Why the BBC flogged Only Fools and Horses to death

David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst in Only Fools and Horses – PA

Twenty-five years ago, the Trotters said “Bonjour!” for what should have been the last time. After making serious bunce on an antique watch, Del Boy, Rodney, and Uncle Albert walked off into the sunset as millionaires – the final moment in a trilogy of farewell episodes that aired across Christmas 1996.

Watched by a peak audience of 24.3 million – the biggest TV audience in British comedy history – the 1996 trilogy was the crème de la menthe of sitcom finales. They’d have to be 42-carat plonkers to spoil such a perfectly composed ending. But the Trotters were, if nothing else, plonkers.

So, five years later, Del Boy and Rodney returned to TV – their fortune squandered and living back in the old flat. It was the first in another farewell trilogy, which broadcast on consecutive Christmases from 2001 to 2003. But things weren’t quite pukka. Uncle Albert was gone, along with the spark of comic ingenuity that had powered Del Boy’s best wheeling-dealing adventures.

Undoing the magic of their into-the-sunset moment – and arguably tarnishing the legacy of Britain’s favourite sitcom – the Trotters’ return was seemingly for the sake of them propping up the BBC’s Christmas ratings.

“We were never supposed to come back,” admitted Only Fools and Horses writer John Sullivan back in 2008. “The producer Gareth Gwenlan gave an interview saying we were doing another without asking the rest of us, so we were sort of forced into it so as not to let people down.”

Back in 1996, the Trotters becoming millionaires was fortuitous. By then, three years had passed since the last Only Fools special, and five years since the last full series. David Jason was busy with A Touch of Frost on ITV, while Nicholas Lyndhurst was starring in his own sitcom – the time travel WW2 romp, Goodnight Sweetheart. Just finding the time to reunite and round off their story was a challenge for Del Boy and Rodney.

“The fact of the matter was I’d been very busy and I didn’t think it needed rounding off,” said David Jason. “But I knew John more than anybody just wanted to tie it all up and he wanted the Trotters to become millionaires. That had always been his ambition and plan.”

As the show’s popularity had grown since debuting in 1981 – as Del Boy transcended from sitcom dipstick to an integral part of the British identity – “this time next year we’ll be millionaires” became more than a catchphrase. It was surely the only logical endpoint for the much-loved Trotter clan.

“I think John always wanted the Trotters to become millionaires,” says Steve Clark, author of Only Fools and Horses: The Official Inside Story. “We all wanted the Trotters to do well in the end – to have the success they’d always dreamed of.”

John Sullivan, David Jason, Gareth Gwenlan, and director Tony Dow met for dinner and hashed out a tentative plan for a 1996 special. Sullivan told them his story ideas. David Jason recalled: “Then at the end of the dinner John said to me, ‘What do you think?’ And I just said, ‘Yeah, come on, let’s go for it!’”

Sullivan – a famously prodigious writer – realised this was no get-rich-quick scheme. More than just one special, it would need to be a trilogy of episodes, which the BBC happily commissioned. Indeed, Del Boy was long-established as the yuppie king of Christmas telly. Specials in 1989, 1992, and 1993 were watched by roughly 20 million people each.

News of the Trotters’ return was met with tabloid enthusiasm; “Lovely jubbly,” read a typical headline. The Beeb promoted the final trilogy as its “Christmas present to the nation.”

Newspapers wrongly reported that the Trotters would win the lottery. “That’s not something John Sullivan would have done,” laughs Steve Clark. “That’s far too obvious.” As detailed in Clark’s book, the cast read-throughs and rehearsals were as emotional as they were funny. Buster Merryfield – who had played Uncle Albert for 11 years by that point – cried before making his entrance into the studio. At the end of the final recording, the audience gave the cast a lengthy standing ovation.

The 1996 Only Fools and Horses special, Modern Men – YouTube

The first episode – Heroes and Villains, broadcast on Christmas Day 1996 – is best remembered for its big set-piece: Del and Rodney racing through the backstreets of Peckham as Batman and Robin – the kind of had-to-be-there, family-all-round-the-telly moment that rarely happens in the age of streaming.

In the true spirit of trilogies, the second episode – Modern Men, broadcast on December 27, 1996 – is disarmingly downbeat: as Del schemes up a dodgy line of turban-crash helmets for bike-riding Sikhs, Rodney and Cassandra lose their baby. “It’s just a dropped stitch in life’s tapestry, that’s what mum used to say,” Del Boy tells Rodney in the next (and supposedly final) episode, Time on Our Hands, which aired on December 29, 1996.

As the title suggests, it wasn’t the lottery, but an old antique watch that made Del Boy and Rodney their millions. The idea came via Mona Adams, a historical consultant at the BBC, who talked with experts at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The watch is based on a supposedly lost nautical timepiece by watchmaker John Harrison. The watch, so viewers learnt, had been collecting dust among Trotters Independent Traders’ old stock – hidden among the Showaddywaddy LPs, Free Nelson Mandela t-shirts, and Charles and Di commemorative mugs.

The Trotters sell the watch for £6.2 million at Sotheby’s – cue Del and Rodney fainting one after the other during the auction. Not quite Del Boy falling through the bar – but not far off in terms of much-repeated Christmas TV clips.

The real conclusion comes after, when Del Boy reminisces about the pace and fraternal bolshiness of his earlier escapades. Now a millionaire, his life’s work – the ducking and diving, the chase, the looking out for his kid brother – is over. “It’s not like I thought it would be,” he tells Rodney, before an offer of 250 electronic carpet steamers convinces him that “this time next year we could be billionaires!”

John Sullivan suggested turning the Trotters into cartoon characters as they walked into the sunset. “I felt that once they were cartoons they were no longer real and couldn’t return,” Sullivan said, “But Tony Dow didn’t pick up on it. I don’t know why.”

“I just felt we had to be careful with the characters themselves,” insisted Dow.

Making the Trotters millionaires was a case of “he who dares wins”. The first two episodes were both watched by 21.3 million people, and the final episode watched by a 24.3 million. Châteauneuf-du-Pape! As the French say.

Buster Merryfield, Nicholas Lyndhurst and David Jason accepting the award for Most Popular Comedy Programme, at the 1997 National Television Awards – PA/Sean Dempsey

The trilogy won Only Fools two Baftas – Best Comedy and Best Comedy Performance for David Jason – and seemed to inspire a new Christmas telly trend: Men Behaving Badly bowed out with a “Last Orders” trilogy in 1998, and The Fast Show did a three-part farewell across Christmas 2000.

The tabloids were already panicking post-Del Boy. “Is life possible without Only Fools and Horses?” asked the Daily Mirror. Repeats became a regular fixture in TV schedules, and the show knocked out VHS copies by the suitcase load. There was also an increase in memberships of the Only Fools and Horses Appreciation Society.

Sullivan said that the idea of comeback was floated early on, while he celebrated the 1996 ratings with Gareth Gwenlan and Tony Dow. “We had a couple of bottles of wine and decided we could do another one for the 31 December 1999,” he said.

Demand took hold when Gareth Gwenlan mentioned the idea in an interview. “There was certainly a lot of press interest, that’s for sure,” said Sullivan. “Then Gareth, off his own bat, said, ‘Maybe we’ll do a special for the Millennium.’” Sullivan’s agent then called to warn him: “Don’t let it be you who killed the series off!”

Sullivan seemed content with his minicab comedy-drama, Roger Roger – a lowkey, lower pressure gig in terms of ratings. “OK, we’re doing six million, which compared with Fools is no big shakes,” Sullivan said. “But it’s warm and nice and people are enjoying it. The letters are coming in…”

David Jason – who previously commented that “Del and Albert will have identical Zimmer frames before too long” – had reservations. “We’d had such a fantastic time with Fools and Horses over the years that I wondered whether we should leave it alone,” he said. “I also dragged my heels about returning to the character, not because I wondered if John could do it, that wasn’t a problem, it was whether Nick I could as older characters.”

Still, letters poured in demanding a comeback. That fans would want more episodes after such a perfect ending seems wally-brained – but the Appreciation Society submitted a 3,000-signature petition and blamed the Beeb for not reviving the show (“The BBC have gone barmy!”). There were even threats of circling Television Centre in a convoy of three-wheeled vans.

Steve Clark doesn’t think John Sullivan felt pressured into bringing back Del and Rodney. “There was an appetite and bottom line was, John thought he still had stuff to write,” says Steve Clark. “To my mind, he was the best judge. John wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t want to. I guess he just thought he had more to write for the characters and loose ends to tie up.”

But the BBC certainly wanted more. As noted by Graham McCann in his Only Fools and Horses behind-the-scenes book, the BBC’s audience share had dropped from 39 per cent in 1981– the year Only Fools debuted – to just 28.4 per cent by 1999. The BBC was now competing with 80-plus channels.

Primetime Christmas Day ratings had begun to slide. In 1998, Men Behaving Badly – that year’s Only Fools equivalent – peaked with 13.9 million viewers, 10 million fewer than Only Fools. In 1999 and 2000, Coronation Street beat the BBC in primetime slots.

Sullivan came up with ideas for a new trilogy of episodes, which the BBC snapped up. Though Gareth Gwenlan remembered that executives “swallowed a bit hard” when he pitched the idea of the trilogy – at a cost of around £1 million per episode. The BBC didn’t skimp at Christmastime though. When the return was announced, the Corporation was accused of plunging money into “bankers” rather than investing in fresh ideas – including more episodes of Absolutely Fabulous and Gimme Gimme Gimme.

In 2001, the Beeb spent a reported £51 million on the fortnight leading up to Christmas. ITV spent a comparatively Scrooge-like £20 million. “Executives believe that the expense is justified if it means they can regain the upper hand at Christmas,” wrote The Guardian when the Only Fools comeback was announced.

Only Fools and Horses returned with If They Could See Us Now on Christmas Day 2001 – watched by 21.35 million viewers. The Trotters had now lost their millions, thanks to dodgy Central America investments. “I remember John saying he had to make them poor again,” says Steve Clark. “Because rich isn’t as funny.”

Harder to write around was the loss of both Buster Merryfield, who died in 1999, and Ken MacDonald – AKA Nags Head landlord Mike – who died suddenly in 2001, aged just 50.

In the story, Uncle Albert has passed away and Mike is in prison. Del Boy, meanwhile, comes up with a plonker-proof idea for making back his fortune – by appearing on a Jonathan Ross-hosted gameshow. Sullivan had wanted Del Boy to appear on Who Wants to be a Millionaire with Chris Tarrant, but the BBC and ITV couldn’t agree on a deal. ITV wanted to repeat the episode in return for using its quiz. “I think ITV missed a trick there,” says Clark. “The country would have loved the two companies collaborating on a bit of magic.”

The next special, Strangers on the Shore, aired on Christmas Day 2002, followed by the final episode, Sleepless in Peckham, on Christmas Day 2003 – topping the ratings with 16.3 million and 15.5 million respectively. The decline was most likely down to the sheer number of channels now available.

The 2002 Only Fools special Strangers on the Shore

The Trotters’ comeback never felt authentically Fools and Horses. More like a re-run of itself: rehashed set-pieces; Trigger too broadly stupid to be as sharp as he once was; and the Trotter clan missing a key part of the formula in Uncle Albert.

Not to mention Del’s tween son, Damien, doing Ali G catchphrases – a contender for the most skin-crawlingly awful character in British comedy (no mean feat when Mrs Brown’s Boys exists). Only Fools and Horses felt like a show out of its time by 2001.

In the five years that Only Fools was away, The Royle Family, Phoenix Nights, and The Office all debuted. The three-camera, studio-filmed sitcom felt immediately out-of-step. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the faces of 2000s comedy, sniggered at the Only Fools and Horses specials on their Xfm radio show.

The episodes aren’t without nice touches – see the moment that Del and Rodney realise Albert has fathered an entire French village of bearded men – and the final episode has heart: Rodney and Cassandra finally become parents, while Rodney uncovers the long hinted-at mystery of who his own father really was (thanks to some tinkering of the show’s backstory). Though some mysteries in drama, I would argue, are best left hinted at.

The Trotters’ comeback specials have their fans, however. “If you compare them with the rest of Only Fools, they’re not as popular,” says Steve Clark. “But if you look at them as standalone bits of comedy, I think they’re really very, very funny.”

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