John Sullivan's first comedy, Citizen Smith, starring Robert Lindsay, had been a huge success. When the show ended
due to Robert Lindsay wanting to move on, Sullivan wrote a pilot for a new sitcom called, Over the Moon. The new
sitcom was to be about an ambitious football manager at a struggling lower league club. The pilot was filmed in November 1980
and was produced by Ray Butt, who Sullivan had met when Butt was drafted in for the second series of Citizen Smith to
sort out some problems with cast punctuality. The BBC liked the pilot and commissioned a full series.
Sullivan was writing the fourth episode of Over the Moon when he was told that the series was being cancelled.
BBC One Controller Bill Cotton had returned from a trip to America
and decided that the series was to be scrapped. One of the reasons given was that the BBC had
decided to make a comedy called Seconds Out (ironically starring Robert Lindsay) about a
boxer, and didn't want two comedies with a sporting theme.
A couple of weeks later a disappointed John Sullivan met up with Ray Butt for a drink and
told him of an idea for a sitcom that he had had for some time about a South London street
trader. Sullivan had drawn up a one-page treatment of his idea a few years earlier
and had shown it to the Head of Light Entertainment at the BBC, Jimmy Gilbert who never liked
or pursued Sullivan's idea. However Ray Butt liked what he heard and several weeks later
John Sullivan arrived at Butt's office with a draft script for Readies, the working
title of Only Fools and Horses. Ray Butt liked the draft and sent it on to the BBC's
Head of Comedy, John Howard Davis, who after reading the script commissioned a series.
Casting for Only Fools and
Horses began early in 1981 and the first part to be cast was that of Rodney. John Howard
Davis, the Head of Comedy at the BBC, had suggested Nicholas Lyndhurst for the part but John
Sullivan was unsure. Lyndhurst had been acting since childhood and had gained fame
in the BBC comedyButterflies, where he played Adam, the middle-class son of Wendy Craig.
Sullivan was concerned whether he could play the part of a working class South
Londoner convincingly. John Howard Davis reminded Sullivan about
Lyndhurst's role in Going Straight, the follow up to Porridge, where
he played the cockney son of Ronnie Barker; John Sullivan agreed to have him
come in and audition and was then impressed enough to offer him the part.
The next part to be cast was that of Grandad. Producer Ray Butt rang an agent
that he knew and asked if she had anyone on her books suitable. Butt was
looking for an old man in the Steptoe mould but didn't want to use Wilfred Bramble
as he was already too well established as Albert Steptoe. But he did want someone similar. The agent said
she didn't have anyone on her books, but knew of an actor who might be
suitable who was with another agent. Butt rang the other agent and arranged for
Lennard Pearce to come in for an audition. Butt and John Sullivan had already
seen a few actors read for the part of Grandad but as soon as Lennard came in and read, they
knew they had found their man.
The part of Del was proving to be more difficult to cast. Ray Butt's first choice,
Enn Reitel (pictured left), was busy filming another series called Misfits, and was
unavailable. These days Reitel is an unknown but back in the eighties he appeared
in several average comedies including Mog and The Adventures of Lucky
Jim, he also done several voices for Spitting Image.
John Howard Davis then suggested Jim Broadbent, who at the time was appearing in a play in North
London, for the part. Butt went to see the play and was impressed enough with
Broadbent to offer him the part. Broadbent turned the offer down
because the play was transferring to the West End and he felt he couldn't divide his
time between the two. However he did go on to appear in three episodes of Only
Fools and Horses, playing the part of Roy Slater.
Two other actors were considered for the part of Del. Robin Nedwell (pictured left) from the
seventies comedy series Doctor in the House, and Billy Murray, who is better known
today for his parts in EastEnders as Johnny Allen and The Bill as Detective Sergeant Don Beech.
At the time Billy Murray was appearing in the West End Play Moving with Penelope Keith, and Ray Butt went along to
watch him perform. After watching the play, Butt felt that Murray wasn't right for the part of
Del. However, Butt hadn't had a wasted trip to the theatre as he had spotted another actor who was
also appearing in the play, Roger Lloyd Pack, whom he thought would be ideal for the part of Del's
Ray Butt was starting to worry as filming was only weeks away and they still
hadn't found anyone to play the lead character of Del. Whilst sat at home one Sunday
night he switched on the TV and began watching a repeat of Open all Hours,
starring Ronnie Barker as Arkright, the stuttering northern shopkeeper, and David Jason,
as his delivery-boy nephew Granville. Watching the programme, Butt thought
David Jason could be just right to play the part of Del. The following day he
telephoned John Sullivan and put it to him. Sullivan wasn't convinced that David Jason could pull the role of a
street-wise South London market trader but agreed to
invite him to read for the part and, after just 15 minutes, Sullivan was
won over and David Jason was offered the role.
Big Brother, the very first episode of Only Fools and Horses was
screened on Tuesday 8 September 1981 at 8.30pm and was watched by 9.2 million people. The second episode in series one, Go West Young Man, was seen by
only 6.1 million people, and remaining episodes never faired much better with the
series averaging just 7.7 million viewers. With low audience figures the BBC felt the
show didn't have a future and weren't keen to commission a second series. John
Sullivan wanted to do a second series and he had allies in David Jason and producer
Ray Butt, who both felt the show could work. At a meeting with Head of Comedy
John Howard Davis, John Sullivan felt he was being edged away from writing a
second series, but he was adamant and eventually it was agreed to give the show a
another run. At this time it was also decided to dump the original theme tune and go with the now familiar tune written and performed by John Sullivan. When he wrote
the first series he had also written the opening and closing theme tunes but producer
Ray Butt had decided to go with a piece written by Ronnie Hazlehurst, which John
Sullivan wasn't happy with. Sullivan's piece also explained the saying Only
Fools and Horses, which many people didn't understand at the time.
Series Two started its run on Thursday 21 October 1982 with The Long Legs
of the Law, which was watched by 7.7 million people. The second series
averaged 8.8 million viewers and, although up on the first series, they were still
nowhere near that of other BBC comedies which were pulling in around 15 million
viewers per week. John Sullivan was
disappointed that the show hadn't taken off and began thinking what he could do next
as he believed the BBC wouldn't commission a third series. Then on July 5 1983 a
repeat run of series two began and despite being shown in the summer peaked at 7.7 million.
This coupled with an episode-on-episode rise of the original run lead the BBC to think
that perhaps the show might have a future after all. John Sullivan was called in to see
Head of Comedy John Howard Davis and was asked to write a third series, which he
agreed to do.
Series Three kicked off on Thursday 10 November 1983 with Homesick,
and was watched by 9.4 million people. The fourth episode of series three
Yesterday Never Comes was seen by 10.6 million viewers and after this the
show never dropped below 10 million viewers. Series Three averaged 10.5 million
and in April 1984 Only Fools and Horses won the Television and Radio
Industries Top Situation Comedy Award.
Only Fools and Horses had finally established itself on British Television and from here
on in went from strength to strength.
Filming for Series Four began in December 1984 on location at a pub in
Ladbroke Grove, West London. The opening episode, Hole in One, sees
Del and Rodney so hard up for money that Grandad decides to "accidentally" fall
down the cellar at The Nags Head and claim compensation from the brewery.
Filming then moved from the pub to a magistrate's court at Kingston to record the
scenes where the three are in court claiming compensation. At the end of filming that
Sunday Lennard Pearce went home and wasn't due back on set until the following
Sunday. Sadly however he suffered a heart attack on the Wednesday and was put on
a life support machine. A few days later the hospital took him off the life support and
he then suffered a second heart attack and died.
Everyone was upset by the death of Lennard Pearce and filming was postponed
until after the Christmas break. It was agreed that despite the loss, Series Four would
continue and it was also agreed that the part of Grandad would not be re-cast as
Lennard had made the character his own and it would have been an insult to his
memory. It was then decided to add a new older character to complete the triangle
and John Sullivan had the idea that the new character would be a long lost uncle who
had been away at sea for years.
Sullivan wanted to have a funeral for the character of Grandad but had
already written the scripts for Series Four. So during the break in filming he wrote
the episode Strained Relations in which Grandad is buried and the new
character, Uncle Albert, is introduced. However, he didn't want to start the new series
with a funeral so wrote another episode, Happy Returns, to be the series opener.
The two new episodes had to be written quickly but the quality never suffered,
with Happy Returns going on to win a BAFTA award. Overall Series Four was a success
with an average audience of 15.2 million, making Only Fools and
Horses one of Britain's top comedy programmes.
Series Five was almost the last of Only Fools and Horses.
During filming David Jason told John Sullivan that after the series was completed he wished to pursue other avenues in television.
Sullivan understood Jason's situation,
so went away and wrote Who Wants to be a Millionaire, in which an old friend of Del's,
Jumbo Mills, offers him the chance to emigrate to Australia and became a partner in his business.
Rodney was to have been left behind, having been refused a permit to go to
Australia due to his minor drugs conviction. The plan then was to continue the
programme under the new title of Hot Rod, which was to be about Rodney
trying to continue the business on his own, and was to still feature all the other
regulars from Only Fools and Horses. The final scenes of this episode were never
actually written though as David Jason changed his mind and decided to stay on. However John
Sullivan had already written most of the episode so just changed the ending so that Del
turns down Jumbo's offer. Series Five opened with From Prussia with Love and was
watched by 12.1 million people. Viewing figures increased as the series went on, peaking
in October 1986 at 18.8 million viewers for the final episode Who Wants to be a
Series Six opened on January 8 1989 with Yuppy Love, over two years
after the final episode of Series Five. In between these however were three
Christmas specials, A Royal Flush in 1986, The Frogs Legacy in
1987 and Dates in 1988, in which we first meet Raquel. The Frogs Legacy was to be
producer Ray Butts' final episode, and he joined Central Television
as Head of Comedy shortly after this. Another major change to the programme was
that the BBC finally agreed to allow Only Fools and Horses to extend from thirty
minutes to fifty. John Sullivan had wanted to do this for some time as the episodes
always over-ran and had to be cut back, but the BBC had always refused.
Series Six sees Del adopting a new yuppie image with metal briefcase, red braces, filo-fax
and mobile phone; the camel-hair coat was also replaced by a yuppie-style
green Mac. The first episode Yuppie Love also sees Rodney trying to improve
himself by enrolling in night school to study computing, and sees the first appearance of
Cassandra. Viewing figures for Series Six averaged 16.7 million and that years
Christmas special The Jolly Boys Outing was seen by 20.1 million viewers. This episode saw the
return of Raquel to the show.
Series Seven began on Sunday 30 December 1990 with The Sky's the Limit, just five
days after the 1990 Christmas special Rodney Come Home. Series Seven was to be the
last ever series of Only Fools and Horses.
Three more Christmas specials were made; in 1991 with the two-part
Miami Twice, 1992 with Mother Natures Son and 1993 with Fatal
Extraction. It had been widely reported in the press that Fatal Extraction was the
very last Only Fools and Horses and with David Jason busy working on A
Touch of Frost, and Nicholas Lyndhurst on Goodnight Sweetheart, it
looked like a return was unlikely. However John Sullivan wanted to end the show
properly and came up with the 1996 Christmas Trilogy Heroes and Villains,
Modern Men and Time on our Hands.
The first episode of the trilogy, Heroes and Villains, was screened on
Christmas Day 1996 at 9pm and was watched by 21.3 million people. The second
episode, Modern Men, was shown two days later on Friday 27 December and
was also watched by 21.3 million people. The final part of the trilogy, Time on
our Hands, was screened on Sunday 29 December at 8pm and sees Del realise
his dream of becoming a millionaire after Raquel's Dad, James, spots an old watch in
Del's garage that turns out to be a 17th century timepiece made by English inventor
John Harrison. The watch is sold at Sotheby's for £6.2 million and the series ends with Del,
Rodney and Albert walking off into the sunset. This episode made British television
history by becoming the most watched programme ever with 24.3 Million people
tuning in, a fitting tribute to Britain's best loved comedy series.
Only Fools and Horses returned to our screens five years later with
the 2001 Christmas Day special If They Could See Us Now, the first of another trilogy.
The return of Only Fools and Horses was without Buster Merryfield and Kenneth MacDonald
who both had sadly died since the 96 trilogy.
The episode sees the Trotters lose all their money and end up in court over unpaid taxes.
The episode, which attracted an audience of 20.3 million was widely criticised by the tabloid
press and was generally felt by many fans not to be up to the programmes usual high standard.
The second instalment in the trilogy Strangers on the Shore,
was shown on Christmas Day 2002 and attracted an audience of 16.3 million. Although down by
four million it was still the most watched television programme of 2002.
Many felt that while Strangers on the Shore was an improvement on the previous years offering it was still way below par.
The episode sees the Trotters heading to France for a reunion with some of Uncle Albert's former shipmates.
The final episode in the trilogy, Sleepless in Peckham,
was broadcast on Christmas day 2003. The episode drew an audience of 15.5 million viewers and again has been widely criticised for being
below the high standard that the programme had set itself in the late eighties.