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The Beginnings Of Peckham’s Most Successful Failure
First shown on the 8th of September 1981 at 8.30pm on BBC1, the very first episode of ‘Only Fools And Horses,’ appeared unknowingly onto our screens. From the glamour of Morecambe and Wise and even the theatrical perfection of’Ain’t ‘Arf Hot Mum,’ we found our eyes being filled with all the glitz of a council flat in Peckham. How little we knew that this squalor of unemployment and deceit, several minutes from the ground, in a block referred to as ‘Nelson Mandela House,’ would be set in stone in out hearts for all eternity.
It was, however successful we know if it today, a long, up hill struggle for it’s writer, John Sullivan through those early years. The episode ‘Big Brother,’ may have had the title of the programme we love to hate on Channel Four today, but back in 1981, it was received with little more enthusiasm. The first two series for Sullivan had been touch and go. Since the end of the second series had been selected for the cutting room floor, Sullivan and it’s produce, Ray Butt managed to plead with the Light Entertainment department to continue filming, after showing the first and second series again in 1983. By around half way through the fourth series, the British public were starting to take note, and the ‘Horse’s’ revolution had begun.
From this first episode to be broadcast, all those years ago, it was important to cram in as much information for the viewer as possible. John Sullivan was determined to continue the story from one series to another. Basing each original episode as a contained story, from the third series, the plot lines started on journeys of their own. Running gags were formed, for example; the apparent love affair between Del and Marlene (Boycie’s wife), trigger’s unexplained convinced theory that Del’s younger brother was called ‘Dave’ instead of Rodney and Del’s seedy long line of failed romantic engagements.
Each running gag was created due to the natural flow of each series.
What was vital for the viewer in this first episode was to create defining lines between the two brothers who were far apart in both age, personality and physical appearance. It was probably obvious to some that the two brothers didn’t share either the same mother or father at first. Another visual comedy theme of Del being short and of stocky build and Rodney being tall and lanky.
Set on a strong backdrop of the world of the black market trader during the Thatcher years, the element of modern London appears immediately in this first episode. Del frequently uses references to the struggle of high taxes, high unemployment and increases in property demand which was apart of daily life in the early to mid Eighties. This topic was given a great deal of stage time during this first story line. The scene of the three men’s existence is perfectly set in the viewer’s mind within this first half an hour. Looking across the two generations (the flat’s occupants consisted of older brother in his thirties, Del Boy. Younger brother in his twenties, Rodney and aging Granddad) the struggles are seen from both sides. The background for ‘Big Brother,’ forces us straight into the suffocation of Rodney by his ‘overpowering and domineering older brother.’ Rodney is 23 at this time, desperate to be his own man and stand lone, away from Del. He comes across obstacles of unemployment and his continuing resistance of his actual dependency on Del. As he fights an inner battle of rebellion and acceptance of his ‘bad luck’ of growing up in such a limiting, working class world, his Brother, Del continues to strive to keep his family roofed and fed.
Writing an analysis for the best loved comedy show of the 20th Century is an extraordinary thing. Whilst trying to describe the first episode, I find I am reciting a Greek tragedy, and as much as I would hate to take the wind out of your devoted humorous sails for this programme, the pathos of such a comedy turned drama, at times, should be dealt with. What we find as hilarious in this show is the failings of it and it’s characters. Whilst Del comes to realise that he has yet again fallen on a dodgy deal with a load of unknown rejected brief cases, Rodney is found to have ‘packed his ruck sack and had it away on his toes…’
Rodney fights for some recognition from his brother and employs Del to see him as a financial advisor in the ‘business’ and not the 60/40 partner, he appears himself, to be. Del delights in jogging his brother’s mind when he tells of his financial advisor paying ‘200 quid instead 175 for 25 cases and then promptly tell him to chuck them in the river,’ on discovering that the reason they are reject is that the combination for each case is written on a bit of paper inside. It is nothing that Del can do with these ‘Old English Vinyl’ cases than to take Rodney’s advice. Rodney despairs when he sees Del’s care free reaction and wonders how on Earth they are managing to pay for the heat and the rent when they had, the previous week, swapped a load of goods for a van full of one legged turkeys. The strongest amusing note is always, the short descriptions of the nicked stuff they always come across.
So there, Granddad sits in front of his two telly’s. (Something my granddad did too.) As he deliberates over Sydney Poitier or Sydney Potter. Rodney sits with open accounts book and scribbles madly with all the confidence of a young man with two GCE’s. The flat is a mess of piled up boxes of hooky goods that changed in every episode. Some of us might remember that three cases of Scotch with un paid duty of them. They sat there for weeks. This time, we can see a tyre for a Cortina and other dubious goods wrapped quickly with Cellophane in case of unwanted eyes prowling.
We learn through the arguments of this first episode that there is a 13 year age gap between the brothers, making them almost from different social generations. Del talks about missing out on The Who concerts due to looking after the infant Rodney. We learn that their Mother died when Rodney was only six, and two months after that, their father left. Leaving a teenage Del to fend for the family as well as a Granddad who refused to go back out to work as a lamp lighter – another indication of London employment of a certain era. Del also recalls the age of their Mother when she fell pregnant with Rodney. At 39, a woman having a baby was considered to be a mistake that she had made in those days (which would have been mid to late Sixties) as Del makes a reference that ‘for the first three months of her pregnancy, you were treated as an ulcer.’
We are not given much of an insight to their surroundings as regards to other supporting characters at first. Trigger (Roger Lloyd Pack) does have a scene here and is the only other character who appears in almost as many episodes as the leading cast members. We visit ‘The Nags Head,’ briefly and notice that no real mention of a landlord is made, only a barmaid, Joycie. In fact, a Land lord is not present until a long time later into the series and comes in the form as ‘Mike,’ another occasional victim of Del Boy scams. Rodney points out another of the running gags of the entire show, whilst leaning up against the bar he says,
‘D’you know, we have always had something missing in our lives? First we was Motherless, then we was Fatherless, now we’re flogging one legged turkeys from a three wheeled van…’
Yet there is an exciting, adventurous streak that Rodney’s fails to see in his brother’s life. Del delights in the daily ‘ducking and diving, wheeling and dealing,’ as it is the only life he has ever known as prides himself at being the ‘businessman’ we know he is not. Rodney, on the other hand can see beyond that and into a uncertain future. He can see that there are better opportunities out there for him, and although he admires and looks up to his brother in many ways, he still feels that need to expand his horizons and channel his ideas into a idealistic approach. Del, tragically, is always there to bring Rodney back down to Earth in making him understand that there isn’t a way out for him, and his place should stay with Del, so he can forever use his younger brother as a lad to watch out for coppers for in the market, as well as, flog sunhats when it’s peeing down with rain…
Within his ‘nationalised industry’ Del revels in the fact that he owns the ‘floor.’ He relies on his contacts (when desperately trying to get rid of the cases, he resorts to the little book of gullible mates,) and enjoys the showmanship that he delivers with ease to his ‘customers.’ finally frustrated with the strangulation of his older brother and his meaningless lifestyle, Rodney packs and leaves, supposedly for Hong Kong to find his girl friend and partner in expulsion from their Art College after smoking pot, only to return six days later full of an elaborate story of how he made it to ‘San Tropez’ and met the daughter of a rich tax exile who invited he aboard their yacht. He overly greets his brother on his ‘prodigal’ return with his story, only to find that Del know exactly where he has been simply be finding his passport on the top of the wardrobe.
Del, the master of one up man ship, has the last crack as he does in 90 % of the episodes that ran from 1981 to the last Christmas special in 2003. Rodney suffers the biggest fall when Del throws him the passport and Rodney has to come clean about where he has really been. He confesses in only getting as far as a doss house in Stoke Newington.
The episode gave the show a shaky platform as well as a test for Sullivan and his new, inspired idea from his own youth. Basing Rodney on his own mishaps as an awkward lad with a much older brother, the success of the previous Sullivan creation, ‘Citizen Smith,’ was enough to give him the confidence that he needed to fight for the air space that he thought ‘Only Fools,’ deserved. If he hadn’t then, I doubt it would have lasted more that two series.
Perhaps we wonder why it took so long for us to cotton onto the failings of the working class comedy. I guess for most of us and for me, growing up in South London, it was too near the mark. We didn’t want someone ridiculing a world in which we either lived of knew of. There were markets full of traders and many Del’s filled the streets shouting out their wares from a suitcase on a chair, so because these rough rogues just as warm and welcoming to the rest of us punters, we didn’t want to see them taken apart, brutally on a show – particularly, a comedy one. Yet, when we did start to watch, we saw that it was charming, warming and a tribute to the failures of such people who probably worked harder than the rest of us with nine to fives, who got paid to do naff all…
You never saw Del having a duvet day….
The cast of this first episode was;
Del Boy Trotter- David Jason
Rodney Trotter – Nicholas Lyndhurst
Granddad – Lennard Pearce
Trigger- Roger Lloyd Pack.
Written by John Sullivan
Produced by Ray Butt
Original music by Ronnie Hazlehurst.
BBC VHS video containing the first three episodes
014503467821 BBC Enterprises Ltd 1991 PG cert.
©Michelle Hatcher (sam1942 on dooyoo) 2006.
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