Saturday, 13 October 2012

ONLY FOOLS and HORSES.... A broadcast history (part 6): 1996-2003

ENCORE No. 1: 1996

After the 1993 Christmas special "Fatal Extraction", things went quiet.  Call it the enthusiasm of youth but I remember penning a letter to the BBC in autumn '94 asking if there would be a special that year - a polite reply came in the negative.

1995 and still nothing.  John Sullivan talks of these wilderness years in a 2002 interview with BBC online, saying that everyone had become too popular to find room in their schedules:

We started doing just Christmas specials: year after year, just Christmas specials.  We could never find that period in the calendar when we could all get together.  So I had a meeting with [producer] Gareth Gwenlan and I said "Look, what's going to happen here?  We can't just fade away.  We've got to accept that the success is strangling it in a way and we should go out in a blaze of glory".

John Sullivan, whose TV writing career stretched for 33 years
So, in 1996 they decided to make one last special to round the series off.  A landmark programme deserved that, though it had never happened for the likes of Steptoe and Son.  Times change - possibly, a measure of sitcom being accorded a bit more respect?  Would the BBC of the mid-1970s have sanctioned a feature length Christmas Steptoe to end their story?  I suspect they'd have thought it a daft idea.

At some point it was decided to make a miniseries of three, rather than just the one, as the schedule allowed time.

David Jason was busy with Series 5 of A Touch of Frost, but apparently declined making an extra episode in the run so he would be able to make the new Fools; and Nicholas Lyndhurst delayed recording of Goodnight Sweetheart Series 4 to the New Year.

Location filming began in Bristol, standing in for Peckham, on 3rd October 1996; the last of the three episodes was recorded in BBC Television Centre on Friday 6th December.  They went out on Christmas Day, 27th and 29th of December.

And they went through the roof.  The episodes were the three highest rated of 1996; and the finale, "Time on our Hands", was only very recently beaten as the UK's most watched single TV programme ever, by this year's Olympics Closing Ceremony (24.46m to Only Fools' 24.35m).

Reaction was incredible.  Not only the ratings - for the next 12 months the series gathered award after award.  David Jason and the production team won at the BAFTAs; Jason, Nicholas Lyndhurst and the programme at the National Television Awards; and Jason again, plus the People's Choice, at the British Comedy Awards.

I don't think "Heroes and Villains", "Modern Men" and "Time on our Hands" are the best that the series had to offer - like most later episodes, they meander - but there was enough very good content to serve as a fitting farewell to the Trotters.  We had the celebrated 'Batman and Robin' scene in "Heroes and Villains"; Cassandra suffering a miscarriage in "Modern Men" gave rise to some poignant scenes, although this isn't the kind of storyline I welcomed; and Del and Rodney finally becoming millionaires thanks to the priceless 'Harrison Lesser Watch' lying in their garage was glorious.

The Joker: Boycie (John Challis) with Del and Rodney in 'Heroes and Villains'
I still can't watch that montage scene without shedding a tear, especially at Albert going up the Thames on his motor launch.

And could there possibly be a more fitting final exchange between Del and Rodney?

Del: [Mum] said to me on her deathbed, 'Del boy, if you and little Rodney become rich, invest in the futures market'.

Rodney: You liar!  There wasn't a futures market when mum was alive!

Del: Exactly, it just shows you what a visionary she was!  This is our big chance Rodders.  He who dares, wins.  This time next year we'll be billionaires!

"[S]lowly, the flats and the estate begin to fade and the transformed into the yellow brick road.  Del, Rodney and Albert become cartoon silhouettes and still walk away from us arguing" - from John Sullivan's script for 'Time on our Hands'

ENCORE No. 2: 2001-02 (and 2003)

We now come, somewhat controversially, to the final chapter in the Only Fools and Horses.... story, excepting spin-offs.  I would have swore blind the show was over.  I wasn't complaining.

John Sullivan says it became obvious very soon after recording the 1996 specials that they were back on.  They'd wrapped things up on account of being too busy to continue, but enjoyed it so much it felt premature.  Very quickly a millenial special was mooted, but for a long time forward movement was slow.

The trilogy got its first repeat in January 1998, Friday nights around 8pm - an average 10.81m tuned in.  And the show proved influential: the concept of a Christmas mini-run for sitcoms unlikely to see another full series was appropriated by Men Behaving Badly (3-parter, 1998) and The Vicar of Dibley (4-parter, 1999).

Things picked up when, in February 1999, David Jason was asked about the status of the show at a press conference for a new series of A Touch of Frost: "There was talk about it some time ago, but the BBC and the powers-that-be have not chased it up in any way.  So, we assume that it's gone - sad, innit?"

Frantic phone calls were made and a swift statement issued from the BBC that the show could return some day.

Unfortunately, any return would be without Uncle Albert as dear old Buster Merryfield passed away in June 1999, aged 78.  His TV nephews attended the funeral.  In an interview conducted just after the farewell trilogy, he said "We said goodbye at the end of the filming...[b]ut I can't think why.  Everyone wants to do it again.  Anything that draws 24 million people is not on the wane yet.  The story is open-ended and I think there's more mileage in it.  It would be very comforting to me to have a Christmas special, like Morecambe and Wise". ["I feel like I'm Santa Claus all year round" by Maureen Paton, Daily Express 23rd January 1997]

The late Buster Merryfield as Albert.  I'd be a lot better disposed towards those last episodes if he'd still been around.
A further blow occurred when an unhappy John Sullivan withdrew from adapting BBC One's £4m "David Copperfield" serial for Christmas '99 - set to star David Jason as Micawber with Nicholas Lyndhurst as Uriah Heep.  Sources vary, but it appears his script was too funny for the BBC Drama Department.  Sullivan and Jason decamped to Yorkshire Television, who commissioned their own serial about the Dickens character: Micawber, shown Christmas 2001.

David Jason filming Micawber in Edinburgh, 2000
Only Lyndhurst remained with the BBC version, in which Bob Hoskins played Wilkins Micawber - and which featured a 10 year-old Daniel Radcliffe as the young David.  The 2 x 90m serial went out on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.  It was beaten in the ratings by a repeat of the 1981 Only Fools special.

Nick Lyndhurst as Uriah Heep in the Beeb's David Copperfield, 1999 - adaptation by Adrian Hodges
The new year brought some development - in August, BBC Head of Comedy, the late Geoffrey Perkins announced that another Christmas trilogy was in the planning stages, for 2001: "These are delicate negotiations.  Shows like [this] are too important to say "Oh, we'll just bring them back"". ["Trotters set to trade again as BBC plans comeback for Del and Rodney" - Daily Express, 12th August 2000]

However, a couple of months later and it appears the BBC were dragging their heels at the idea of bringing the show back after such a gap - wisely, in retrospect.  At the annual Only Fools convention on Sunday 29th October, guest Kenneth MacDonald played an audio message from David Jason on the Micawber set, in which he suggested fans let the BBC know they wanted to see it again.  I can't find the recording online but remember him tying it in with One Foot in the Grave, which had recently enjoyed a belated final series.

At long last, March 2001 saw the BBC announce that the show would probably be returning later in the year.  Another hiccup: the original intention was to make all three commissioned episodes for broadcast at Christmas, as per 1996.  In the event, due to David Jason's schedule, they weren't able to start until later than anticipated: he was directing the semi-autobiographical comedy drama The Quest and filming was held up by the Foot and Mouth crisis.

So, one episode of Fools would be made for Christmas, with two more to follow.

Official confirmation came in August, a month which also saw the sudden death of Kenneth MacDonald, who had played Nag's Head landlord Mike since "Who's a Pretty Boy" in 1983.  He was just 50.

Kenneth MacDonald as Mike
Setback after setback, and we've not even reached September 11th.  John Sullivan had only been writing for a few days when the terrorist attack on America took place.  A difficult situation for a comedy writer, but he finally found strength to carry on on the not unreasonable grounds that the nation could use some festive cheer.

Reportedly, the budget for each of the three episodes was £1m.  Production began on Tuesday 20th November, in Monte Carlo.  Episodes 2 and 3 were made the following February/March.  Benjamin Smith was cast as Damien Trotter, who kind of inherited Buster Merryfield's role.

In Monte Carlo filming "If They Could See Us Now", November 2001 - Benjamin Smith joins the cast as the now 11-year old Damien
My verdict?  I don't think these episodes should have been made. It had been too long.  Not only was it five years since the last episode; it was 8 years since regular production had ceased.  Momentum was not picked up again.  The idea, characters, situation - all had had their day.  I don't blame anyone for deciding to carry on, and arguably the public had demanded it but sometimes you can be too successful.

If I was being charitable, I'd let the first episode "If They Could See Us Now", squeeze through - that's the one where they lose the money and Del goes on the game show "Gold Rush" (a late replacement for Who Wants to be a Millionaire).  It's quite funny in parts and has a decent structure.

The second, "Strangers on the Shore", the 'Gary' episode, is okay-ish.  Certain of the set-ups strain credulity to say the least, but there is still fun to be had.  There are some nice exchanges between Denzil and Trig.  The ending however is terrible.  I'd rather it had dribbled away without a punchline than the one we got.

Paul Barber as Denzil, doing a nice line in bewilderment at Trig.  Maybe they could've spun off too.
It does contain my favourite gag in this run: after spending ages helping Rodney manouvre the Reliant Robin into an available space at the market, Trigger announces "you can't park there Dave!"

Roger Lloyd Pack as Trigger could usually be relied upon for a belly laugh or five per episode
With the benefit of hindsight, the third and last ever episode, "Sleepless in Peckham" seems more like a backdoor pilot for Rock & Chips, the prequel which didn't go into production for another seven years.  It's more soap than sitcom, and we finally learn the truth about Rodney's dad - something I would have preferred left for viewers to decide.

In terms of audience, the response was fantastic.  Happy to report, the public were still in love with the Trotters. "If They Could See Us Now" went out on Christmas Night 2001 at 9.08pm.  I was sceptical of ratings being comparable to 1996, but they were: 21.34m, 1st for the week and year.  A Stars in their Eyes special played opposite, back in the Matthew Kelly days.

Like I said, episodes 2 and 3 were recorded in the new year.  It seemed likely they would both be shown that Christmas.  However, only ep 2 was.  It went out on the 25th at the quite late hour of 9.42pm, to 17.4m - of the 64 episodes, only "Christmas Crackers" in 1981 went out later.  Opposite, ironically, was a celebrity WWTBAM which picked up 5.33m.  Fools was, again, 1st for the week and year despite the almost 4m drop.

"Sleepless in Peckham" didn't go out until Christmas Day 2003, despite being recorded 21 months before.  TV programmes are like loaves of bread - leave them on the shelf and they go stale.  But the BBC had new episodes of Only Fools which had cost a fortune and by jiminy, they were going to stretch them out - I reckon that was their thinking, anyway.  The episode won 16.37m and was 1st for the week again, but eclipsed throughout the year by episodes each of Coronation Street (Richard Hillman confesses to murder) and EastEnders (Den Watts back from the dead, briefly).  Perhaps signs of a slight decline, but little matter.  On ITV at the same time was World Idol, 4.55m.

The final scene - visiting their mum's grave, Rodney asks Del about his real father.  Side-splitting!
And that was it.  I traditionally spend Christmas Day at my aunt and uncle's, and remember watching those final moments from "Sleepless in Peckham" thinking that that was probably it for my old friends Del and Rodders - but hadn't particularly enjoyed the episode.  The proper finale was seven years before.  I'm still chuffed I watched it with my late father - he passed away the next year.

I've been critical in this post, but it doesn't take away from the comedy genius of John Sullivan.  At its best, which was for an impressively long time, Only Fools and Horses.... was utter brilliance.  Warm characters, strong stories, and very very funny.

I feel so fortunate to have been there!


Thanks again to the following excellent publications, without which I couldn't have written these posts: 'The Only Fools and Horses Story' by Steve Clark (BBC Books, 1998); 'Only Fools and Horses - The Official Inside Story' by Steve Clark (Splendid Books, 2011); 'The Complete A to Z of Only Fools and Horses' by Richard Webber (Orion, 2002); 'The Bible of Peckham - Volume 1' (BBC Books, 1999); 'The Bible of Peckham - Volume 2' (BBC Books, 2000); 'The Bible of Peckham - Volume 3' (BBC Books, 2001); 'Only Fools and Horses - The Story of Britain's Favourite Comedy' by Graham McCann (Canongate Books, 2011); 'The Dream Team' by Stafford Hildred and Tim Ewbank (Blake Publishing, 2000); and the incomparable 'Radio Times' Guide to TV Comedy' by Mark Lewisohn (BBC Books, 2nd edition 2003).

And I look forward very much to reading the great John Challis's memoirs, 'Being Boycie' (Wigmore Books, 2011) and 'Boycie and Beyond' (Wigmore Books, 2012).

Also, The Stage and Television Today online archive and ukpressonline - and not forgetting The OFAH Appreciation Society.

Oh - and last but not least, Sarah Heron, for her encouragement and general prodding me to finish... xx

To all the cast and crew of Only Fools and Horses...., especially John Sullivan, thanks for the comedy masterclass.


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  2. An excellent review. Well done!
    I'm never absolutely sure whether they should have made the last three episodes or not. On the one hand, them becoming millionaires was a fitting ending to a brilliant sitcom and John Sullivan pulled in so many enduring themes and sayings in that final episode. Sheer brilliance!

    On the other hand, I am thankful for classic moments such as Trigger and the car parking incident (mentioned above) and the whole routine where Del and Rodney are trying to write a screenplay in 'Sleepless in Peckham'.

    In the end, the Trotters still ended up OK, thanks to uncle Albert, but I think on the whole the ending of 'Time on Their Hands' was the perfect way for them to walk into the sunset, as it were. "This time next year, we could be billionaires!" points to a whole new episode in their lives and leaves the viewer to marvel about what John Sullivan would have done with it over several more series. I also think that Mike and uncle Albert were sadly missed in those final three episodes.

    Did you notice that the montage in 'Time on Their Hands' changed from the original screening version to the version we have now? I'm sure 'Our House' was sung by a male band originally. Possibly copyright issues were the reason the singers were changed. (?) And in the original version, Rodney and Cassandra had a baby - showing that they were successful in having a child in the end. However, the version now shows them without a baby in the montage - obviously because the final three episodes were subsequently made and Rodney and Cassandra have Joan in the very final episode.

    Thanks again for a very enlightening piece.

    (Had to delete to edit - as my first post was naff! I should have reviewed it. ... What a plonker! :D )