Inside TV: Only Fools and British Sitcoms
Ellen E Jones
Ellen is The Independent's TV critic. She writes a daily review of Last Night's TV and a weekly 'Inside TV' column for the i paper, as well as a column on general topics for the main paper most Wednesdays. Ellen is a former Hollywood correspondent and a contributing editor to Little White Lies, she's written on TV, film, lifestyle, travel and politics for publications including the Guardian, The Times, The Sunday Times, Esquire and Total Film.
Friday 21 March 2014
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 To me, Only Fools and Horses is an inferior Steptoe and Son, in which genuine pathos has been replaced by Thatcherite values and the world "plonker".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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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