Only Fools And Horses surely needs no introduction, certainly for anyone in the UK at least. It is still regularly voted as Britain’s greatest sitcom (which I heartily agree with), it is still constantly repeated on TV, and it still holds the record for the UK’s most watched programme (not counting coverage of special news and sports events, or figures for soap operas that include mid-week repeats, of which there are only a few instances anyway).
It seems hard to believe that 24.35 million people in the UK, over a third of the entire population, were all sat in front of their TVs at the same time on 29 December 1996, to witness Del Boy and Rodney becoming millionaires. And who knows how many others have seen that episode on TV, video, DVD or online since then? It shows just how much affection there is for the characters that such a huge audience wanted to see them finally succeed, and that so many of the fans got upset when they lost their fortune 5 years later. Although it’s logical that Del wouldn’t be a wise investor, the fans still felt bad for him.
And that’s why this year’s launch of Only Fools And Horses The Musical at Theatre Royal Haymarket has proven incredibly popular, and has hopefully helped to introduce some new younger fans to the series. The musical has already had to be extended until next year, given the positive reviews and the high demand for tickets.
So as a big fan of the series myself, I was certainly keen to go. And my wonderful girlfriend Claire knew this without having to ask, so she very kindly booked tickets for us to see the audio-described performance in July, as an early birthday present for me. Which of course means this post isn’t sponsored or endorsed by anybody connected with the TV show or the theatre production. So I wanted to tell you what I thought of the musical, and also take the opportunity to pay tribute to my favourite sitcom.
Why I Love The TV Show
If you are somehow unfamiliar with the series, Only Fools And Horses centres around Derek “Del Boy” Trotter and his younger brother Rodney, who live in a council flat in the Peckham district of London, firstly with their Grandad and then with their Uncle Albert. Del Boy is always trying to earn money for the family by selling goods in the local market and getting involved in all sorts of dodgy deals and schemes. His younger brother Rodney, who Del has brought up himself since their mother died and their father left, is reluctantly dragged in to help Del out. Their various attempts to make money in less than legal ways, along with their awkward attempts to attract women and form relationships, form an integral part of every story.
As the series progresses, the two brothers do both get partners (Raquel and Cassandra)., which adds a further dynamic layer to the show, and they later have children too. Plus they have many friends who they meet at the local pub, the Nag’s Head, including landlord Mike Fisher, the simple-minded Colin Ball (who everyone knows as Trigger), Aubrey Boyce (who everyone knows as Boycie) and his wife Marlene (who all the men know very well), lorry driver Denzil, Rodney’s friend Mickey Pearce, and café owner Sid. And there are local enemies in the form of Roy Slater from the police, and the ruthless gangsters known as the Driscoll Brothers.
The show is loved for so many reasons, and it’s hard to do it justice in a few paragraphs. But at its heart is the brilliant writing by the sorely missed John Sullivan, from which we have the wonderful characters played so well by David Jason, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Lennard Pearce, Buster Merryfield, Roger Lloyd-Pack, John Challis, Jim Broadbent and so many others. Without those solid foundations, the show wouldn’t work as well as it does.
There have been so many classic comedy moments and storylines, including the smashed chandelier, the poker game, Del Boy outwitting Slater, Trigger calling Rodney ‘Dave’ the performance of Crying, the exploding coach, the blow-up dolls, Batman and Robin, Del Boy and Rodney becoming millionaires and of course Del Boy falling through the bar, to name just 10 of my favourites. This isn’t a show that relies on offensive language for cheap laughs, it didn’t need to resort to that. Everything was very carefully thought out by John Sullivan, sometimes with input from the cast as well (such as David Jason’s input to his bar fall).
But what John Sullivan also did so well, and what further raises Only Fools above many other sitcoms that just play for laughs, was he embedded emotion and drama as well, making the situations and characters feel grounded, real and relatable. They had money worries, health issues, relationship problems and family disputes just like everyone else. And through darker moments such as Grandad’s funeral, Del Boy taking a beating from the Driscoll Brothers to avoid breaking a promise to Rodney, Del’s heartbreak at Rodney leaving home, and Cassandra’s miscarriage, we saw how deeply the characters really do love and support each other, despite their fallouts.
The scene with Del and Rodney in the lift after Cassandra’s miscarriage is very touching, for example, and inspired my own motivational quote. And the vicar’s hat at Grandad’s funeral is a prime example of how Sullivan could bring the comedy back in at the most appropriate time. He always got the balance right, allowing the dramatic and adder moments to breathe without dragging them out too much, before making us laugh again.
The only gripe I have with the show is that the DVD releases have never been truly complete, because many episodes are missing lines, conversations or entire scenes that were present in the broadcast versions, due to issues with music licensing or the BBC’s fear of causing offence. Some music has also been replaced with other tracks (although it was a good move to replace the original series 1 theme tune by Ronnie Hazlehurst with the John Sullivan songs we know and love). Even some of the TV repeats are cut these days, which Jim Sullivan (John’s son) has expressed his frustrations about in the past. Apparently there are some uncut versions on iTunes, but I don’t own those so I’m unable to verify that.
I do have the “Complete” DVD box set though (which the photos in this section of my post are from), and while it isn’t strictly complete due to the various edits, I’m still glad to have all the episodes, they’re still great. There’s a nice documentary in there as well, although it’s not as long and as comprehensive as the more recent Gold documentary, which was brilliant.
But it would be wonderful to have proper DVD editions of each series with all of the episodes uncut, plus the rare specials, bloopers, documentaries and other behind the scenes material that are known to exist. It’s one of the BBC’s biggest shows of all time, so it’s a great shame they don’t treat it with the full respect it deserves. If only a company like Network could get the rights, we might have a chance of a truly complete release then, given their track record of releasing shows in remastered, uncut forms with extras.
I also own the soundtrack album, which has lots of great songs that were either used in the show or were personal choices of John Sullivan’s that he didn’t get a chance to use. A few of my favourites are Holding Back The Years, Zoom, Everybody’s Talkin’ and Our House, as they are beautiful songs which were used to great effect in the programme. A couple of notable omissions are Margate by Chas & Dave, which I have on a Chas & Dave greatest hits album, and the great cover version of Summer In The City by The Gutter Brothers, which I bought on its own and added to the soundtrack as an extra in my iTunes collection. I have the book entitled The Only Fools And Horses Story as well, which is very detailed and interesting, and let’s not forget my Christmas jumper either!
So I’m a huge fan of the series, as you can see, hence I was keen to see how it would transfer to the theatre.
Given that the TV show is so popular and cherished amongst its millions of fans, it’s clear that any attempt to adapt it will have an awful lot to live up to, and a lot of expectations weighing down on it. Capturing the heart and charm of the programme, the appearances, mannerisms and voices of characters played by actors we’ve come to know so well on TV, and pulling off the classic moments we’ve become so familiar with over the years, is a tall order.
And I didn’t know how they were going to do that. In particular, I didn’t know how it would feel with other people playing the characters, as it seems impossible to imagine anybody other than David Jason playing Del Boy, for instance. So I did wonder if that would seem too strange or inferior. But I was mostly very curious to see what it was like, and very keen to give it a fair chance. It would certainly be worth a go. After all, as Del Boy would say, he who dares wins!
I’ve briefly mentioned Jim Sullivan above, the son of John Sullivan, and learning of his involvement with the musical gave me significant reassurance. He is understandably very protective of his father’s legacy, and has a lot of respect for the fans of Only Fools And Horses. And it’s thanks to Jim that the stage show has been able to go ahead.
John Sullivan had been playing around with the idea of a musical based on the TV show for some time, but never got the chance to pursue it before he died. However, he had written down various thoughts and ideas, including an opening scene, which his son Jim found when going through his father’s possessions. Jim also came across an audio tape of a song called This Time Next Year, that John had recorded with Chas Hodges from Chas & Dave (who sadly passed away last year, but it would be great to hear their recording one day). So Jim was able to use all of that as a basis to build from.
He then recruited Paul Whitehouse to help him write the musical, which added further hope and excitement to the idea, given Paul’s success with programmes like The Fast Show and Happiness, and his work with Harry Enfield. His work over the past 25 years has earned him 5 BAFTAs, as well as British Comedy Awards, Writers Guild awards and more, which is pretty impressive.
And Jim Sullivan has also had writing success of course, including his work on the 2014 Sport Relief special of Only Fools, episodes of Only Fools spin-off The Green Green Grass, and the books He Who Dares and You Know It Makes Sense. So these guys know what they’re doing when it comes to comedy, story writing and character development.
Chas Hodges was also brought on board to help write a few of the songs, including the one he had written with John Sullivan. Indeed, looking at the music credits in the souvenir programme, the new original songs in the show are written by a mixture of Jim, Paul and Chas. They each have songs for which they get a solo writing credit, while others are a joint effort between two or three of them. There are a few other writers who get credited as well, including John Sullivan of course, along with adapted versions of a few other songs that were used in the TV show.
So having a good team of writers boded well for the show. Granted, Jim and Paul had no prior experience of writing a musical, so it was a big learning curve for them, as discussed in their interesting interview in the souvenir programme. But they clearly worked very hard to try and make it work, and were keen to be respectful and faithful to the TV show. So the question is, did they succeed?
As with many audio described theatre shows that I’ve been to, the experience for Claire and I, along with other visually impaired audience members, began with a touch tour on the stage. This is a rather a perk and a privilege, and it’s very kind of the theatre staff and production team to allow it, because it’s not something that regular audience members get to experience. But for the visually impaired it’s actually very important, because it allows us to get familiar with details that we won’t be able to see clearly or at all when watching the show later. So when the audio description during the show refers to certain sets, costumes, props, furniture, etc, we can recall what we saw on stage earlier.
Audio description also tells us about things like body language, facial expressions, dance moves, which characters are speaking, what characters are doing with certain props, and lots of other things, where there are suitable gaps in the dialogue to keep us updated. So the tour and the audio description enables us to enjoy the show as much as everybody else, without having to worry about whether we’re missing anything important.
So I love touch tours in general. But this one was particularly special, because they’re using lots of items that were actually in the TV show, including many of the original props, furniture and set decorations in the Trotters’ flat, which is faithfully recreated on stage in great detail. Such items include the cigar jar and ice cube holder on the bar by the window, which I was able to handle and look at closely, and the framed picture of an elephant on the wall. The wallpaper is an authentic screen print of that used in the TV show, so it’s as close to original as you can get.
The chairs on stage are also the original chairs used by Del Boy, Rodney and Grandad in the series – and I got to sit in Del Boy’s chair! I know sitting in a chair doesn’t sound like a big deal, but as a big fan it felt like a very exciting privilege to sit in the chair occupied by David Jason when he played Del Boy. And to cap it all, we also got to look at one of the yellow three-wheeled Reliant Regal vans used in the series. This particular van wasn’t one of the models that was driven on the roads, but it was used during studio filming. So it was also very cool to get close-up to that.
So after all of that, I was all the more excited to see the show itself. And it was well worth it, I loved it. Don’t worry, there are going to be no spoilers here, as I don’t want to give anything away. I just want to give you my overall impressions.
It is strange to see other people playing the characters, of course it is. But you know what? It works. And I think it’s much easier to get away with that in the theatre than on TV. Sometimes on TV it’s successful, such as the 2 female leads changing during Goodnight Sweetheart, another great sitcom featuring Nicholas Lyndhurst. And different actors were able to portray younger versions of the Only Fools characters in the Rock & Chips TV prequel. But if you were to change the entire cast of Only Fools And Horses itself on TV, it just wouldn’t feel right. And yet in the theatre, you very quickly go with it, because the actors are brilliant.
Crucially, Tom Bennett and Ryan Hutton nail the central roles of Del Boy and Rodney perfectly. You get the impression they’ve watched the TV show thoroughly, or were already big fans, and worked very hard to be faithful to those characters. They’ve adopted the speech patterns and body language and personalities very effectively, and look great in the costumes too. And as the central character, Del’s energy, enthusiasm and good humour drives the show nicely, getting the audience on board from the outset as well.
They were joined by Paul Whitehouse himself in the role of Grandad, which was an absolute delight. He’s proven himself to be capable of playing old men in the past with characters like Unlucky Alf in The Fast Show, and he plays Grandad wonderfully here. The scenes with him, Del and Rodney in the flat together are some of the best in the show, just as they were on TV. Uncle Albert does appear as well, which is also brilliant, but Grandad’s role is more substantial, and for the purposes of this show that makes sense.
It’s also very fortunate that we got to see Paul in the role of Grandad, because he has since stepped down to take a break, being replaced by Andy Mace, who in turn is moving over from his previous role as Mike the barman (and that role has now been taken over by Philip Childs). So Andy will be great as Grandad too, I have no doubt about that, given the quality of the rest of the cast. Everyone does a great job, bringing all of the best loved characters from the series to life. Even though the actors are clearly different, the characters are still instantly recognisable.
It’s important to say that the actors aren’t just doing impressions of David Jason or Nicholas Lyndhurst or anybody else either, because that would be weird, and that’s not the point of the show. I think some people on social media have perhaps misunderstood that, and are surprised or disappointed that it’s not a clone of what we see on TV. But it’s certainly not a poor tribute act either. This is a loving homage to the programme, celebrating its spirit, its warmth and its humour. And the actors have inhabited the roles and made them their own, while staying true to the characters in every respect. If John Sullivan could see them, I’m sure he’d be proud.
And there’s so much detail crammed in to the set as well. As I said earlier, on the stage tour it was clear just how much was in the set for the flat, even though a lot of it you might not notice or pay any attention to at all as an audience member. They’ve really gone all out to make the show as authentic as possible.
Story-wise, I won’t give anything away, other than to say it’s based around the Dates episode, where Del Boy meets Raquel, but with elements from lots of other episodes included. After all, it would be impossible to jump through stories and character developments covering multiple years in just 2 hours, so instead they’ve played around with the timelines and used a little bit of creative licence to produce a continuous story. Which may sound impossible, but in this theatrical environment it makes sense and it works. It makes sense and it flows really well.
Along the way there are lots of classic jokes and moments from the series that people will remember and enjoy. Die-hard fans of the series will spot all sorts of nods and references that more casual fans will overlook, and even people who don’t know the show at all will find more than enough to enjoy. There’s something for everyone here, everyone’s invited to the party. And it does feel like a party, because it is a celebration of the programme. There’s a great atmosphere that ensures you can’t help but smile.
And the music is fantastic. The theme tunes have been transformed into a wonderfully lively musical arrangement, with the Hooky Street song extended, which is a lovely touch. Some other songs that were used during the series have also been included in appropriate places. But there are lots of new original songs as well, all of which are great. If I had to choose 3 favourites, I would choose A Bit Of A Sort (when Del Boy is at the dating agency), The Girl (sung by Raquel) and This Time Next Year (the song John Sullivan wrote with Chas Hodges).
As well as the writing skills of Jim Sullivan, Paul Whitehouse and Chas Hodges, much credit for the musical arrangements must also go to Stuart Morley. Looking at his biography, it’s amazing to see how much he’s been involved with, including projects relating to Queen, my favourite band of all time. For example he’s been involved with the We Will Rock You musical, Brian May & Kerry Ellis’ Anthems tour at the Royal Albert Hall, and the updated orchestral version of Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé’s Barcelona album that was released in 2012.
But he’s done a ton of other projects as well, as have all of the production team and musicians, who get long biographies referring to a lot of major productions and projects in the souvenir programme. So the orchestra and crew behind the scenes deserve a lot of love too. You can get a small sense of how much effort went into designing and building the stage, for example, from the timelapse video below.
I keep mentioning the souvenir programme, and it is well worth getting. It includes an interesting interview with Jim Sullivan and Paul Whitehouse, a wonderful tribute to John Sullivan giving a comprehensive overview of his life, details of the cast and creative team, photos from the show, a list of the songs, the lyrics for This Time Next Year, and lots of specially written material that references lots of classic storylines and moments from the TV show, including dating profiles, classified ads and a quiz to test your knowledge of the series, among many other things.
So all in all, it was an amazing experience, and a very special thank you to my beautiful girlfriend Claire for the gift of the tickets! If you’re a fan of the TV series, then I would encourage you to give it a try. I’m not saying everyone will like it, because we’re all different of course. Some might not feel comfortable with different people playing their favourite characters, even in the theatre, and that’s fine. But if you’re not too hung up on that, and you’re willing to relax and get into the intended spirit, humour and joyfulness of the show, celebrating the genius that was John Sullivan and the best bits of Britain’s greatest sitcom, then you’ll love it.
I’ll leave you with this video of the cast performing a few of the songs at West End Live, which will give you a good sense of what the show is like. C’est magnifique, Hooky Street! Bonjour! 🙂