Just Good Friends

Tuesday, July 23, 2002 by

It’s been almost two decades since its debut, and there’s the legacy of one too many re-runs on UK Gold, but still that very particular, potent appeal of Just Good Friends hasn’t weathered or grown stale. Even Paul Nicholas’ salty rendering of John Sullivan’s self-penned title theme, garnished with textbook Ronnie Hazelhurst noodling, remains at the end of the day essentially harmless and even, well, likable. Watching the series again, and especially this famous final episode, is a thoroughly agreeable experience.

But there isn’t just rose-tinted reminiscence at work here. It’s something more than that, and which impresses itself upon the viewer in a crafty and reassuring way. Sullivan’s characters are all archetypes, often crude ones; and the quarrelling and sniping between the rival Pinner and Warrender families drawn in the broadest and occasionally very obvious strokes. Yet throughout there’s the sense that, for all the sharply delivered lines and well-timed gags, nobody, least of all Sullivan, ever comes close to breaking sweat. This is casual comedy of a most refined and rare vintage. They’re getting the laughs and not even trying.

It meant that several key scenes during this episode, particularly those between Vince (Paul Nicholas) and Penny (Jan Francis), seemed to be played out in spite of rather than because of the camera, and sparkling quips and insults swapped like leftover newspaper at a jumble sale: functional, well-read, and almost for the sake of it. That those lines were also spiky, unpredictable and sometimes verging on the surreal (“Being wiped out in the divorce court and the subject of a United Nations enquiry – is that the only reason you’re being moody?”) was a reminder of how masterful and subtle a writer Sullivan had become by this point in his career. That their delivery was so low-key and natural was testament to the manner in which, over the course of the series, Francis and Nicholas had simultaneously developed their respective characters into confident sitcom stalwarts. To the end, Vince and Penny stayed utterly believable screen creations. Best of all neither were handed contrived, over-the-top soliloquies and summings up to needlessly remind viewers that, yes, this was really it, there was to be no more.

On the other hand, twist this round and here were performances bordering on the unbearably smug. After three full series, plus another 90 minute special (which, annoyingly, the Beeb didn’t see fit to repeat this time round), Paul Nicholas was still minded to almost throw away his best lines, mumbling, talking down to the floor and generally making us do the work on his behalf. Across the room Jan Francis faced him, clothes, hair and an expression of mania all hastily touched up for this as for every previous occasion. The prospect of yet another variation on the will they/won’t they dilemma, and further displays of Vince’s nonchalance versus Penny’s petulance, had almost become too much to contemplate. In retrospect the show ended in the nick of time.

A premature decline was also staved off thanks to the calibre of the supporting cast, not least Penny’s father Norman (John Ringham). Frankly, he was always the best character in the whole programme. His expert dithering, combined with his mastery of the role of dramatic foil to both his daughter and his unbearable wife Daphne (Sylvia Kay), undoubtedly saved proceedings from tumbling into too much schmaltz or sycophancy many a time. In response to a typical barrage of fussing and bluster from his wife, Norm followed up with a simple confession to Penny: “Does a piece of paper mean that you love somebody more?” to which there was, rightly, no answer. His bluff personality and clipped, homely logic cut through a lot of the rather tedious subplotting which somewhat smothered this and every episode of the last series. The endless shenanigans involving Penny’s career, Vince’s supposed inheritance, plus the machinations of their parents and rivals always felt a little forced. With hindsight they may also have been the symptoms of a writer forced to prolong a project beyond the point where he’d originally conceived it to end.

These complaints have to be put in perspective, though, and measured against a standard of acting so distinctive, accomplished but still supremely realistic, to seem to have almost improved in standing over the years rather than age or fade. The structure and assembly of this all-important dénouement episode were also of merit. Sullivan used very few locations, mostly studio-bound interiors; there were even only half a dozen scenes in total. Moments of emotional crisis and tension were nipped in the bud before they could drift into grisly Carla Lane-esque browbeating and earnest preaching. Events unfolded mostly through conventional two-handed dialogue, shorn of self-conscious wordplay or hyperbole. There were also a couple of neat but unobtrusive concessions to the real world, including at one point background noise from of an edition of Breakfast Time including Francis Wilson presenting the weather.

Meanwhile the closing scenes in Paris, totalling less than five minutes screen time, couldn’t help but seem, in isolation, a bit self-indulgent. Yet they were undeniably riddled with charm. It’s almost like they were dreamed up as a sop to the viewers – a little treat to wrap up proceedings by way of a no-expense spared location shoot across the Channel. They’re also extremely cannily directed, and the scene that reveals Penny to be sitting next to Vince in the registry office the kind of moment at which only the soulless does not feel a bit emotional.

When this episode was first shown, on Christmas Day 1986, nearly 21 million tuned in. 16 years later, it crept onto screens with the barest trace of publicity, another filler programme flung on to bridge the gap between Quincy and Children’s BBC. But, like the entire repeat run, it was a treat to watch from start to finish. It was a demonstration of a writer at the peak of his powers, served by a tight, professional cast totally at ease with the script and each other. Here, above all, were characters and contexts laid to rest the minute all possible point had been wrung from them, and done so with style and enduring humour. Food for thought, as the months pass and the wait continues for the remaining two instalments of that much-fanfared “new three-part” Only Fools and Horses.


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