On 29 December 1996, 24.3 million Britons sat down to enjoy the final ever episode of Only Fools and Horses. The number remains (and always will) the biggest ever British television audience for a sitcom. The record-breaking turnout was richly deserved. Over the past 15-years, Del Boy and Rodney Trotter had become household names, cultural phenomena and dear friends who we all wanted a chance to say goodbye to in style.
The late great John Sullivan penned a perfect exit in the shape of Time on Our Hands, the third of three hour-long Christmas episodes that year which ultimately saw the Trotters finally become millionaires. It was over. The war was won, the characters’ journeys complete, the audience emotionally and comedically satisfied… everything was, to borrow a phrase, cushty.
For five years (save a brief appearance on Comic Relief in 1997), the legacy of Fools and Horses remained safe. It was one of Britain’s greatest sitcoms of all time, and just like its greatest rival, Fawlty Towers, it had stopped at the right time – securing its legacy forever.
In 2001, the BBC and Sullivan took the decision to revive the Trotters for a Christmas special. One can understand the temptation – there was no other show that could pull ratings of 20m+ for the Beeb anymore, and the characters remained part of the national psyche. This was a mistake.
Although over 21m tuned in to see Del and Rodders lose everything through a bad investment on Christmas Day 2001, the episode felt forced and contrived compared to the effortless ending it had enjoyed five years earlier. Indeed, when the show returned the following year, only 17m watched – and when Sullivan finally put Only Fools to bed (again) with Sleepless in Peckham in 2003 only 16m were there to say goodbye, 8m less than its first finale.
And now ten years later, something even worse is happening – the Trotters are to return again, this time in a Sport Relief sketch in March. John Sullivan, who wrote every episode of the show, died in 2011 aged 64, so it understood his son Jim (who wrote several episodes of lukewarm Fools and Horse spin-off, The Green Green Grass) will pen the script.
Before the BBC made the announcement yesterday, David Jason had hinted in an interview that there were more Fools and Horses scripts circulating and that he would consider being involved. Whether that means there are plans to bring back the show for episodes beyond the charity skit remains unclear, but we can only hope that all involved have more sense.
We live in an age of revivals, be it in pop music, remade films or television. Some work, and some don’t. Take That have successfully reinvented themselves as 21st Century pop-dads and Birds of a Feather is exactly the same as it was – just everyone has more wrinkles. But for every success there have been far more failures – remember Reggie Perrin with Martin Clunes and the 2001 comeback for Crossroads.
But, although producers and writers might play fast and loose with certain shows – some things are just too precious to meddle with.
They may have been created by John Sullivan and played by David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst, but it feels like Del Boy and Rodney belong to us now, the British people. Please don’t spoil our memories of their beautifully crafted characters, incredible on-screen chemistry and fantastic comic timing by wheeling out ageing parodies of the pair to deliver media friendly soundbites and catchphrases. The Trotters, and the viewers deserve better than that.
Tim Glanfield is editor of RadioTimes.com & digital products