Inside TV: Only Fools and British Sitcoms

 

It’s been a bad week for me and the three other people in Britain who don’t find Only Fools and Horses side-splittingly hilarious. Not only did I not win the £108 million EuroMillions jackpot - I bought a ticket and everything. What are the chances?! - but the person who did win was a Del Boy-quoting car mechanic named Trotter. With David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst’s Sport Relief reunion already scheduled for this evening on BBC One, it would've been miraculous if I’d made it to Friday without seeing Del Boy fall through that bar again. I didn’t and I still don’t get it.

That’s okay though, because TV comedy is notoriously subjective. To me, Only Fools and Horses is an inferior Steptoe and Son, in which genuine pathos has been replaced by Thatcherite values and the world "plonker". To millions of others it’s the most successful British sitcom ever made. It towers over Fawlty Towers, easily conquers Dad’s Army and makes The Office look like a corporate training video. The 1996 Christmas episode ‘Time On Our Hands’ was seen by a third of the population and still holds the record for most-watched sitcom of all time. In the overall list of British TV’s highest-rated programmes, it’s third only to the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony and Princess Anne’s wedding in 1973.

I’m comforted to note that back in the early 80s, OFAH’s first audiences didn’t recognise its hit potential either. Writer John Sullivan’s pitch for a show about a cockney market trader was initially rejected by the BBC and when it did make it to air in September of 1981, the ratings were disappointing. It was only in the summer of 1983, when both series one and two were repeated, that Only Fools established a following. Today the idea of a sitcom being allowed one series to settle in and find an audience, let alone two, is unthinkable.

The irony of all this is that Only Fools and Horses’ own path to success was very different from the one enjoyed by the Trotters. Del Boy’s stated philosophy was "The government don't give us nothing, so we don't give the government nothing". He preferred a series of get-rich-quick schemes and rip-off scams to honest graft and was eventually rewarded with an instant fortune. The show itself, on the other hand, would never have succeeded were it not for the dedicated slog of the writer and cast and the long-term investment that a licence-funded BBC makes possible. Thirty years later, the Trotter’s flat in newly gentrified Peckham would be worth a fortune and the BBC seems to have forgotten the secret of its own success.  

Only Fools and Horses should have ended in 1984, when Grandad (Lennard Pearce) died, or in 1986, when Del almost emigrated to Australia, and certainly after the Trotters got rich in 1996’s ‘Time on Our Hands’. Any casual student of the genre will tell you that such a fundamental change to the ‘sit’ can only undermine ‘com’. Instead, three more Christmas specials followed and now, three years after the death of writer John Sullivan, a new sketch of this very old show is due for broadcast.

In the same week that BBC One announced its revival of the Comedy Playhouse strand last seen in 1975, let’s remember the lessons of Only Fools and Horses’ thirty-year saga. Commissioning new comedy isn’t the tricky bit for BBC execs. What really takes courage is sticking with the low-rated shows which deserve support and cancelling high-rated shows when their time is up - thus clearing the way for some innovation. Any comedy commissioner who can do that, really is worth millions. 

Catch up

Turks & Caicos, BBC iPlayer

You might attribute Johnny Worricker’s laid back cool to the slow pace of island life, except that Bill Nighy’s rogue MI5 agent was just as insouciant when he worked in Westminster. Nighy heads up an impressive cast (Christopher Walken! Winona Ryder! Helena Bonham Carter!) for this feature-length sequel to 2011 spy thriller Page Eight. Salting The Battlefield, the final part of writer-director David Hare’s trilogy, airs on Thursday.  

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03yrjvc/Turks_and_Caicos/

W1A, BBC iPlayer

Incredibly brave? Or incredibly stupid? The BBC’s decision to lampoon its own executive staff could be filed in either category, but one thing it definitely is, is worth watching. Hugh Bonneville and Jessica Hynes reprise their Twenty Twelve roles as ineffectual new hire’s for the corporation’s sprawling bureaucracy. 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03yvf3r/W1A_Episode_1/

The Widower, ITV Player

Jeff Pope, the writer behind several gripping dramas is ITV’s secret weapon. Barely a month goes by without another one of his biographical scripts reaching the screen. The real star of The Widower however, isn’t Pope, or his subject, real-life seriel killer Malcom Webster. It’s Reece Shearsmith from The League of Gentlemen, who is spectacularly creepy in the lead. 

https://www.itv.com/itvplayer/the-widower

Betas, Amazon Instant Video

Amazon Prime’s latest effort to steal the online TV crown from Netflix is this silicon valley set comedy drama - and original commission for the site. If you like Big Bang Theory you’ll appreciate Betas’ respectful showcasing of nerd subcultures and if you like Aaron Sorkin dramas, you’ll enjoy its warp-speed dialogue. 

http://www.amazon.com/Pilot-HD/dp/B00CDBX1PA

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing