Rumour has it that creator John Sullivan was initially unhappy about the choice of actor to play his South London 'Wide Boy' Derek Trotter. David Jason had appeared in numerous comedy series since the mid-sixties including Do Not Adjust Your Set (a forerunner to Monty Python's Flying Circus), and Open All Hours. However, Sullivan didn't envisage the well-respected character actor as being able to carry off the role of the dodgy market trader, with an eye for flogging 'iffy' goods to the unsuspecting public.
The Trotter family which consisted of naive younger brother Rodney and their Grandad very soon became the best known characters on British television and 'Del Boy' became something of a national institution. In later years the specials became as traditional Christmas fayre as roast turkey, taking over from The Morecambe and Wise Show as the nation's favourite festive programme.
In common with the rest of the very finest classic situation comedies, especially those produced in Britain, the true core of the series' success lay in the well-drawn and understatedly developed dynamics of the Trotter family's complex emotional interdependence. In the finely observed and beautifully acted central surrogate father/mother/elder brother relationship of Del and Rodney, the creative triumvirate of Sullivan, Jason and Lyndhurst delivered to appreciative viewers a touchingly warm bond between the characters, which was almost the mirror image of the snide, ultimately pathetic one depicted in the earlier classic character-driven Steptoe and Son (a series which perhaps surprisingly, in many respects shares much in common with the later Only Fools and Horses episodes).
The programme faced the first genuinely crucial test to its continued success however in 1985 when the death of Granddad actor Lennard Pearce threatened to seriously destabilise the core dynamic which was a significantly large part of the show’s appeal. Faced with what was potentially a make-or-break decision, writer Sullivan opted to deal with the problem by carrying the real life loss of Pearce over into the Trotter’s fictional universe by examining the emotional repercussions for Del and Rodney caused by the loss of the senior member of the Trotter clan. At the same time, Sullivan undertook the risky gamble of introducing the character of the slightly bumbling, slightly more soggy than salty, old seadog, Uncle Albert to fill the void left in the original triumvirate by Granddad’s death. Such a move could have proven disastrous. But thanks to the combination of Sullivan’s writing prowess investing the Albert character with his own distinctive personality, and former bank manager turned actor Buster Merryfield’s natural comedy flair and subtle adoption of elements of body language from both Jason and Pearce’s physical performances, from the outset Uncle Albert appears so obviously, naturally a Trotter that his integration into the fabric of the show is impressively seamless. By the time Uncle Albert became solidly ensconced in his comfy old armchair in 368 Nelson Mandela House, through the sharply observational writing of Sullivan, the Trotters had built up a stable of close friends including the hysterically dim-witted road sweeper Trigger, used car dealer Boycie, barman Mike and Rodney's coarse friend Mickey Pearce.
Although the series proper ran for ten years from 1981 to 1991 it continued through the Christmas Specials until 1996 when a final three-part story saw Del, Rodney and Albert walk of into the sunset having become richer to the tune of £6 million. A record (for a sit-com) 23.45 million viewers tuned in for the final episode in the life of the Trotters, and although there was rumour of a 'Millennium Special' a one-off revival didn't transpire until 2001 for a Christmas edition which suffered from the absence of two of the series stalwarts, following the death's of both Buster Merryfield and Kenneth MacDonald. Further 'specials' appeared to suffer from a lack of sharpness in both script and (surpisingly) performances and many fans and critics alike felt that it was a mistake to revisit the Trotter homestead, where British sitcom arguably enjoyed some of its finest hours.
Derek's pseudo French, his description of his younger brother as a 'Plonker', and his 'you know it makes sense' philosophy all found their way into everyday British life. Ultimately, the misadventures of the Trotter family seems to hold the considerable distinction of being, thus far, one of the last of the genuinely 'classic' comedies produced by British television -to find a warmly welcomed place within the collective hearts of the viewing public. By turns warm, witty, touching and hysterical, Only Fools and Horses is quite simply a prime example of world-class situation comedy at its absolute finest. Cushty!
Published on January 16th, 2019. Written by Laurence Marcus & SRH (2005) "This time next year bruv, we'll be miwyonaires!" for Television Heaven.