Meet the author: Only Fools and Horses’ John Sullivan

Only Fools and Horses is probably Britain’s best-loved sitcom, running continually for ten years on BBC1, with viewing figures of 24.3 million per episode.

Written by the late John Sullivan OBE, the series followed the adventures of lovable rogue Derek “Del Boy” Trotter and his younger brother, Rodney.

The duo of small-time wheeler-dealers eked out a living selling often faulty goods at their local outdoor market. The series began in 1981 when the Trotter brothers traded from their small flat in a Peckham tower block. Del was famous for always telling Rodney, “This time next year, we’ll be millionaires!”

Finally, in a Christmas special episode, on 29th December 1996, his dream came true when an old watch squirrelled away in their garage turned out to be a very rare 18th-century timepiece built by John Harrison, designer of the world’s first maritime clock. It sells for £6.2 million at auction, turning both brothers into multi-millionaires.

© AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

About the author

For Sullivan, Only Fools and Horses was a highlight of his long and illustrious career in television. Born in Balham, London, on 23rd December 1946, he came from an ordinary working-class family. His father was a plumber and his mother a cleaner.

He failed his eleven-plus exam and attended Telferscot Secondary Modern School, where his English teacher, Jim Trowers, inspired his interest in reading novels. Sullivan soon realised he had a talent for writing himself. However, he left school in 1961 with no qualifications and started work in the second-hand car trade.

Continually sending scripts to the BBC, but without success for many years, he worked in multiple low-paid jobs for 15 years, while writing in his spare time.

Finally, he had his big break when he successfully submitted sketches for The Two Ronnies. In 1974, Sullivan took a job in the BBC props department, where he approached TV and radio producer Dennis Main Wilson with an idea for a script.

Comedy series

This led to Sullivan’s first successful comedy series, Citizen Smith, which ran from 1977 to 1980. The plot revolved around a young man with Marxist leanings and the scrapes he got into. It ran for four series and established Sullivan’s reputation as a talented scriptwriter.

He proposed a new sitcom about a Cockney market trader in modern-day London, initially calling it Readies. Later, he explained how he based the world of Del Boy Trotter on the market traders he had observed every day as a young lad growing up in Balham. The true-to-life market characters appeared in every episode of Only Fools and Horses, creating the colourful backdrop for Del Boy and Rodney’s antics.

Much of the material for Only Fools and Horses, including the scenes in the Nag’s Head pub, were based on Sullivan’s real-life experiences in his local neighbourhood. By all accounts, the famous scene where Del Boy fell through a raised bar flap was something that had actually happened!

Other scenes, such as the chandelier falling from the ceiling, had also really happened. His niece was in the police force and he based some of the plots on her anecdotes as well. In an interview, he said his grandfather really had tried to claim compensation by faking falling down a hole, like Uncle Albert, due to living in extreme poverty.

Casting the actors

Sullivan was instrumental in casting the actors for Only Fools and Horses, including the unlikely pairing of David Jason as Del Boy and Nicholas Lyndhurst as Rodney. The BBC wasn’t happy about the casting, as they said the two actors didn’t look alike at all and wouldn’t be believable as brothers. However, Sullivan disagreed and insisted on the pairing, as he had an idea for later on in the series that Rodney and Del Boy had different fathers, due to their mother’s extra-marital affair.

Buster Merryfield, cast as Uncle Albert, had no previous TV experience and was very nervous at first, sometimes messing up delivering his lines. However, Sullivan persevered, because he could see in him the lovable character of the Trotters’ uncle that he envisaged. Jason and Lyndhurst sat Merryfield down for a talk to help him ease into the role and the approach worked, as the character became a huge success.

Later career

Only Fools and Horses was a massive success and even when the regular series ended after a decade, it returned for Christmas specials until 2003. The whole series and the subsequent specials still air on TV today – they never grow tired.

The Trotters are endearing characters, thanks to the cleverly-written scripts, as they appear as average, working-class men, who are trying to make the best of what they have and always dreaming of better times ahead.

Following Only Fools and Horses, Sullivan enjoyed further success as a writer with Just Good Friends, which ran from 1983 to 1986. He also wrote the sitcom, Dear John, about a man whose life spirals out of control after his wife leaves him.

Sullivan then wrote the sitcom, Sitting Pretty, about a woman who finds herself penniless after her wealthy husband’s sudden death. She has to move back home to the farm with her parents and sister and her life changes beyond all recognition. It was broadcast from 1992 to 1993.

In 2005, in the Queen’s New Year Honours, Sullivan was awarded the OBE for his services to drama. Sadly, he died at the age of 64, after suffering viral pneumonia for six weeks, leaving his wife Sharon, sons Dan and Jim and daughter, Amy.

The unveiling of a blue plaque in memory of John Sullivan at Teddington Studios took place on 22nd July 2012.

The special ceremony, organised by The Heritage Foundation, was attended by Sir David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst, along with family, friends and colleagues of the late writer, following his untimely death on 22nd April 2011. Sullivan has left a wonderful legacy in the shape of Only Fools and Horses and his other comedy series – he perfectly mastered the art of sitcom humour.

Things have been pretty grim, but we should try to keep smiling and look forward to brighter times ahead, when we can meet in person again and hopefully get life back to normal.

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