools - Christopher Lloyd is playing Grandad.

Anyway, back to 1988 and the UK and a fairly swift repeat of Christmas '87 special "The Frog's Legacy" on Tuesday 28th June garnered 9.4m (15th for the week).

Tessa Peake Jones as Raquel in 'Dates': "I don't think John Sullivan had any intention of making her a regular character... I only ever saw it as a one-off appearance" [quoted in The Complete A-Z of Only Fools and Horses by Richard Webber, Orion 2002]
The decision to recommission the show was a late one on the BBC's part, for whatever reason.  Production on Series 6 began on Sunday 6th November with the scenes at Waterloo Station where Del meets Raquel for the first time, in Christmas Day episode "Dates".  This was a little later than planned, thanks to David Jason working on A Bit of a Do for Yorkshire Television - the beginning of his long-term association with the ITV franchise holder and one which eventually did not suffer Fools gladly.

Here is where the sitcom format was revolutionized: the schedule had been locked in to the usual, three or four weeks filming followed by weekly rehearsal/recording of 30 minute episodes.  But John Sullivan was turning in very long scripts...  To cut a long story short, the BBC were happy to promote Fools to a 50 minute format in view of its huge success; actors' fees were renegotiated accordingly, but nothing could be done about the schedule.

And so over the next couple of months, cast and crew produced an 80 minute special and six 50 minute episodes and by all accounts nearly killed themselves doing so.  With transmission of the seven week run beginning at Christmas, they ended up only one week ahead in recording.

But the results were glorious.  Maybe all studio audience sitcom should be made thus.

"Dates" introduced Raquel, a winning performance by Tessa Peake Jones, a serious girlfriend for Del and a welcome stab at moving the series on.  The episode has been cited by John Sullivan as his very favourite, everything paying off beautifully.  I won't demur, it's wonderful.  Shown on Christmas Day 1988 at 5.05pm opposite the too-late premiere of The Empire Strikes Back on ITV, it got 16.6m (7th for the week).

The series proper started a couple of weeks later with "Yuppy Love" on Sunday 8th January at 7.15pm.  Competition was Roy Walker quiz Catchphrase and LWT wartime drama Wish Me Luck.  Meanwhile on BBC1, Del boy was giving us his own catchphrase - and falling through a bar.

"Breakfast is for wimps" - Del-boy in his Gordon Gekko phase.  Wall Street was released in the UK in late April 1988.  The genius of John Sullivan to react accordingly.
Yes, would you believe me if I told you it was with this episode that Del's most recognisable catchphrase originated?  Eight years, six series and 41 episodes in, he said "lovely jubbly" for the first time.  He had also, hilariously, become a yuppy, having watched Michael Douglas in Wall Street.  Such fresh and promising schick from such a well established character is one reason why the show, after all this time, was still winning converts.

I've got nothing much to say on the subject of Del falling through the bar.  It was funny, and has certainly played its part in the programme's placement in the popular culture.  But it's been recycled so often as to attract ridicule.  And the chandelier gag is funnier.

"Yuppy Love" also introduced Gwyneth Strong as a love interest for Rodney, Cassandra Parry.  Nicely underplayed by the actress, the comic business involving the pair of them - Rodney pretending to live in the exclusive King's Avenue since she's dropping him off and he wants to make an impression - is every bit as inspired as the bar scene.

Cassandra: "You've taken my coat.  This one's yours"/ Rodney: "How'd you know it was mine?"/ Cassandra: "It's got your name written in it".  Del-boy embarrasses Rodney at his first meeting with Cassie and he's not even there!
Their romance developed over the six weeks, bringing a serialised element to the show for the first time, more akin to Just Good Friends than Fools and Horses.  I'm sure this played its part in the immense popularity of this series.  Had we been served up another 6 individual half-hours, I doubt the impact wouldn't have been the same.

And the impact was considerable.  Everyone was watching the show at this time.  In addition to the whole falling through the bar thing, who can forget "Danger UXD" (great title) about 'Lusty Linda' and 'Erotic Estelle', the blow-up dolls filled with propane; or "The Unlucky Winner Is..." with Rodney winning a Mega-Flakes competition, an all-expenses paid holiday to Spain - except, the organisers think he's 14; and finally, "Little Problems" when in a bittersweet ending Rodney ties the knot with Cassandra, finally leaving Nelson Mandela House, and Del-boy, for the life he's always wanted.

Ultimately, I still think the half-hours are the ones which shine brightest as comic jewels, but no one can question the marvellous second wind these longer episodes generated just when the show would almost certainly have started to flag.

Ratings were through the roof - an average of 16¾m, with the last episode reaching 18.9m.  Reviews couldn't be anything but positive.  If this was intended to be the end, reaction put paid to that.

A deserved BAFTA for "Comedy Series of 1988".  One of five wins for the programme, out of 17 nominations between 1983 and 1996.  Still not enough.
The show won a BAFTA for Best Comedy Series that March, officially for "Dates" as being shown in 1988 it was the only one eligible.  As a result it got a very fast repeat, Sunday 2nd April at 7.15pm - 15.1m tuned in, 8th for the week.

Series 6 got its first repeat 8th September to 13th October 1989, Fridays around 8pm.  An average of almost 13m, and never out of the Top Ten.  For the first time, I have little or no recollection of this, probably because the concept of video tape was so firmly entrenched that I had already watched the episodes a gazillion times.  In fact I still have the off-airs now.  Also, this straddles my going to University so I may have been otherwise occupied.

Albert, Del and Rodney on "The Jolly Boys' Outing" to Margate.  It doesn't really get any better than this.  Go watch.
A glorious year for the show was rounded off with Christmas Day special "The Jolly Boys' Outing", actually recorded in May on the heels of the series.  A much-loved episode, this tale of the Peckham regulars' disastrous beano to Margate was a showcase for the entire ensemble, many of whom I don't think I've mentioned here: Roger Lloyd Pack as slow-witted Trigger; John Challis as supercilious car salesman Boycie; Paul Barber as the luckless - any time Del is around - Denzil; Roy Heather as unhygienic cafe owner Sid; Kenneth McDonald as downtrodden Nag's Head manager Mike; Patrick Murray as Rodney's untrustworthy mate Mickey Pearce; and Denis Lill as Cassandra's dad, Alan.  It's about as much fun as actually going out for the day with these guys.

Shown at 4.05pm, the special cracked the twenty million mark for the first time - 20.12m viewers, opposite a new animated version of Roald Dahl's The B.F.G. (voiced by David Jason) on ITV.  A fitting end to the decade which had introduced us to the Trotters.

John Sullivan's work on these eight episodes is a textbook example of refreshing an ageing brand.  Indeed, he had put nary a foot wrong with the show yet.  47 episodes, almost all of them brilliant.

The next decade brought quite a bit more Fools, and most of its biggest audiences, but unfortunately not to the same very high standards we had so far enjoyed.

Next time: 1990-1993, the last years of regular production, and still plenty of high points but the superlatives will be less plentiful.

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