Matthew Bell on why Del Boy and Rodney are a comedic match made in heaven
If you can judge a sitcom solely on the strength of its catchphrases, Only Fools and Horses is a gem. Three decades on from its heyday, Derek “Del Boy” Trotter’s sayings – “lovely jubbly”, “you plonker” and “cushty” – are part of our everyday language. We even remember his terrible Franglais – “mange tout, mange tout, as the French say” – by which Del meant “no problem”.
But Only Fools and Horses also had slapstick – the smashed chandelier and Del Boy falling through the bar – to rival Laurel and Hardy in its set-up and execution; idiocy – Del Boy and Rodney, dressed as Batman and Robin, thwarting muggers; and no little poignancy.
The late John Sullivan’s sitcom ran for seven series on BBC One from 1981 to 1991, continuing, on and off at Christmas, until 2003. It was absurdly popular – 24.3 million people watched a 1996 special, the biggest audience ever for a UK comedy.
At its heart were David Jason’s Peckham market trader Del Boy and Nicholas Lyndhurst as his hapless younger brother Rodney, more often than not the target of Del’s “plonker” jibes. “I’ve got this horrible feeling,” Rodney once said, “if there is such a thing as reincarnation, knowing my luck, I’ll come back as me.”
Sullivan, who grew up in a working-class south London family, was familiar with Del Boy’s world and the characters that populated it; most memorably, second-hand car dealer Boycie (played by John Challis) and daft-as-a-brush road sweeper Trigger (the late, great Roger Lloyd-Pack). These were comic characters that could have been penned by Charles Dickens, whom Sullivan revered.
But Only Fools and Horses was a sitcom, not a novel, so the characters – like Dad’s Army before and The Fast Show to follow – came replete with catchphrases; often, given Del Boy’s pretensions, in French. A Peckham boy might say “Gordon Bennett’; Del inexplicably settled on “La plume de ma tante”.
Sullivan had already given British TV one enduring character – Robert Lindsay’s Tooting Popular Front revolutionary Wolfie Smith in BBC One sitcom Citizen Smith.
In Derek Trotter – with the help of David Jason’s considerable acting chops – he created a second. Del Boy was as delusional as Wolfie, but chose Thatcherism rather than Marxism as his creed.
Selling hooky gear from the back of his yellow, three-wheeled Reliant Regal, Del Boy was only ever one deal away from a life of luxury, far from his flat in Nelson Mandela House.
Accessorised with an outsized mobile phone, playboy cigar and the worst of 1980s fashion, Del Boy ducked and dived. He bottled Peckham Spring Water and sold men’s wigs as the “Bruce Willis look”. As he was fond of saying, “This time next year, we’ll be millionaires!”
If he resembles any Dickens character, Del Boy is David Copperfield’s ever-hopeful Wilkins Micawber, who is convinced, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, that “something will turn up”. Sullivan probably thought the same: years later, he wrote a comedy-drama for ITV, Micawber, with David Jason in the title role.
Sullivan was unable to repeat the success of Only Fools and Horses. A spin-off, The Green Green Grass, relocated Boycie’s family to rural England and ran for four series, while a prequel, Rock & Chips, took the Trotter family back to the Peckham of 1960.
The truth, perhaps, is that Del Boy – like Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney character and Minder’s dodgy importer/exporter Arthur Daley, beautifully played by the late George Cole – belongs to the London of the 1980s when every wide boy seemed to be making obscene amounts of money. Except, of course, lovable Del. “Mange tout, mange tout”, as the French don’t say.
Only Fools and Horses is on Gold and also available on BritBox.