Friday 29 April 2011
Brian Viner: The stars who remain off-camera
The death of John Sullivan last weekend passed without much comment away from the obituary pages, which seemed an oversight to me, not that the creator of Only Fools and Horses would have wanted any fuss. He was a softly spoken, gentle, rather humble fellow, as comedy writers so often are, and wryly witty in conversation rather than raucously funny, unlike many of his scripts.
It is generally the actors in great sitcoms who get the plaudits, become the household names, but we too often overlook the men – and, surprisingly infrequently, the women – who dredge their brilliant minds to put the thing on the page in the first place. That's why I'll never hear a word against another John, who achieved the rare and extraordinary double of not only creating an immortal comic character in Basil Fawlty, but then breathing life into him. I hate those sneers about John Cleese no longer being funny, as if his signature is on some yellowing document, solemnly undertaking to make us laugh for the rest of his life. His comic legacy includes Fawlty Towers. Give the guy a break.
As for Sullivan, he was content to let David Jason take the limelight during the roaring success of Fools and Horses, and generously acknowledged Jason's contribution to the show's seminal moments of physical comedy, such as that famous piece of slapstick that rivalled anything Buster Keaton ever did, when Jason as Del Boy fell through the bar. Sullivan once told me where that idea came from. "I was waiting for someone in The George, on the top of Balham Hill, and this guy leant forward to light his cigarette from his mate's lighter just as the barman came out. He didn't actually fall, he stumbled, and then gave a big cheesy grin as if he meant it, and I thought 'I'll use that one day'. I told David and he said 'let me just go wallop'. I often wondered whether the guy saw it, and thought 'I did something like that once'."
Sullivan was an alchemist, taking everyday situations and turning them into comedy gold. And it is satisfyingly easy to place him in a clear comedic lineage, because his "Eureka!" moment came when in 1962 he watched a Comedy Playhouse called The Offer, written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, about a father-and-son team of rag'n'bone men. Until then, television comedy had been mostly British farce or slick stuff from America. But what turned out to be the first episode of Steptoe & Son dealt with real life, its aspirations and disappointments. And Sullivan thought, "I want to do that."
He finally realised his ambition, after dozens of rejection letters, while he was working as a scene-shifter at the BBC, and plucked up the courage to hand Dennis Main Wilson, the influential producer of Till Death Us Do Part, a speculative script about an urban guerrilla, based on a bloke he knew who used to drink in the Nelson's Arms on the King's Road, and claimed to be a member of the Angry Brigade. Within eight weeks Citizen Smith was on screen, and a wonderful writing career was properly launched.
Today's would-be John Sullivans will read that and weep. At the BBC now, it's considered an achievement if a new consignment of paper clips is ordered and delivered within eight weeks. And yet the length and breadth of these islands, there are still potential sitcom characters – in tribute to Sullivan we'll call them dipsticks – propping up every bar, or even falling through them. Let us pray that they do not do so in vain.
St Andrews – ancient seat of learning and lovebirds
The marriage service taking place today in Westminster Abbey is far from humdrum, whatever we are told by those who regard it as nothing more than a society wedding, with a rich boy called William Wales marrying a rich girl called Catherine Middleton. In one sense, though, it really does represent just another statistic, for William and Kate are merely the latest in a long line – or if you prefer, two long lines – of St Andrews University graduates who married one another.
No other seat of learning can boast as much intermarriage per head of student population; I started my own academic life there in 1981, the year Prince William's parents were married, and while I did not myself end up marrying a fellow St Andrews student (though I nearly did), I can think of at least a dozen couples, contemporaries of mine, whose later union was kindled in the shadows of the "auld grey toun's" austere medieval buildings. Promisingly for the royal couple, most of them are still together, including William's cousin James Ogilvy, the son of Princess Alexandra, and his wife, Julia. There is a precedent for hooking a royal husband in north-east Fife.
Why, though, should St Andrews have such a nuptially pleasing record? Partly it's because students spend four years there, and partly because it's so remote that nobody goes anywhere at weekends. It also gets bloody cold in the winter, though I don't suppose today's happy couple count among those who became romantically entwined by having to huddle together for warmth.
Heathrow red carpet is a step too far
A final note on the royal wedding: yesterday I passed through Heathrow Airport, Terminal 3, and was handed a leaflet, along with all the other arrivals, offering me the "unique chance to experience an unforgettable welcome to Heathrow". This, it turned out, was in the form of half a kilometre of (decidedly grubby) red carpet in the arrivals hall, and a chance to inscribe my own message in a book which would later be presented to Clarence House. I'm not ashamed to be broadly in favour of the monarchy, but days like today don't half turn sensible people silly.
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