It was the nation’s favourite sitcom that ran from 1981 to 2003, boasted more than 24 million viewers for a single episode and gave national currency to the word “plonker”. But when the last Only Fools and Horses aired more than a decade ago it felt like the end of an era. Fans were bereft and, despite persistent rumours, their hopes of a revival were crushed when the show’s creator John Sullivan, OBE, died of pneumonia in April 2011 at the age of 64.
But now the misadventures of the hapless Trotter brothers, played by David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst, are to be revived as loveable chancers Del Boy and Rodney once more take to the streets of Peckham with a ludicrous plan to get rich quick. And all thanks to an unlikely superfan, known more for golden balls than market stalls.
“Back in September David Beckham got in touch through Sport Relief saying he is a big fan of Only Fools and Horses and that he was wondering if there was a possibility of doing something together for the charity’s 2014 campaign,” says Jim Sullivan who, together with his brother Dan, saw it as part of the family legacy to safeguard their father’s comedy creation. (Jim wrote episodes of Only Fools spin-off The Green Green Grass.)
“We were surprised and flattered by this, but a little hesitant to commit at first. Since Dad passed away the question of whether we’d be interested in writing any new material for Only Fools has been raised a few times, and we have always said no, our intention being to protect the work, not to attempt adding to it. However, with Sport Relief being such a worthy cause, and with the opportunity to help raise a lot of money, things were different this time, and we knew that Dad would approve."
For Beckham, it was personal, too, as he grew up in Leytonstone, not far from the barrow-boy heartland of London. “I’m a huge fan of the show,” he says. “I have been for many years, as far back as I can remember. Being from the East End of London, it’s what I was brought up on.”
But how did the Sullivan brothers – both scriptwriters like their father – transport Beckham to Peckham? “We decided to write a sketch, and first had to find a way of bringing David Beckham into Del and Rodney’s world,” says Jim. “It’s all very playful and silly, and we don’t want to say too much, but we thought about the Trotters and what they do, and thought about David Beckham and what he does, and found a way. Once we had that we just tried to have a lot of fun with it. But we’d be lying if we said the whole thing hasn’t been daunting, too. The show and its characters are iconic and well loved, so even though it’s just a sketch, it was a big responsibility. But having grown up with the show, going to recordings in the studio and on location (we were there when Del went hang-gliding and jet-skiing in Miami) and being huge fans ourselves, we didn’t have to search too far to find the characters and hear their voices.
“Once we had written a first draft, we checked Dad’s notes – snippets of dialogue he’d written but had never found a place for – and worked it into the script. This wasn’t easy because anything we added had to feel natural and unforced, but it was important that the characters felt as true as possible. The show, its characters and every episode came from Dad’s mind, so if there was any way of getting his thoughts and voice into the script then we were going to do it.”
Were they surprised to discover Beckham was such a fan of the show? “We had no idea,” adds Jim, “and it was lovely to meet him and hear him talk about his favourite episodes and scenes and how his son, Brooklyn, is now also a fan. David is a genuinely lovely bloke and was a pleasure to work with. When he first read the script he was a bit surprised to have been given so much dialogue and was nervous, understandably, about having to act alongside David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst, but he had no reason to be because his acting and delivery were very good."
For a man with 115 caps for England, who has played for Manchester United, Real Madrid and AC Milan, and graced World Cups and Champions League finals, Beckham was strangely nervous about stepping on set with the Trotters. “The day of filming started off with a slightly sleepless night, going over my script,” he confesses. “The thought of being on set with Nicholas and David was obviously very nerve-racking. I woke up that morning with my script on my chest. I’ve never done anything like this before, especially with two people I’m really in awe of and have been for many years. It wasn’t just about learning the script, it was about delivering it; saying the right things at the right time.”
Shot over two days at Wimbledon Studios, filming went smoothly and the sketch went down a storm. “Oddly, even though we’d written it, it was quite surreal seeing Del and Rodney chatting away with David Beckham,” says Jim Sullivan. “It must have been a bit strange for everyone there who had worked on the original series to be back together again after all this time, but as soon as the camera started rolling, David and Nick slipped back into character and it was as though Del and Rodney had never been away.”
The fact that their father was not around to witness the revival clearly haunts the brothers, although Sullivan senior wasn’t the only member of the original cast and crew who did not live to see the revival. Roger Lloyd Pack, who played Trigger, died in January.
“It has been emotional, and Dad was never far from our thoughts during the whole process. And, of course, we were all shocked and saddened at the news of Roger Lloyd Pack’s death. We had originally written Trigger into the sketch and Roger was supportive of the whole thing. We had heard that he had been unwell, but had no idea how serious it was. It wasn’t until shortly before filming that we heard he was too poorly to perform, such was his eagerness to be involved – a true testament to his character.”
But for the Sullivan brothers the fact that the sketch has been filmed means they can finally go public – and put to rest any lingering rumours that the show will return.
“It’s a relief now that it’s done as we were all sworn to secrecy for what felt like a long time. It’s also good to be able to set the record straight about some of the rumours – that the sketch is based on a ‘missing script’ about Del’s 65th birthday, that it’s a trailer for a new episode, that we’re writing a new series etc. None of it is true.
“It really is just a one-off sketch. We very much appreciate the passionate and loyal fanbase that the show has, and in a perfect world there would be more episodes, but there was only ever one writer of Only Fools and Horses, and without him, there can be no more.
“We are happy with how the sketch has turned out and can only hope that others enjoy watching it as much as we did writing it. And if it does give people a giggle and helps raise a lot of money, then lovely jubbly!”
As for Beckham, forget European Cups and league titles – this, it seems, is the stuff that dreams are made of. “I can die a happy man after these two days,” he tells RT. “I think that what it’s really about is making people laugh, making people smile and raising money for important charities that are doing a lot of incredible work.”
Sport Relief is on tonight from 7:00pm on BBC1.