Son of Irish-born plumber and charlady drew on humble background to create the comedy hit 'Only Fools and Horses'
Published 01/05/2011 | 05:00
John Sullivan, who died last weekend aged 64, was regarded as Britain's finest television comedy writer of the 1980s, largely for creating Only Fools And Horses.
With its coterie of eccentric, droll and grotesque low-life characters, the series even invited comparisons with Dickens. In Only Fools And Horses, Del and Rodney Trotter, two south London wide-boy brothers, played by David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst, sold "dodgy gear" from a clapped-out yellow three-wheeler van ("Trotter's Independent Trading Company, New York, Paris, Peckham") in a perpetual quest for illusory fortune ("This time next year, Rodders, we'll be millionaires!").
At their customary watering-hole, the Nag's Head, Peckham, the streetwise anti-hero, Del Boy, and his brighter but gauche brother, Rodney, held court with the likes of the brain-dead road-sweeper Trigger (Roger Lloyd Pack), the wheeler-dealing second-hand car magnate Boycie (John Challis) and his blowsy wife Marlene (Sue Holderness).
Although Sullivan drew on memorable visual jokes -- a Louis XIV crystal chandelier shattering into a million pieces was a particularly spectacular effect -- pin-sharp dialogue was his stock-in-trade. He peppered Del Boy's lines with such misplaced pretension as "bonnet de douche" (when raising a glass) and "mangetout, mangetout" (when doing almost anything else).
Almost all Sullivan's best jokes were based on personal experience; the gag with the chandelier, for example, recalled a real-life accident involving his father in the 1930s. Recalling his own humble upbringing in south London, Sullivan located the Trotters in a dingy council tower block where they were joined by Grandad and then (following the death of the actor Lennard Pearce), the bearded old sea-dog Uncle Albert (Buster Merryfield).
Aired for 10 years from 1981, and with several Christmas specials thereafter, Only Fools And Horses broke all viewing records. Although the series ended in 1991, a final three-parter in 1996, in which Del and Rodney discovered a watch worth £6m, attracted more than 24 million viewers, the highest-ever audience for a British sitcom episode.
A celebrated Del Boy pratfall, in which he smugly leans back on a bar only to find the bar flap open, was inspired by Sullivan spotting someone lose his footing in a pub. Remarkably, it was voted the seventh greatest television moment of all time, ahead of the Kennedy assassination, the Queen's coronation and Churchill's funeral.
Some of Sullivan's street slang and neologisms have passed into the language, among them "dipstick", "wally", "plonker" and "twonk" (all mild terms of abuse), "cushty" (good) and "luvvly jubbly", an expression of enthusiasm which has found a place in the Oxford English Dictionary.
His breakthrough came with Citizen Smith (1977-80), an original take on the Marxist Left which made a star of Robert Lindsay as the Che Guevara-style activist Wolfie Smith, leader of the shambolic Tooting Popular Liberation Front. The show's success encouraged Sullivan to develop his idea for another series, built around a Cockney market trader, which he provisionally called 'Readies'. The BBC's head of comedy, John Howard Davies, commissioned the new show as Only Fools And Horses because the longer title was considered more eye-catching and gnomic.
Sullivan himself wrote and sang the theme tune about "no income tax, no VAT" and "miles and miles of carpet tiles" bought "from a mush in Shepherd's Bush".
Another Sullivan success was the witty but bittersweet romantic comedy Just Good Friends (1983-86), starring Paul Nicholas and Jan Francis. Sullivan had the idea after his wife read him a letter in an agony column, from a woman who had been jilted at the altar, and was struck by the dramatic possibilities of a subsequent reunion between the two ex-lovers. He also wanted to prove that he could write a strong and funny part for a female lead.
John Richard Thomas Sullivan was born on December 23, 1946, in Balham, south London, the son of an Irish-born plumber and a charwoman. Having left school at 15 with no qualifications, he swiftly realised the scale of his ignorance and took evening classes in German and English and each week bought a Teach Yourself book for half-a-crown.
Meanwhile, he took a job with the Reuters news agency as a messenger boy, followed by a stint in the second-hand car trade, where he encountered "a lot of villains, quite a rich seam to tap into later when I started writing".
He was stacking crates in a brewery when a former classmate drew his attention to a newspaper article about the comedy scriptwriter Johnny Speight. Speight's reported wealth inspired Sullivan and his friend to write a television script about the elderly attendant of an old-fashioned public lavatory. It was rejected by the BBC, and Sullivan spent a further 10 years in a series of low-paid jobs as more rejection slips piled up.
In the mid-1970s he joined the BBC as a television scenehand. In the BBC club he buttonholed comedy producer Dennis Main Wilson with a script about a Tooting revolutionary, Citizen Smith. Wilson loved it, and eight weeks later the pilot show was on the air.
Famously insecure, Sullivan always delivered his scripts at the last minute, and by the time Only Fools And Horses was topping the ratings in 1989 he was so pressured that he was sending the producer a scene at a time.
Sullivan, who had been suffering from a viral infection, is survived by his wife Sharon, two sons and a daughter.