Only Fools and Horses was voted Britain’s favourite sitcom in a BBC poll in 2004. With 54 episodes over an initial period of 10 years from 1981, and 10 further special episodes being made right up until 2003, the show’s longevity speaks for itself, and it’s cultural impact is still felt by anyone who saw more than a handful of episodes. Three wheeled Robin Reliant vans immediately invoke memories, and although now perhaps on the wane, the words “cushty” and “lovely jubbly” are likely to raise a smile from many.
My intention is to watch every episode and to chart where the series goes, looking at running story arcs, continuity, styles of humor, character development and anything else that stands out. I’ll be borrowing liberally from the terminology of the TV Tropes wiki to try and keep some sort of structure to my analysis.
Familiarity can however breed contempt, or at least in the case of OF&H, somewhat tarnish a legacy. Growing up with it as part of the television schedule, I remember a relatively grounded sitcom, rooted in at least some form of recognizable reality, but frequently memories of the show are boiled down to slapstick moments, catchphrase comedy and memories of diminishing returns, particularly in the case of the final trilogy of episodes, and I’m interested to see where on the scale of “One of the greatest British shows of all time” to “Parody of itself” the majority of the show lies.
Episode 1: Big Brother
Original airdate 8th September 1981
9.2 million viewers
Running time: 30 Minutes
First appearance of David Jason as Derek Trotter, Nicholas Lyndhurst as Rodney Trotter, Lennard Pearce as Grandad and Roger Lloyd-Pack as Trigger
Well that’s a surprise. As I hit play, I’d completely forgotten the first episode had a different theme tune from the well known tune sung by creator Sullivan. It’s this number by Ronnie Hazlehurst instead…
I can already tell that these reviews are going to leap wildly between retrospect and trying to assess as if I’m watching for the first time, so immediately some retrospect; I think the switch to the theme tune they used later is an excellent move. This one is fine, and I can see it fitting Del’s character to a certain extent, but it feels very, VERY generic. OF&H I think worked as a package, and something as iconic as the opening theme being different doesn’t quite have the same ability to make me sit up and take notice, or maybe it’s just because it’s different. Anyhow, onward!
Great establishing shots early, showing the mishmash and clutter of the Trotter’s flat. The idea of this was that anything and everything was for sale with Del, and so the furnishings of the flat constantly changed, except that is for one thing early on. Grandad’s corner of the room. Doing all they can to make the old man happy, he has two televisons, one colour, one black and white (not uncommon, I had a black and white portable in my room right into the 90s) on at the same time, on the same channel.
And like with the opening theme, I’d forgotten how quickly we get into a classic moment.
“That Sidney Potter’s a good actor in’ne Rodney? He was marvelous in guess who’s coming to dinner”
“Yeah, knockout Grandad [beat] Sidney Potter?”
“Yeah, you know ‘im, always plays the black fella”
“It’s bloody Poitier I’m tellin’ ya!”
Of course, enter Del and he breaks up the fight by letting Grandad know he’s in fact watching Harry Bellafonte. It’s a scene already that’s given us an entertaining insight into two main characters.
Del is presented as cocky immediately, his sharp dress immediately standing out against the bland colours elsewhere, saying he gets better looking every day. Then we get into a few minutes of screentime that makes my head spin with the volume of notes I have to take for the purpose of this article.
Rodney informs Del he’s started keeping accounts for their business, which leads Del to creatively insult him (“dozy little twonk”), and then we get a description of their business practices. They don’t do accounts and paperwork, because the paper trail would lead to the taxman and that leads to them going to prison. It’s stated very clearly they don’t pay tax or claim a penny back. Rodney says he understands that but wants to keep tabs on Del, feeling sure that he’s being cheated by his older brother somehow. Del immediately invokes their late Mother. It won’t be the last time he does this. Then we get a barrage of useful continuity keeping information…
- We find out Del was a Mod in his teens.
- He was 13 when Rodney was born.
- Their Mum was 39 when Rodney was conceived.
- Rodney is 23.
- That means Del is 36 (I’m only 4 years younger then DEL TROTTER. This is worse than the time I was older than Monica in an episode of friends)
- Assuming the show is set in 1981, it means Rodney was born in 1958 and Del in 1945.
I’ve a feeling I’ll be referring back to that a fair bit! The scene concludes by Rodney stating he wants a career.
Well that was a pretty masterful scene for a pilot episode. None of it felt tacked on or unnatural, there wasn’t too much exposition which is frequently a problem in new shows, we got a LOT of information about the interaction of the central characters, their personalities and their relationships without it feeling like they were just launching information at us. Really this should be the blueprint for new any new character driven show.
Next we see the Nag’s Head pub for the first time and meet Joyce, who I don’t remember around, but her name is mentioned a few times, so she might be recurring in the first series at least. The 3 wheeled van gets a first mention also. There’s some interesting dialogue here. Del asks for a “Low Carbohydrate Beer” which was not a phrase I expected to hear used in 1981, even in a comedic setting and while discussing Joyce’s looks with Rodney, describes her as as an “old dog” but manages to somehow turn this into a backhanded compliment. Referring to women like that was more common in comedy in this period, and it’s certainly less unpleasant than the rampant sexism in On the Buses for example, but it jars a little to hear it now. One thing that’s very noticeable to me here is that Del’s mannerisms (thumbs in his braces/lapels etc) aren’t nearly as pronounced as I remember them.
We get more character information too. Del talks about ducking and diving. We also find out (more bullet points)
- Rodney has 2 GCEs in Art and Maths.
- He was expelled from Arts School for drugs possession.
- He got an 18 months suspended sentence for the offense.
All of this is used to explain why Rodney’s hopes of a job and career are a bit of a pipe dream. We also get another jarring bit of dialogue with some casual racism as Del states while discussing Rodney’s ex-girlfriend “Chinese? Japanese? All the same to me”. Quite uncomfortable in 2017.
We’re saved from this awkward moment by Trigger’s arrival. Immediately we get one of the longest running jokes from the series, Trig’s inability to remember Rodney’s name, always calling him “Dave”. Trigger though is quite different from the character I, and probably most people remember. He’s a wheeler dealer like Del here, criminal to the point of needing an alibi. He’s clearly not bright (“It looks conspicious”), but he’s a savvy small time criminal, street smart and not the complete dunce most will recall. He’s got 25 (stolen) briefcases to sell, Del eventually buying the lot from him. As Rodney gets the drinks we get a nice extra side to Del too, speaking very highly of Rodney’s intellect. He’s obviously very proud of his younger brother, even if he doesn’t let Rodney know that. Rodney then proceeds to make Del pay more than he’d negotiated for the briefcases, somewhat undermining his argument there.
Back at the flat, Del and Rodney argue over that and Grandad grumbles about the fact Rodney brought him a cheeseburger which wasn’t what he had ordered. This is a big strength of this episode, the arguments feel authentic. Grandad and Rodney have spent a lot of time together, they argue over petty, silly, insignificant things and it feels real. I believe these people could be related, you forget you’re watching something scripted, especially as the arguments weave in and out of each other.
Del discovers he’s trying to sell the cases to the person they were stolen from, but worse than that, they’re worth nothing. The code for the combination locks is locked inside the case! Rodney suggests throwing them in the river, which Del points out would literally be throwing away their profit. We find here that Rodney despite his ambitions isn’t always the brightest, wanting to be a Financial Advisor because of his Maths GCE, having previously cost Del money in negotiations. It’s not a strong foundation for him to argue from.
More biographical information arises through the argument…
- Their Mum died when Rodney was 6 (so 1964, Del being 19 at the time)
- Their Dad walked out and left them when Rodney was 8 (so 1966, Del being 21)
Rodney says he feels suffocated. Now I’m going to enter into supposition. I think he had a decent argument here. Del has obviously kept him close and protected him throughout his life, but maybe overly sheltered? Rodney is 23 and here pitching a fit like a stroppy teenager. He storms off, then returns to ask Del for some money. More ‘acceptable at the time’ humor too as Del calls Rodney a “Ponce” to finish the scene.
We open to the next morning as Del returns home having been trying to sell the briefcases, only to find out that Rodney has gone, left for Hong Kong to meet up with his ex girlfriend. Grandad desperately wants him back and Del, despite his own bravado is worried too.
We get something then that I only recall being used a handful of times throughout the entire run, a musical montage as Del tries to sell the briefcases and looks for Rodney, suspecting he won’t have got far. The music used is the same as the theme tune, which is nice at least as a lot of the DVD releases have edited the series 1 theme for the better known Sullivan one, so at least the Hazlehurst theme will get heard at least once on those.
Del gets home after a long day, only to be quickly followed by Rodney, who we learn has been away for 6 days. Says he was in St Tropez, coming up with an elaborate story before saying he missed home. Del soon bursts Rodney’s bubble by mentioning that he left his passport and so couldn’t have been to the south of France. Rodney feels even more disheartened than before until Del tells him he took some of his advice; the briefcases are in the river.
The episode closes on a note reminiscent of the classic episode of Porridge (a show also featuring David Jason, albeit not in this episode), A Night In. In that episode, Fletcher and Godber make plans as though they were going to head out on the town before settling on “A night in” in their prison cell. Here, Del and Rodney speculate on a night out, heading out on an imaginary yacht to St Tropez, before deciding against it, in case they run into the floating briefcases!
This was an enjoyable episode, some briefly uncomfortable moments aside. I already know a lot of the central characters, their motivations and their history from just this short time and although the episode lacked any big plot, Rodney’s safety was never really in doubt and the briefcases didn’t put Del and Rodney in financial jeopardy after all, it didn’t feel plodding or directionless either. You might have noticed that for a comedy, I didn’t mention any big laughs, which is maybe a mark against it. There were laughs to be had, especially the Potter/Poitier exchange and Trigger’s criminal side, but my sides weren’t aching by the end, but I’ll chalk that up to it being the opening episode rather than it not having aged well and previously being full of ‘actual lols’. Nevertheless though, a really solid start and I’m sure there is better to come