The Great Television Writers: Part 12 – John Sullivan

By Martin Keady · January 6, 2020

If the name John Sullivan is not as familiar to non-British comedy fans as those of other great British comedy writers, such as John Cleese or Ricky Gervais, that is no reflection on his ability. Rather, it is a reminder that in the pre-internet age great TV comedy, unlike great wine, did not always travel well, and individual countries could produce output for their domestic audience that might not necessarily have any wider international appeal. Perhaps in the brave new world of the 21st century, in which digital giants such as Netflix and Amazon Prime threaten to make world television as homogenous as world cinema (i.e. largely American in origin and production), that will change and the inhabitants of Planet Earth will all start watching largely the same television programs. However, if that does happen, it would undoubtedly have some negative consequences, as it would surely become impossible to create such quintessentially great and quintessentially British characters as John Sullivan’s finest creations, above all his sublime “Del Boy”. 

From Rags to Riches

John Sullivan made the journey from (relative) rags to (undoubted) riches that many of his greatest characters embarked upon. Like so many great British television and cinema writers, he was born almost immediately after World War Two to working-class parents in Balham, South London, the London borough that had been comically immortalized by Peter Sellers in the 1960s as “the gateway to the south” (“the south” in question being deepest south London and the surrounding suburbs). After a largely unexceptional childhood, especially academically (he left school at 16 without any qualifications), he had a succession of manual and low-paid jobs, ranging from second-hand car salesman to carpet-layer (including a stint laying the plushest of carpets in Parliament). 

In 1974, when Sullivan was fast approaching thirty (and, like Withnail, with little to show for it), he got a job in the props department of the BBC. Providing props for the sitcoms and drama that the BBC produced rekindled Sullivan’s childhood interest in writing, which had begun with his enjoyment of Dickens novels in school (one of which he would go on to adapt for television) and then really developed with his adoration of classic 1950s and 1960s sitcoms (both British and American), from Steptoe and Son to Sergeant Bilko. Consequently, he decided to try his hand at writing his own sitcom, beginning with the story of an idealistic young British Marxist, Citizen Smith. 

Comedic Success

Such was the exceptional success of Sullivan’s later comic creation, Only Fools and Horses (which spawned Sullivan’s greatest comic character, “Del Boy”) that it can be easily forgotten what a success Citizen Smith was. Sullivan presented his pilot episode to Dennis Main Wilson, the legendary radio and TV producer who had worked on everything from The Goon Show to Till Death Do Us Part, who loved it. A pilot was made, then a series and in the end there were four series between 1977 and 1980, in which the idealistic but naïve Smith (beautifully played by Robert Lindsay in his breakthrough television role) continually clashed not only with his fellow Marxists but with the father of his beloved, a devoted anti-Marxist. 

If Sullivan had only ever written Citizen Smith, he would have been a minor television comedy writer; it was his next series, and in particular his next hero, that would transform him into a truly great one. That series was Only Fools and Horses and its hero was the aforementioned “Del Boy”, who was so completely south London “wheeler-dealer” (that is, a supposed “entrepreneur” who cannot actually pronounce the word properly). In the ultimate compliment that a writer can be paid, “Del Boy” itself became a kind of short-hand for such characters. In fact, at the peak of Only Fools and Horses, between 1987 and 1996, which coincided with the end of Thatcherism, it was possible to argue that the whole of Britain had become a country of “Del Boys” (and girls). 

Unusual Situations

The “sit” (or “situation”) in Only Fools and Horses was an unusual one, at least in comparison to most sitcoms of the early 1980s. It was not based around a traditional “family unit” of parents and children but a very different family set-up in which Derek “Del Boy” Trotter (played triumphantly by David Jason) is the older and marginally more successful older brother who looks after both his feckless younger brother, Rodney (equally brilliantly played by Nicholas Lyndhurst), and an older relative: initially their grandfather; and then, when “Grandad” (or rather the actor playing him, Lennard Pearce) died, their great-uncle Albert (played by Buster Merryfield). The only way that Del Boy can manage to support himself and his two dependents is by working as a market trader, in the kind of traditional London market that is increasingly rare now but that Sullivan himself had grown up with. 

So much for the “sit” – it was really the “com” (or comedy) that made Only Fools and Horses great, as each episode showed Del Boy  (with the gormless “Rodders” in tow) desperately trying one of his “get-rich-quick” schemes, which ranged from selling holy water to churches to selling second-hand satellite dishes that were actually part of an airport’s radar system. Each time, Del Boy, with his very Thatcherite mantra of “This time next year, we’ll be millionaires!”, came close to success before snatching humiliating defeat from its jaws, especially when he came up against fellow chancers and grifters such as the second-hand car salesman, Boycey, who he often does business with.

Sullivan had been born into this world, grown up in it and worked in it for about a decade and a half before he finally wrote about it, so his South (or “Sarf”, as the locals call it) London was beautifully realized. There were echoes of the great Ealing comedies of the 1950s, but Only Fools and Horses was also bang up to date with its withering observations and put-downs, at least one of which (“Jaffa”, meaning “seedless”, like Jaffa oranges, or more “precisely unable to have children”) has actually passed into the lexicon, at least in Britain. 

Slowly improving and growing its audience year on year from its debut in 1981, Only Fools and Horses truly arrived with the arrival of women in the Trotters’ lives, namely “Raquel” (played by Tessa Peake-Jones), the woman who Del Boy finally falls in love with, at least until he realizes that she is a stripper, and “Cassandra” (played by Gwyneth Strong), a posh girl (or at least rich girl) who decides to slum it with Rodney. With their arrival and the creation of a more conventional family unit, Only Fools and Horses examined the complex and frustrating mechanics of family life, not least childbirth, but with hilarious results, such as Rodney’s growing conviction that Del Boy’s son Damien is the anti-Christ.

Legendary Scenes

However, like all the greatest comedies, Only Fools and Horses was never just comic, as it was also capable of creating the most powerful drama. That was evident right from the start, for example in an early episode in which Del Boy is all set to follow a childhood friend to a new life in Australia until he realizes that he cannot take Rodney with him, because of his “criminal record” (for smoking dope), and has to abandon his dream. But it really reached fruition in the now legendary Christmas 1996 special (which is the episode that really marks the end of the series, rather than the poor sequels that followed it), in its incredible combination of laugh-out-loud humor and cry-your-eyes-out pathos. 

In that Christmas special, Sullivan proved conclusively that great comedy can even encompass death, as Del Boy tries to coax Rodney back to normality after Cassandra suffers a miscarriage. In so daringly approaching a subject that is obviously not funny at all, Sullivan showed that he could write drama as well as comedy, particularly in the famous “Lift” scene, in which Del Boy pretends that a lift is stuck in order to force Rodney to talk to him about his grief. But there are also belly-laughs, especially when Del Boy and Rodney, who are attending a fancy-dress party, scare off some criminals in their “Batman and Robin” outfits. 

After the genius of that episode, which concluded with Del Boy and Rodney finally striking it rich after discovering a rare clock in the midst of all the rubbish that they own, Sullivan really left himself with nowhere to go. Frankly, it was impossible to top it and that has been proven subsequently in terms of audience figures, as that Christmas special set a record of approximately 26 million viewers that, in our increasingly fragmented world of television, will almost certainly never be beaten. Nevertheless, in a rare example of his making a mistake, Sullivan did bring back his fabulous characters for a few more episodes, including a disastrous storyline about Rodney appearing on the quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? after the brothers have tragically lost their hard-won fortune.

Nevertheless, those final unconvincing and largely unfunny episodes of Only Fools and Horses also prove that, as with The Godfather trilogy of films, if the original (or originals, in the case of The Godfather films) are good enough, then ultimately nobody will care about the crappy sequels. Nowadays, nearly a decade after John Sullivan’s death in 2011, nobody in Britain really remembers the final, fairly wretched last episodes of Only Fools and Horses but almost everyone (or at least those who saw it when it was first broadcast) remembers the brilliant “Batman and Robin” storyline. 

The other sitcoms that Sullivan wrote throughout his career, including several spin-offs from Only Fools and Horses, and his drama about Dickens’s Mister Micawber are also largely forgotten. But Only Fools and Horses is sufficient in its own right to confer greatness on Sullivan, the man who wrote the most brilliant “Britcom” ever. 

Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.”

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