Only Fools and Horses

Tuesday, December 25, 2001 by

In the early days of Only Fools and Horses, whenever the jokes weren’t funny you could at least rely on a good story to keep you interested. The plots underlying episodes such as “The Longest Night” and “May The Force Be With You” would have worked as one-off straight dramas; whilst “No Greater Love” was a great example of brotherly love and “Chain Game” had at its centre a clever little heist. Only Fools and Horses at its best has always been more than just fine comedy.

The 1996 trilogy (billed at the time as the finale to the series) eschewed careful plotting in favour of a collection of set pieces (Rodney and Del as “Batman and Robin” being perhaps the most obvious example of this). That this format worked is probably attributable to the quality of jokes and the affection with which the public held the characters. Nonetheless, as entertaining as those three episodes were there was a sense that had Only Fools and Horses continued, a change back to the original format would have been required lest the series began to resemble too closely those sitcoms reliant on stunts for their big laughs (the fate which has befallen Last of the Summer Wine).

Unfortunately, after watching the 2001 Christmas special “If They Could See Us Now” the indications are that Sullivan has elected to stick with slapstick and stunts. The return of Only Fools and Horses is obviously “event” television, but to write each episode so consciously in the shadow of that which has gone before results in a parody of the original programme. It has been said that each of us knows a Del or a Rodney, or a Trigger or a Boycie. However, over the course of the years, Del and Rodney have grown less and less familiar as they have been placed into the middle of increasingly implausible adventures (perhaps the turning point here is “Miami Twice” – arguably the series first truly “non-realist” story). With this latest episode though, the characters have truly moved beyond the realms or realism and have been transformed into cartoon approximations of their old selves. In particular the treatment of the supporting cast (now wheeled out en masse) typifies the programme’s changed remit. It would seem that each episode must now include the roll call of Boycie, Marlene, Trigger, Denzil and Mickey in some shape or form, and that each must get at least one line, just so we can rejoice at their return.

“If They Could See Us Now” had enough of a brief to fulfil without being forced to accommodate an entire supporting cast as well. The deaths of Buster Merryfield and Kenneth MacDonald needed to be addressed and the notion of Del and Rodney as millionaires had to be perpetuated or unpicked. Wisely, Sullivan attempted to address all of these in as economic manner as possible – through exposition. As such the episode opened with Del and Rodney recounting the events of the past five years to their Brief. The desire to “do right” by the demised actors meant that we were told that Mike had been arrested whilst Uncle Albert we were told had died of natural causes. The comic vignette which then followed (the first significant one of the programme) set the level for the remainder of the episode.

Misdirection is a classic Sullivan trick and has resulted in many of Only Fools and Horsesfinest moments (the “chandelier scene” springs to mind from an early episode whilst that inappropriate “Batman and Robin” attire of Del and Rodney is a later example). Yet having the Trotters turn up at the wrong funeral was a predictable a turn of events. It was during this scene that Sullivan sought to re-invoke that other famed facet of the Trotter clan – family loyalty. Del’s angry response to what he took to be a criticism levelled at his Uncle Albert was designed to remind the viewer that Del is – at heart – a sentimentalist. However, for some reason it seemed fundamentally out of character. Had it truly been a stranger making disparaging remarks then Del’s actions would have been more understandable. However this was another member of Albert’s family (or so it appeared) – and someone who it seemed had known him just as well as the Trotters. Furthermore, it was not expressed in a tone of malice, more as a frank recollection of a deceased relative, and as such Del’s reaction was – at best – over the top, delivering a forced eulogy to those who had served in World War II. Thankfully little more was made of this as it soon after became apparent to the Trotters that they were at the wrong funeral. By this time most of the audience had already worked that out.

And so it careered on. Having successfully done away with Del and Rodney’s riches it was little surprise to find the family ensconced once again in Peckham. The remainder of the episode consisted then of two more set pieces, the first another go at provoking belly laughs by having Rodney dress up in a ridiculous costume (this time as Russell Crowe in Gladiator) and the second, Sullivan’s customary attempt at topicality – this time having Del participate in an edition of a faux Who Wants to be a Millionaire game show.

Damien’s “gangsta” talk and references to the internet were rather quaint attempts by the production team to make jokes at the expense of current popular obsessions. Such efforts have occurred regularly throughout the series’ history, and although never consistently successful, they have previously always remained relatively innocuous. Indeed one of the series’ most brilliant throwaway jokes (Del’s attempt to explain away the presence of a police helicopter to an escaped convict in “Friday 14th” as “it’s Barratts”) relied wholly on the audience’s familiarity with a then ubiquitous television advertising campaign. However, the parody of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire was far more than a passing gag, taking up the final third of the episode.

As well as being somewhat out of date (The Weakest Link would seem to be a far more obvious target) the hastily constructed Jonathan Ross fronted game show looked utterly unrealistic. Television has a long and undistinguished history of spectacularly failing to create fictional television programmes within a programme, and so Only Fools and Horses was doing little more than adhering to a long time TV tradition. However, special mention must be made to both Jonathan Ross (who was in fact more convincing here as game show host than he ever is on It’s Only TV But I Like It) and the actors playing the contestants (who conversely were truly unrealistic). Ultimately though Del’s participation did little more than take Only Fools and Horses a step further away from its realistic roots, much to the detriment of the series’ original, underlying premise.

Perhaps it is because there is such a rich archive of similarly crafted jokes, concepts and set pieces with which to compare any new episode of Only Fools and Horses to that such scrutiny is applied to any addition to the canon. There were some funny moments in “If They Could See Us Now” (mostly one-liners delivered by the dependable Roger Lloyd Pack as Trigger), but when one gets beyond the euphoria of the return of (according to Channel 4) Britain’s best loved family, those of us who tuned in on Christmas Day will come to reflect that we were presented with an episode that failed to match any of the high standards attained by the 1996 trilogy. In fact, it is difficult to think of a less appealing episode. Perhaps”If They Could See Us Now” will ultimately live longest in the memory as the least funny Only Fools and Horses of all time (although let’s not forget that the series did go seriously off the boil before its triumphant finale of five years a go). Last minute script revisions withstanding, this was a major disappointment. Let us hope it is not saved from the ignominy of “worst ever episode” by the two further stories mysteriously scheduled for “some time in 2002″.

The Trotters are back apparently, and whilst the tabloids have rejoiced in their return and 20.3 million of us tuned in to watch them, one wonders whether they’ll be as welcome on our screens this time next year.


2 Responses to “Only Fools and Horses”

  1. marion on July 18th, 2009 10:09 pm

    trying to find out if thay were more than 1 uncle Albert please help

  2. Nick H on July 19th, 2009 10:34 am

    No, Only 1 – Buster Merryfield. Perhaps you are thinking of Grandad, played by Lennard Pearce, who died in 1984…