Ray Butt: Television producer best known as the guiding force of 'Only Fools and Horses'
Thursday 18 July 2013
A smart and meticulous comedy maker with a common touch, Ray Butt was
absolutely the right man to orchestrate Only Fools and Horses, voted
Britain's Best Sitcom in a nationwide poll in 2004.
Butt was an East Ender and the son of a street trader, and as a teenager had himself worked in a market, assisting an aspiring comic named Tommy Cooper to flog ice creams on the Roman Road. For what was essentially a comedy about men existing without women, somewhere between Steptoe and Son and Minder, it was Butt's brainwave to cast David Jason as Del Trotter, a notion initially opposed both by the show's writer, John Sullivan, and the BBC hierarchy.
Only Fools and Horses, like Minder, took a while to really catch on, but when it did it was unstoppable, and though Butt left the show after six years in 1987, he deserves as much credit for its success into the new century as do its writer and cast.
Ray Butt was born in 1935, the son of a tobacconist who had a stall selling sweets and cigarettes. He left school at 15 to take charge of his own education by attending evening classes. He did his National Service with RAF Coastal Command in Norfolk, reaching the rank of sergeant, and gained a good enough working knowledge of electronics to secure a job at the BBC back in Civvy Street.
He graduated from repairing cameras to operating them, working on shows such as Till Death Us Do Part and Dixon of Dock Green, and was a production assistant on Porridge before Sydney Lotterby offered him his first directing job, on a Spike Milligan Christmas offering, The Last Turkey in the Shop Show (1974).
He then directed two very different comedy series for the BBC, the chirpy Liver Birds (1971-75) and the Machiavellian Oneupmanship (1974-78). The latter, based on the books by Stephen Potter, imparted dirty methods of "winning at life without actually cheating", such as checkmating friends who send you a charity Christmas card by sending one back but "upping the calamity", and drowning your opponents in their own pretentiousness at wine tastings with such enigmatic pronouncements as "few too many tramlines for me". Oneupmanship was delicious devilment, and Butt conducted the proceedings, sketches linked by a mischievous Richard Briers, suavely and imaginatively.
When he first met the former BBC scenery shifter John Sullivan in 1977, Butt was directing episodes of Are You Being Served? and It Ain't Half Hot Mum. What Sullivan had written, however, was different, fresher and funnier. A comedy about an urban guerrilla didn't immediately sound side-splitting, but Citizen Smith (1977-80), the story of the hapless head of the Tooting Popular Front (played by Robert Lindsay), turned out to be a real gem, and after four series Butt encouraged Sullivan to write what became Only Fools and Horses.
Even if audiences took time to get Only Fools, it is astounding how quickly the cast got it. David Jason gave one of the busiest performances in sitcom history as Del, bursting with quirks and quips, instantly vindicating his casting. Butt's attention to detail was exemplified by a running gag where each week the living room set would be subtly altered: not just the useless tat that Del was peddling, but sometimes even the dining table would change, suggesting that anything Del could sell, he would sell.
Despite initially average ratings the series had an ally in Michael Grade, who tidied up the BBC's evening schedule in 1985 and built Only Fools and Horses into it as part of a confident package that also included the newly launched EastEnders. The series went into hyperspace and stayed there.
Butt and Sullivan's output in the 1980s was both plentiful and of high quality, with two other hits, both impressively different to the antics of the Trotters. Just Good Friends (1983-86) was a charming saga of two lovers reuniting after he had jilted her on their wedding day, while Dear John (1986-87) starred a splendidly dishevelled Ralph Bates as an emotionally battered divorcee.
Sullivan however was clearly overworked and the 1986 Only Fools and Horses Christmas Special, "A Royal Flush", was a far from festive misfire that drew criticism for its uncomfortable depiction of Del's ruthless sabotaging of Rodney's romance with the daughter of a Duke. Sullivan insisted on re-editing the show before it was released on DVD.
By the time the series got back into its stride by re-inventing itself with longer episodes, Butt had left, tempted by the offer of the job of Head of Comedy at Central Television. But after so many years with the BBC he found Central disorientating and left after 18 months, and not long after began a lengthy and well-deserved retirement.
Butt and Sullivan were a magnificent partnership and their careers bear uncanny similarities: from similar backgrounds, crew members getting a break from wise producers, and together creating some of the most cherished comedy on British television. While Butt's career ended more with a whimper than a bang, throughout the 1970s and '80s his output was consistently assured, warm, characterful and funny. He fought hard for the casts he wanted, protected the writers he nurtured and agonised over the timing of every comic moment. Which is why many of those moments are now, it seems, immortal.
Raymond William Butt, television producer and director: born London 25 June 1935; married firstly (marriage dissolved; one daughter), secondly Jo Blyth; died 12 July 2013.
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