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Only Fools and Horses: From Peckham to paradise

The Independent, 08 September 2005

John Sullivan is standing in the queue for lunch at the canteen in Teddington Studios. As he contemplates the lamb curry, the dinner lady tells him: "Sorry to bother you, Mr Sullivan, but I just wanted to tell you that you're my very favourite person. You and Walt Disney." Sullivan chuckles. "Thank you. I'm very flattered," he says. "That's very exalted company!"

It is, but you can see where the dinner lady is coming from. Sullivan is the man responsible for the most popular UK sitcom of all time. Only Fools and Horses has long since been assigned to the file marked "national treasure". Thanks to Sullivan's deathless creations, the incorrigible Peckham wideboy Del Boy Trotter (David Jason) and his brother Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst), playgrounds and pubs over the past quarter of a century have reverberated to the sounds of "lovely jubbly" and "you plonker".

Jason announced recently that he no longer wants to don Del Boy's car-coat. But that is not the last we will see of the characters from Only Fools. Sullivan has decided to bring back two of Del Boy's saloon-bar mates. The flashy, snobbish, second-hand-car dealer Boycie (John Challis) and his flirtatious, leopardskin-clad wife, Marlene (Sue Holderness), are the leading characters in The Green Green Grass, which starts on BBC1 tomorrow. It's Only Fools, Jim, but not as we know it.

The new sitcom begins in the couple's "earthly paradise" in Peckham. But before you can say nouveau riche, Boycie is upping sticks. He discovers that his nemeses, the Driscoll brothers, are about to be let out of jail. Worse still, they have found out the identity of the grass who got them locked up in the first place: Boycie.

He immediately moves his family to a remote farm in Shropshire. Dyed-in-the-wool townies, Boycie, Marlene and their teenage son, Tyler (Jack Doolan), fail miserably to acclimatise to the bucolic life.

All in all, this looks to have the makings of a promising, mainstream fish-out-of-water-com. Before they go into their Shropshire local, for example, Marlene whines that it is going to be full of Morris dancers and sheepdogs, and Boycie snaps at her: "Don't be stupid - this is the 21st century, woman." Cut to the couple entering a pub full of Morris dancers and sheepdogs.

Sullivan, 58, is well aware that some critics will be looking to rain on his Green Green Grass. There is evidence to suggest that spin-offs - with the glorious exception of Frasier - hardly ever work.

Sullivan contends that that is not the case with The Green Green Grass. But he is bracing himself for flak. "I am worried about the critics," the writer concedes. "You could put your money on us being savaged. I've already told the cast, 'Be prepared to be savaged to begin with, but hopefully by episode three, the critics will change their minds.' The critics tend to hammer you and then move on to hammer something else. What counts is if the viewers stick with you."

Sullivan is also anticipating a backlash because The Green Green Grass is not aimed at a so-hip-it-hurts youth market. "I'm sure some people will say, 'we need young and trendy things'," sighs the writer, who was born just down the road from Peckham in Balham. "For many years, the BBC was obsessed with youth. Executives were trying to hold back the years."

During the first episode of The Green Green Grass, Del Boy crops up only in a couple of passing references. At one point, Boycie bemoans the fact that people drop in only when they want something. "Only last week," he complains, "Del Boy dropped into the showroom just to say hello. By the time he left, he'd sold me 33 bottles of Latvian Chablis."

Later on, Boycie and Marlene find that his satellite navigation system has rendered them lost in deepest Shropshire. "Who did you get that satellite navigation from?" cries Marlene.

"Who do you think?" replies her husband.

So Del Boy's shadow still hangs over the start of The Green Green Grass. But Tim Hancock, the executive producer, reckons the new show can soon shake off the mantle of the old.

"I hope this will be to Only Fools what Frasier was to Cheers. There will be the occasional passing reference to the original, but Boycie and Marlene very much have a life outside Only Fools. Del Boy and Rodney aren't going to leap out of the cupboard. It's not Only Fools Lite."

Challis chimes in: "I'm sure that when The Green Green Grass was pitched, some people thought, 'Crikey, will viewers be interested in Boycie and Marlene?' There probably will be a bit of carping in the papers along the lines of 'it's a bit of a diluted form of Only Fools'. But viewers don't take any notice of that; if they like it, they like it. People will tune in at first out of curiosity, but it's up to us to keep them there."

Holderness takes up the theme. "It would be a mistake to bring in other characters from Only Fools, because people would be asking all the time, 'Where's Trigger?' Of course, some people might turn off when they see David Jason isn't in it. But I hope those who stick with The Green Green Grass will find it funny in its own right. If you make them laugh, people will forgive you almost anything!"

For his part, the writer says: "The lovely thing about The Green Green Grass is that it's a Trotter-free zone. That means you can create a whole new world for Boycie and Marlene."

So why does Sullivan think the time is now right to resurrect these characters? "When I first heard about Frasier, I thought, 'That's not the right character to spin off from Cheers. It should be Norm or Cliff'. But that inspired me because it was such a surprise - he was the last character you'd think they'd spin off.

"It was the same with Boycie and Marlene. When I started thinking about a series starring them, I thought, why not? The characters are already hugely popular, but we've only ever seen them in the Nag's Head acting for the public. We've never seen them on their own having dinner or watching TV."

And the real vitriol between them can now come out. "They're a great couple to write because they have such a bittersweet relationship," continues Sullivan. "Boycie and Marlene insult each other in the most vicious way, but still they stay together. In any other relationship, that sort of behaviour would cause divorce or violence. It wouldn't work with my wife. I'd end up with a lot of wine over my head!"

Challis believes that Boycie and Marlene work so well as characters because we all know excruciating social climbers exactly like them. "Boycie has aspirations. In The Green Green Grass," the actor says, switching mid-sentence from his middle-class voice to the character's familiar "sarf" London drawl, "he sees the opportunity to become a country gent and rise up the social scale.

"Viewers tap into that aspirational trait. It's a characteristic that runs throughout British comedy, from Hancock to Mainwaring and Fawlty. One sniff of the upper classes and their behaviour changes completely and usually leads them to fall flat on their faces."

'The Green Green Grass' starts on BBC1 tomorrow.