Monday 11 December 2017

The sitcom master wot gave us Del Boy Trotter

If he had only ever written Only Fools and Horses, John Sullivan would have ensured his place among the creators of classic television sitcoms.

He wrote others, such as Citizen Smith and Just Good Friends, but it was his saga about the Peckham wheeler-dealer Derek 'Del Boy' Trotter and his 'plonker' younger brother Rodney that caught the imagination of the public -- who demanded more and more episodes and specials. Sullivan satisfied that demand for 22 years, then wrote the spin-off series The Green Green Grass and a prequel, Rock & Chips.

It all began early in 1981, when he was chatting to a BBC producer, Ray Butt, about street markets, which he had observed as a child growing up in the south London suburb of Balham. Sullivan's idea was to write a sitcom based around a "wide boy" fly-pitcher, who sold just about everything, without a regular stall.

He turned it into a script with the title Readies, but the BBC had concerns about making comedy out of financial fiddling and tricking customers. Eventually, though, it gave the go-ahead to the series, which began later that year.

Alongside David Jason as the sly but sentimental Derek Trotter and Nicholas Lyndhurst as the gauche Rodney, the original cast featured Lennard Pearce as the seen-it-all Grandad, who lives with them in a south London council flat.

The first two series failed to make much impact, but repeats began to attract viewers to the warm relationships between the trio and satellite characters such as 'village idiot' Trigger (Roger Lloyd Pack) and the snobbish used-car salesperson Boycie (John Challis).

As the sitcom more than doubled its viewing figures in subsequent series, with up to 20 million watching, Sullivan added further characters. When Pearce died in 1984, Buster Merryfield was cast as Uncle Albert.

Sullivan -- who also wrote and performed the theme song that was used from the start of the second run -- intended the seventh series, in 1991, to be the last, but three Christmas specials (1991-93) followed.

Planning to tie up the story of the Trotters, he wrote a three-part series aired over Christmas 1996, with Del Boy and Rodney's quest for riches finally turning up trumps as they become millionaires.

Nevertheless, the demand for more episodes resulted in three further Christmas specials (2001-3), featuring the brothers after losing their riches in bad investments and a stock market crash. Sullivan then firmly closed the door on the saga, which ended with Uncle Albert leaving the brothers a £250,000 fortune.

As well as winning many Bafta Awards and a 1997 Writers' Guild of Great Britain award for Sullivan, and attracting the highest audience for a British sitcom episode -- 24.3 million in 1996 -- Only Fools and Horses was voted best sitcom in a 2004 BBC poll.

Sullivan was born in 1946 in Balham, south London, where his father was a plumber and his mother occasionally worked as a cleaner. An inspirational English teacher gave him a love of literature, but he left school at 15 with no qualifications and found jobs as a messenger.

He moved to a second-hand motor trader, valeting vehicles before becoming a salesman, then took a job at Watney's brewery. He worked there with a school friend, Paul Saunders, with whom he wrote a sitcom script. It was rejected by the BBC, as were his own subsequent solo efforts. Sullivan switched to plumbing but decided that the best way to get a foot in the television door was to find a job at the BBC.

Taken on as a scenery shifter on programmes such as Porridge, he took the opportunity to talk about one of his sitcom ideas to the producer Dennis Main Wilson, who was enthusiastic about the story of the Marxist revolutionary Wolfie Smith trying to emulate his hero, Che Guevara, on the streets of south London.

As a result, Citizen Smith emerged as a series (1977-80). The character, whose battle cry was "power to the people", was based on one observed by Sullivan at a pub during the summer of 1968. Robert Lindsay played Wolfie, with Cheryl Hall -- the actor's then wife -- as his girlfriend. Sullivan was then taken on to write for The Two Ronnies. Looking for other ideas, he came up with Only Fools and Horses.

The writer then showed himself to be prolific, creating several other sitcoms, such as Just Good Friends ('83-'86). Then came Dear John (1986-87), starring Ralph Bates as the wet but well-meaning teacher whose wife leaves him for his best friend. Although only modestly successful, it was remade for the United States as Dear John USA (1988-92), with Judd Hirsch leading an American cast.

Sitting Pretty (1992-93) failed to set the world alight, but Sullivan was back on form with the two-part comedy-drama Over Here (1996). He stuck with the comedy-drama format for the series Roger Roger (pilot 1996, series 1998-2003), then co-wrote, with Steve Glover, another sitcom, Heartburn Hotel (1998-2000).

The writer re-teamed with David Jason for the four-part Micawber (2001-02). Then, he found further mileage from Only Fools and Horses by creating The Green Green Grass (2005-09), four series and three Christmas specials transposing Boycie and Marlene to a Shropshire farmhouse.

He followed this with three one-off episodes of Rock & Chips (2010-11), set in 1960s Peckham, with James Buckley as the teenaged Del Boy and Nicholas Lyndhurst playing a local criminal, Rodney's biological father.

The relationships between characters were at the core of Sullivan's work, along with an undercurrent of social commentary, and, as the years went by, he lamented the state of comedy writing. "The standard of British comedy has gone down," he said only last year. "Writers make hardly any attempt to tell a story these days. Stuff we had in the past, like One Foot in the Grave and other classic comedies, were far better than anything that's around now."

John Richard Thomas Sullivan, writer: born London, December 23, 1946; OBE 2005; married 1974 Sharon Usher (two sons, one daughter); died Surrey, April 23, 2011.

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