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Television: A Shire Thing

The Times 23 August 2005

The creator of Only Fools and Horses has packed off two of his regulars to the country. How will they cope, asks Tina Ogle

In retirement, the world could have been John Sullivan’s lobster. On the back of creating the nation’s favourite sitcom, he had made the kind of money his creation, Del Boy, could only have dreamt of. But 58-year-old Sullivan, the writer of Only Fools and Horses, found quitting work impossible. “I’ve reached a stage where I don’t have to write,” he says. “I went to our place in Majorca, and it was lovely to start off with. But after a few months, I had to do something to save my sanity. I was phoning people and saying, ‘Listen, I’ve an idea. I want to come back.’”

With Fools finished for good, the project that restored his mental health is a new sitcom, Green Green Grass, a spin-off that sees car-dealer Boycie (John Challis), his wife, Marlene (Sue Holderness), and their son forced to leave Peckham for the relative wilds of Shropshire. The germ of the idea emerged several years ago, when Sullivan went to visit Challis, who lives in Shropshire. “We all went up there for John’s surprise 50th-birthday party, and seeing John, who is from south London, with all the farmers and the countryside, I thought, ‘I could do something with this.’”

The premise is a good one, with the pompous buffoon Boycie and the shrill, city-addicted Marlene reduced to incomprehension by country ways. The attraction, for Sullivan, also came from the opportunity to further explore this peculiar marriage. “We’d only ever seen them courtesy of the Trotter brothers before,” he says. “What we discover is that, though they are always bickering and being terribly insulting to one another in public, when it comes to the push, they do have love and loyalty to one another.”

This is, of course, one of the key ingredients of Sullivan’s writing: no matter how vain or ridiculous his characters, they are drawn with affection. When Challis started portraying the then monstrous Boycie in 1981, he was shocked at the positive reaction. “I used to get letters that said, ‘I love Boycie.’ I thought I’d failed. But with John, all the characters have dignity.”

Will the public take this spin-off to their hearts, as they did with Fools? There’s an in-built familiarity with the leads, but will the missing Del Boy and Rodney be spectres at the feast? If the warm reaction from a trial studio audience is anything to go by, Sullivan may have pulled it off again. “We had to make sure they weren’t in Peckham, because you’d just be wondering where everyone else was,” he says. “We had to do something drastic. The first episode starts there, then they’re off and on the run from south- London villains the Driscoll brothers. What I love is that the scenery is so beautiful. This is the first show I’ve done that looks nice.”

Born in Balham, south London, Sullivan left school at 15 and did a series of manual jobs. He spent 10 years having scripts and ideas rejected, before getting a double break at 30: being accepted as a writer on The Two Ronnies, and having the pilot of Citizen Smith made. He was a scenery-shifter at the BBC at the time, having decided it was better to work within the walls he was trying to penetrate. His mentor was Dennis Main Wilson, the producer behind Till Death Us Do Part and Hancock’s Half Hour. “I approached him and Ronnie Barker while moving sets on Porridge. They could have had me thrown out, but they were gentlemen.” Main Wilson was so impressed with Citizen Smith, he turned it into several series. “Every so often,” says Sullivan fondly, “when a couple of glasses have gone down, I’ll raise a toast to Saint Dennis.”

What drove him to continue through a decade of rejection was a desire for a better life. The son of a plumber and a cleaner, he didn’t want to spend his days in low-paid employment. “I wanted a garden, I wanted to be able to take my kids on holiday. I had a vision that drove me on.” He thinks he inherited his ability to bounce back from his father. “He always had a system to beat the bookies, and it never worked. I’d pick him up from the dog track and he’d be sitting on the steps, looking at his paper, trying to figure out what went wrong. But the next week, he’d have another system that was going to make us rich. However dire his situation, he always thought something would turn up.”

This description, of course, could fit Del Boy. Fools was born of the environment Sullivan knew, and so, it seems, is Green Green Grass. He and his wife, Sharon, now live in Kingswood, a leafy Surrey enclave only 40 minutes from Balham. “I used some of our experiences, yes. All the stuff you thought you wanted to flee, like the car alarms and sirens, you suddenly miss. The silence can be overpowering.”

Sullivan has no idea whether his latest creation will succeed. He can’t analyse the success of Fools: “If I knew, I’d bottle and sell it, and buy Necker Island.” He is convinced the critics will hate it. “The young Turks, at least, will turn on it, because it’s a traditional sitcom made by people with grey hair. I just hope viewers give it a chance.”

Still, he pays no mind to critics any more, having been bested by the best. “My old man had a lot of trouble sleeping — nothing seemed to work — and he asked me to put the old Fools tapes on. He said to me, and it was a lovely compliment in its way, ‘That show you do, I love that show.’ I said, ‘Thanks, Dad.’ He said, ‘You put that tape on and I’m asleep in five minutes.’”

Sullivan laughs, hard, and you begin to see that he does come from a long line of comic geniuses.

Green Green Grass, BBC1, from Sept 9