John Sullivan, Del Boy's creator, dies at 64

Showbusiness mourns 'Only Fools and Horses' writer, the 'most natural, heartfelt comedy writer of our time'

John Sullivan, one of the nation's favourite comedy scriptwriters, has died after a short illness, aged 64. His funeral will be a simple one, with only fools and hearses, fans said, in a pun on his award-winning sitcom.

The writer died at a private hospital in Surrey, where he spent six weeks in intensive care after catching viral pneumonia. He leaves his wife Sharron, two sons, a daughter, and two grandchildren.

He will be best remembered for Only Fools and Horses, which ran for 10 years from 1981, defining the decade's get-rich-quick materialism for a generation. The show returned for several Christmas specials, rescuing the day for millions of families who would unite around the box for some of TV's funniest moments.

Along with such colourful characters as David Jason's Del Boy Trotter and Nicholas Lyndhurst's Rodney, Sullivan bequeathed some of the English language's best-loved words. "Plonker" and "cushty" were both his inventions, and he popularised "lovely jubbly", resurrected from an advertising slogan for the frozen orange drink Jubbly.

Mark Freeland, the BBC's head of comedy, called Sullivan "the Dickens of our generation", adding: "No one understood what made us laugh and cry better than John Sullivan... Simply the best, most natural, most heartfelt comedy writer of our time."

Pubs across Britain last night reverberated to the sounds of people falling through the bar in tribute to the scriptwriter and the episode that saw Del Boy and his mate Trigger (Roger Lloyd Pack) trying to impress two women in a bar. "I think we're on to a winner, here Trig. Play it nice and cool, son, nice and cool; know what I mean," Del said as he leant sideways and fell through an open hatch on the bar.

Jason said yesterday he was "totally devastated to hear of dear John's death", adding: "We have lost our country's greatest comedy writer, but he leaves us a great legacy, the gift of laughter." The comedian David Schneider called Sullivan's work the "benchmark", describing him as "a true inspiration to all comedy writers". Stephen Fry said he was "one of the great comedy writers of our time".

Only Fools and Horses was voted Britain's favourite sitcom in 2004 and the 1996 special, Time on Our Hands, holds the record for the most-watched sitcom in Britain with 24.2 million viewers, more than a third of the population. It has been broadcast around the world, with a number of countries, from the Netherlands to Slovenia, making their own versions. An American remake has long been on the cards, but has yet to materialise.

Sullivan, who not only wrote but also sang the Only Fools and Horses theme, even wrote a prequel, Rock & Chips, the third part of which goes out this Thursday on BBC1. Two of the show's characters, Boycie and Marlene (played by John Challis and Sue Holderness), also featured in a spin-off, The Green Green Grass, which ran for four series.

Sullivan, who was born in Balham, south London, in 1946, always wanted to be a writer, but started out as a scene hand at BBC Television Centre aged 16. He wrote sketches in his spare time, landing his big break while still a teenager when he tried out a script for what would become Citizen Smith on Dennis Main Wilson, the renowned BBC comedy producer. Gareth Gwenlan, a close friend who worked on Only Fools and Horses, said Sullivan became "a full-time writer literally overnight".

The son of a plumber, he was appointed an OBE in 2005 for services to drama. He said his secret was that he wrote about what he knew.

Mark Thompson, the BBC director-general, said: "John had a unique gift for turning everyday life and characters we all know into unforgettable comedy."

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