At its height, classic sitcom Only Fools and Horses attracted an audience of 24.3 million viewers (over a third of the population) and won critical plaudits from across the board – but actor John Challis, who played pompous car dealer Boycie, has revealed that the series was not always as popular within the Corporation that spawned it.
“There was sort of something about the BBC, Auntie BBC, who’s bigger than everything really,” Challis told the crowd last weekend at the inaugural Radio Times Festival. “And it was sort of slightly embarrassing that this show had done so well.
“They begrudgingly said at the end of one particular series ‘oh yes, come and have a party here at the BBC. But can you bring your own wine?’
“And Alan Yentob got up and made a speech, and pretended that he’d never seen the show. You know, at least go through the motions! Say ‘thanks guys for making this the most successful comedy the BBC’s ever seen, the country’s ever seen’. They didn’t want it to get bigger than the BBC itself, I suppose.”
John Challis as Boycie in Only Fools and Horses
Speaking to RadioTimes.com editor Tim Glanfield at the Hampton Court event, Challis went on to reveal that Only Fools and Horses was nearly axed by the BBC after a poor showing in its first run.
“The first series went out, and it wasn’t actually that well received,” he said.
“I think it got about 7.9 million or something like that, which today would be very good but in those days wasn’t considered great at all, so it was sort of put on the back burner for a bit – no particular plans for a second series.”
But deliverance was set to come from an unlikely source – industrial action.
“I never thought I’d say this, but luckily there was a strike at the BBC,” Challis recounted. “They started repeating stuff and they put it out again, different time, different place, and word of mouth went around, and the figures went up by a couple of million.
“They thought, ‘oh, well maybe we’ll do a second series.’ So it could have been that there might never have been a second series, which is an extraordinary thought.”