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Monday, March 20, 2023

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The Long Haul Review: Only Fools & Horses Episode 6

Slow Bus to Chingford was terrible; comfortably the worst episode of the series so far. However when I re-read my review, I realised I wasn’t as harsh as I should have been. In the interests of being fair I think I might have praised the highlights too much and not been nearly hard enough on the turgid, cold morass that made up most of the scenes. With that said however, whether I’m being over analytical (very likely) or not I feel I missed a subtle piece of character development because of how poorly executed the episode was. In the discussion between Del and Grandad about the latter’s stint as a Security Guard (the undoubted peak moment), Del made reference to the fact Grandad had been some sort of small time crook in his younger days. At the denouement then we saw Grandad had almost successfully pulled off a con, getting Del to pay him for a job he hadn’t done in distributing the leaflets and winning a rigged bet off the back of that. It wasn’t especially well executed but it was a demonstration of why, besides sentiment, Del would keep Grandad involved in his own dodgy dealings and perhaps where Del got some of his own conman qualities from. That shouldn’t take away from the fact the episode was a real low point and has made me nervous all over again for this project!

Nevertheless, we shall continue with an episode I remember seeing once as kid, without fully appreciating it’s historical context. Let’s see shall we?

Episode 6: The Russians are Coming

Original Airdate 13th October 1981

8.8 Million Viewers

Running time: 30 Minutes

This was the last episode of the first series proper (episode 7 being a Christmas special that aired later in 1981) so I’m sure all concerned would have been delighted with a significant leap in the viewing figures, the strongest showing since the pilot. I wonder if anyone at this stage realised what a cultural phenomenon they had on their hands though?

We open on a rubble strewn wasteland (well, any vacant lot on an industrial estate really, they look much the same even now) as the three wheeled van pulls up. The first thing I must note is Rodney is wearing an awesome scarf that I am quite jealous of.

Del is proudly showing a less than enthusiastic Rodney a pile of rubble he’s just bought for £100, but Del points out he can sell it on to builders at a profit. The rubble comes from a demolished fabricators plant, where they made pre-fab buildings, so tied up in the rubble is all sorts of useful stuff, including around 3 tonnes of lead, which Rodney values to around £1000! It seems like Del has struck a genuinely good beneficial deal for once, until Rodney queries whether the goods are stolen.

Rodney: Is it ours Del?
Del: ‘Course it is!
R: Legally Del?
D: Don’t split hairs Rodney! Come on!

Del and Grandad end up lugging all of the gear into the flat all the while Rodney is flicking through a booklet that came with the boxes they’ve carried up. It turns out they’ve actually bought a DIY Nuclear Fallout Shelter. Del is delighted as he thinks the scare of nuclear war will mean they can charge more for it, but Rodney wants to build it. He points out how close things have come to nuclear war in the past and how nobody knows what to do in the event of the bomb dropping. No one even knows what the 4 minute warning sounds like! Del is still keen to sell, pointing out what they could do with £1000, but Rodney is convinced this is important.

Del humours Rodney for a moment and asks where they could put it. Grandad suggests the New Forest, they’ve always wanted a holiday home, but that’s not exactly practical to get to if you have 4 minutes to total annihilation. Rodney suggests Grandad’s allotment  as a ocation (first time that’s been mentioned), but Del isn’t convinced, the traffic would make it impossible to get there in time. Rodney is keen to try it though and wants to do a dummy run.

This of course leads to the trio tearing down to the van with the clock ticking, Rodney keeping them informed of where the missiles would be were the warning sounding. They take off at high speed in the van, nearly causing an accident and soon getting pulled over by the police, but fortunately Del knows the officer, Eric.

60mph in a built up area? What’s that about? You hear the 4 minute warning or something?

Del is worried about getting a ticket but is saved by his friendship with Eric, who wants to know if Del can get his hands on any cheap summer gear for a family holiday to Corfu. Interesting that Del, with his extreme aversion to police officers is so friendly with one, but Eric I guess would pass Del’s test as someone prepared to overlook his small-time dealings. After the police leave, Del asks Rodney how they’re doing for time.

We died 45 seconds ago

Grandad has a suggestion for where they could put the shelter though and it’s obviously a good one because the next thing we see is the shelter built and all three inside. They’re having a weekend in there to iron out the wrinkles in the plan to use it in the event of war. Del is still pining after his £1000 though. Things then take a very different and unexpected turn.

Del suggests the UK should drop the bomb on Russia and not tell declare war so as to get a head start. Rodney points out that this is symptomatic of ruthless mercenaries like him. It turns out he even sold paving stones to kids in the Brixton Riots! Del says he knows the lads he sold them to, they’re frustrated.

Del: Modern society has denied them the birthright of a war!
Rodney: I don’t believe you! Are you saying was is our birthright?
D: Yes it is! For century after century every generation of British youth has been guaranteed a decent war. That sort of ‘over the top of the trenches’ courage is obsolete because the next war is going to be fought by computer programs! See that’s what’s frustrating the modern youth. You can see them down the amusement arcade doing National Service on Space Invaders! [Grandad looks haunted in the background] That sort of real war that I’m talking about. Errol Flynn leading the gallant 600 into the valley of death. John Mills marooned in a dinghy. Kenneth Moore refusing to let a little thing like having no legs get him down. Glorious, valiant war that!
Grandad: [Furious] Don’t talk like a berk Del!
D: You what?
G: Whaddya know about it anyway? The only war you ever fought was the inch war!
D: No, I seen all the films ain’t I?
G: Tomato sauce and stuntmen! I’m talking about the real thing! I remember when I was a little nipper and I saw the soldiers marching off the battle and oh, yes! It was a glorious sight alright!
D: Yeah I bet all them spears and chariots must have stirred the blood!
R: Just hear him out will ya?
D: All right, all right.
G: My Brother George was was Passchendale. Nigh on half a million allied troops died there, all for 5 miles of mud. I was at Kings Cross station when his regiment came home after the Armistice. Most of them was carried off the train. I saw men with limbs missing, blind men, men who couldn’t breathe because their lungs had been shot to bits by mustard gas. [Choking back tears] While the nation celebrated they was hid away in big grey buildings, far from the public gaze. I mean, courage like that would put you right off your victory dinner wouldn’t it? They promised us homes fir for heroes, they gave us heroes fit for homes.
R: [Shaken] I’d never wear a British uniform on principle.
D: [Sombre] What principle?
R: The Russians might shoot me.
G: The politicians and military men used to con ya see? They had little lads, youngsters believing their country really did need them. They used to have little lads of 14 pretending they was 18 just so they could fight for King and country.
D: And they took the little sprogs?
G: More often than not…

The scene ends with some light jokes but I had to quote the entirety of that, it was so incredibly moving. I noted in the last episode that Lennard Pearce’s acting perhaps gets overlooked and this certainly seems to be the case. This was superb, ably supported by Nicholas Lyndhurst and David Jason who both convincingly reacted and kept things understated. Pearce’s emotion seemed deeply genuine and the words were very heartfelt. The scene was directed extremely well too. The use of camera angles in a small space was incredibly effective for showing facial expressions in the background as ones spoke, Grandad getting progressively angrier as Del spouted rubbish and then a long pan and slow zoom as Grandad poured his heart out. This was amazing to watch.

Del is brushing his teeth as they prepare for their first night in the shelter., and wonders out loud how long they’d have to stay in there if the bomb did drop. Rodney casually drops it would be 2 years, much to the fury of Del and Grandad. Rodney also figures out they’d need over 1000 batteries for the air filter. Del points out that with all that and the food required for 2 years they’ll need a warehouse to store it all in! Just as a side note here, this dilemma is indicative of the futility of shelters like this and the Protect and Survive guides that were published during the Cold War. Anyone just needs to watch Threads, When the Wind Blows or The Day After to see that’s the case.

Del says he’d rather go instantly than starve in a shelter, but Rodney points out the gruesome result of the bomb dropping, before turning the future into some sort of zombie apocalypse with mutants inhabiting the earth as a result of the radiation. He goes on though to reveal that this is essentially a fantasy for him, with repopulating the earth featuring very heavily in his plans! He’s even figured out that some expensive public schools will have shelters too, meaning schoolgirls will survive, the uniforms (nice continuity, Rodney’s love of uniforms) a bonus.

Del: You twisted, warped, corrupted little pervo!
Rodney: Well…yeah

They all bid each other goodnight, leading to an extremely well masked and well timed Waltons joke from Rodney, a genuine laugh out loud moment, but as they try and sleep, one after the other interupts with a comment or question. This is Only Fools at its best again, the patter between the family members, even in this unusual setting feeling authentic and being very entertaining. Grandad points out they won’t have any food after the war, the ground will be contaminated and animals dead. Del makes a joke about Asian run corner shops which might explain why the episode doesn’t air often. Not especially offensive but still feels very dated. Talk returns to the private girls school, much to Rodney’s delight. As I’ve said in previous weeks, I don’t recall there being this many sexual references in OF&H before, either I missed them when I was younger or they died out by later series, but it really is quite striking.

Del: The girls at these schools are the daughters of the Nobless
Rodney: What?
D: The Nobless!
R: What?!
D: French for ‘nobility’
R: Oh I was miles off

Del figures out that by selecting the right woman, he could in fact become King (or Queen, due to the radiation), and then he’d be free of the taxman! This scene is genuinely delightful too because Rodney sniggers along at his older brother’s jokes, it’s a scene you can imagine happening throughout their lives, Rodney, for all his complaints about him, idolising Del.  Del points out that they’ll have a head start too because while everyone else has nothing, they have £1000 worth of lead! Del continues to ramble about how they’ll be better off as survivors as the camera shows an external shot of the shelter and zooms out, revealing their safe place is actually on the roof of the tower block they live in.

Okay, fears allayed, this was a sparkling return to form. The comedy was right on the nail, lots of good laughs throughout and plenty of family interaction, always an absolute pleasure to watch. Lennard Pearce’s performance was astounding and I’d put his anti-war speech up against almost any other I’ve heard in television. It’s not as eloquent as some, but it speaks louder as a result, feeling like a real person sharing real emotion. As mentioned before, the setting is unusual for a domestic sitcom, but it allowed the characters to shine in their strongest suit. Del kept his slightly unlikable side with his pro-war view which fits the hardened side of his character now, but he was brought down to earth in a spectacular way as well. Additionally we got a nice, early establishment of Rodney’s social conscience here, a foreshadowing of the partial eco-warrior he became in later series.

Cash and Curry remains the best pure comedy episode I’ve watched so far, but this is a close second and in terms of acting is clearly in first place. Top notch, go out of your way to see this episode.

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