Thatcher’s Britain: The strike that saved Only Fools and Horses and changed TV history

Celebrating the genius of Only Fools and Horses on its 40th anniversary – but it almost never survived its early struggles in depicting Thatcher’s Britain.

It was the summer of 1983, and John Sullivan was on a caravan holiday in Hastings with his wife and two children. It had been a difficult few months for the writer, who had been earmarked as one of the brightest new talents at the BBC. A socialist, he had watched in despair as the Conservative Party delivered Labour its worst defeat since the 1930s. more importantly for him, his future as a scriptwriter hung in the balance. His agent had just informed him that his sitcom, Only Fools and Horses, was set for the axe after just two series.

The ratings failure of Only Fools and Horses came as a surprise to all of the people who had worked on it. Sullivan had earned his stripes in the 1970s with Citizen Smith, a sitcom centred around the hopes and dreams of Wolfie Smith and the Tooting Popular Front. Smith agitated for a political revolution — if only to stave off the realities of work, relationships and middle class suburbia. Derek Trotter had dreams too. He dreamed of one day becoming a millionaire. In the early 1980s, becoming a millionaire from selling one-legged turkeys on a Peckham market stall seemed about as likely as organising a political revolution from a bedroom in Tooting. Sullivan’s comedy lay in the contrast between the dreams and the realities of working class life.

Citizen Smith is back: Classic 1970s BBC comedy starring Robert Lindsay set  to return | The Independent | The Independent

But while Citizen Smith drew in regular audiences of 22 million, Only Fools and Horses struggled to hit half as many. Few people, it seemed, wanted to watch a comedy about life at the hard edge of Thatcher’s Britain. Sullivan situated the Trotters in the ever-expanding black economy, as secure employment prospects vanished for millions of people. In the opening episode, Big Brother, Rodney Trotter is ridiculed for even thinking about getting a proper job. “At the ripe old age of twenty-three, you are a social leper,” Del tells him. “Society has placed you in the darkest corner of its deepest cellar to grow moss and be forgotten about.”

In the month that Only Fools hit the airwaves for the first time, the new Employment Minister Norman Tebbit took to the stage of the Conservative Party conference to tackle the issue of unemployment head-on. As riots spread across the country, the pressure was mounting for some form of economic intervention. Instead, people were told to get on their bikes and look for work, as his father had done in the 1930s. They were told, in essence, to go out and do it for themselves…

To read the rest of this article on Only Fools and Horses, visit The Critic website where you can read it for free

4 thoughts on “Thatcher’s Britain: The strike that saved Only Fools and Horses and changed TV history

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  1. Interesting little known fact about Citizen Smith is that the writers sprinkled the characters name with references to Wolfe Tone, the Irish revolutionist of the 1798United Irishmens uprising. Wolf is Wolfie, and ‘Citizen Smith’ was the name Wolfe adopted when he fled to revolutionary France and became active in French politics, seeking to get the support of the directory for a invasion of Ireland by a French fleet.When that fleet did sail, he embarked on still under the style of Citizen Smith

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  2. Only Fools and Horses I think is one of the only long running series that actually got consistently better the longer it went on, rather than running out of steam. John Sullivan always knew just how far to push a serious scene that was emotional and confronting, before bringing in a comedic moment to break the tension. The scene in the lift where Del and Rodney are supposedly trapped, and Rodney is finally talking about Cassandra losing the baby, is a masterclass.
    It’s interesting to go back over the earlier episodes, and one thing I’ve noticed recently, which I had forgotten, is the presence of occasionally racist but more frequently misogynistic language. I guess it’s an accurate reflection of some of the attitudes and speech of the times. It certainly shouldn’t take away from the genius of the writing and the brilliant acting. It was probably never intended to be analysed too deeply, but nevertheless it’s a fascinating social document beneath the drama and comedy.

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    1. Yes, George, You are right re the language and the attitudes and speech that come out of this. There are jokes about the IRA, immigrants, P**i shops, as well as attitudes to homosexuality that would be seen as inappropriate now. The skill of the show is that Del remains likeable despite his shortcomings – even though the other characters fight back against his, at times, narrow view of the world.

      I find there is nuance in all the characters – where within a single scene you can be both for and against a character. It’s something that you don’t see too much in sitcoms these days because they don’t have the space and time to grow the show and develop that deep relationship with the audience.

      And you’re right about the drama of it all. There is a brilliant scene in the Xmas episode Dates where Del finds out that Raquel his a stripper. When they have an argument outside, Del cuts in with the line that next time he sees her “he’ll pay at the door like everyone else”. Its as good a scene as any Play for Today kitchen sink drama. Sullivan/David Jason deserves more credit for that – if they were working in the theatre perhaps they would.

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      1. Yes, I totally agree, and the scene you alluded to with Raquel at the pub is a great example. Perhaps a comparable combination of writing and acting would be Galton and Simpson and Steptoe, particularly in the earlier 1960s episodes.

        When Uncle Albert went missing and was found on the river bank, reminiscing about the ‘dockers’ mansions’ beneath the foundations of luxury flats was another great moment. ..”Dear Hitler, you can break our windows, but not our hearts.” Paraphrasing Ernie Bevin? Brilliant and totally real.

        The relationship with the audience, over a long period, is a key point as well. Essentially we observed their lives in real time over more than twenty years. I can’t think we’ll see anything like it again.


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