Only Fools and Horses is the greatest sitcom of all time, says superfan Paul Whitehouse

THE Baileys and Cherryades will be flowing at the Nag’s Head this week as Only Fools And Horses celebrates its 40th anniversary.

The legendary telly series which gave us Del Boy and Rodney, Grandad, Uncle Albert, Boycie, Marlene, Trigger, Denzil, plus some of TV’s most memorable comedy moments, was voted the nation’s favourite sitcom in 2017.


And according to comedian Paul Whitehouse, who took on the role of Grandad when the Trotters transferred to the West End in a successful musical, it is unlikely viewers will ever take a British comedy to their hearts quite like Only Fools.

He also credits David Jason with making Del Boy the “greatest ever sitcom character”.

In an exclusive interview, Paul, 63, says: “If you ask people what their favourite sitcoms are, in terms of affection, nothing gets close to Only Fools.

“There is a genuine love for it, and that’s across all generations, different races and genders, which is very rare.

“In my opinion it’s the best ever and Del Boy is the greatest sitcom character of all time. David Jason deserves a hell of a lot of credit for that, the energy and confidence Del oozes, he was like a whirlwind when we first saw him.

“You think ‘I’m right on your side — even though you’re a plonker’.”

Welsh-born Paul grew up in Enfield, North London, the other side of the river to where the Trotters were based in Peckham, and just like Del Boy and Rodney, had a very working-class upbringing.

‘TREADS LINE VERY BEAUTIFULLY BETWEEN FUNNY AND SAD'

He was a huge fan of the series — written by John Sullivan — while on the comedy circuit during the Eighties, when he met Harry Enfield and Kathy Burke, and had a soft spot for Grandad, played by Lennard Pearce on TV.

Paul, who co-wrote the musical with John Sullivan’s son Jim, says: “Grandad was my favourite. I remember me and Kathy always singing Lennard’s praises, we loved him.

“He’s a little bit camp sometimes and could bring the house down with one line.”

The last episode of Only Fools And Horses, entitled Sleepless In Peckham, was broadcast in 2003, eight years before writer John tragically passed away. Yet it is still one of the most watched series on telly’s Gold channel.

The 1996 episode Time On Our Hands — when fans saw market traders Del Boy and Rodney, played by Nicholas Lyndhurst, finally achieve their dream of becoming millionaires after selling a pocket watch for £6.2million — is still a record for a British comedy after it was watched by an audience of 24.3million.

The Only Fools fan base continues to grow, with many flocking to annual conventions to meet cast members, snap up memorabilia and pose alongside Del’s yellow Reliant Regal, now one of the most popular novelty wedding vehicles.

Such is the love for the three-wheeler, fans are even requesting the services of a specially adapted Only Fools-themed hearse for funerals.

So how has Only Fools And Horses managed to capture the hearts of the British public?

Paul believes John Sullivan had the ability to balance tragic subjects and sombre events — such as miscarriages and family deaths — with laugh-out-loud physical comedy.

There is a genuine love for it, and that’s across all generations, different races and genders, which is very rare.

They were harnessed around three vulnerable, working-class characters who viewers were desperate to see do well.

He says: “Only Fools takes complex, sentimental and deep emotions but doesn’t outstay its visit and become mawkish and over-sentimental.

“There’s always a joke around the corner to get you back and there’s always a serious point around the corner from a joke. I think the way it delicately balances those things is its appeal.

“It treads that line very beautifully between funny and sad.”

And on the Trotters, he adds: “The core is the vulnerable three people. Del is all bluster. He’s aspirational yet he’s going nowhere but he’s fighting, using that confidence of a wide boy we all love.

“But underneath all that he’s looking after his orphaned younger brother and his grandad.

“Rodney is a bit wet, he lost his mum at a young age and Grandad, as Del says, is as much use as a pair of sunglasses on a bloke with one ear. And Uncle Albert was just the same.

“But there’s no self-pity, especially with Del, which I think we, as Brits, admire. We root for people like that.

“There’s a real heart and warmth to it which people clocked quite early on, without having it rammed down their throats, and the fact they were getting to grips with some real hardships.”

The physical comedy is perhaps what Only Fools And Horses is best known for, as well as Del’s catchphrases such as “lovely jubbly”, “cushty” and his unique use of the French language.

Iconic comedy moments, including Del falling through a pub bar in 1989 episode Yuppy Love and Grandad smashing a chandelier in 1982’s A Touch Of Glass, are now part of TV folklore.

And as Paul explains, it is testament to Sullivan’s incredible writing.

He says: “You’ve done well to get one classic moment from a sitcom, but Only Fools has so many.

“It’s an extraordinary achievement for one person.

“It’s very difficult to get a handle on if something works when you’re writing on your own. When I was writing the musical with Jim, we had all that material and it took us three years to put it together, and that was a very collaborative process.

“For John to piece it together on his own, that’s some effort.”

‘NOT AS MANY SITCOMS GET THE LONGEVITY TO FLOURISH'

The success of Only Fools And Horses is all the more astounding given it was close to being axed in its early days.

The first episode was shown on September 8, 1981, and the series was hardly a hit, attracting around eight million viewers, which in the days of just three channels was disappointing.

So low were the figures Sullivan feared his beloved sitcom wouldn’t see a second instalment. He was given a reprieve due to TV bosses’ desire to keep studios active by commissioning more sitcoms.

It meant his characters, including those around the Trotters, such as Trigger (Roger Lloyd Pack) and Boycie (John Challis) and his wife Marlene (Sue Holderness), flourished.

But as Paul points out, he believes Sullivan would not have been so fortunate had Only Fools been released in the present day, given the lack of patience given to new comedies.

Paul explains: “I always say if you like a comedy idea, you should commission two series, not one.

“It does take one series to develop and I know John felt like that too. But nowadays the future of TV lies away from comedy. Drama is king and that’s where people’s imagination seems to be drawn to, the thriller, the long-running series with cliffhanger endings.

“They’re easier to sell abroad, rather than a cosy British comedy, which is why not as many sitcoms are made now and get the longevity they need to flourish.”

Paul also admits he would have ended the classic sitcom at its record-breaking peak, in 1996, rather than make more episodes — three in total — when the Trotters lost all their money.

He says: “Personally I never wanted them to be millionaires. Or you want them to be millionaires but end it there.

“The struggle is what it’s about, once they’ve achieved it the game’s over, really. I wouldn’t be surprised if John felt that himself but he felt obliged or pressured to carry it on.”

Sullivan was working on a script for an Only Fools musical around the time of his shock death through pneumonia.

Fast Show star and more recently TV angling guru Paul — with Bob Mortimer in the hugely popular Gone Fishing — then got his chance to take it on.

Paul and Jim finished the job with the help of musical accompaniment from the late Chas Hodges, from Cockney duo Chas And Dave.

The show was a huge hit, earning rave reviews before the pandemic brought the curtain down temporarily. It is set to return next month. Paul reveals getting the keys to Only Fools brought its own daunting pressures.

He adds: “Some people said to me, ‘You couldn’t go wrong with that could you?’ and you think, ‘I know what you mean, but by the same token, if people think you’re not doing it justice . . . How dare you mess with Only Fools?’.

“But it was tough condensing 40 years of Only Fools into a two-hour show, there’s just so much great content.”

  • Only Fools And Horses The Musical reopens on Friday, October 1, at London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket. Tickets are available from  onlyfoolsmusical.com.



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