In an attack of sentimentality, and in mourning for the death of family TV, ShortList heads to the Only Fools And Horses 30th-anniversary reunion
Remembrance Day, 2011, 11am. Inside a packed Mountbatten Leisure Centre, Portsmouth, 3,000 people beautifully observe the traditional two-minute silence. Heads are bowed. There is reverence here, a deep and profound display of respect for our war dead. And then, when it is over, a lone voice proudly rises from the still. “Lovely jubbly!” The man, dressed as Del Boy, waggles a pretend cigar at me.
This is the 30th-anniversary Only Fools And Horses convention, where the queue runs outside and around the building. Everyone is here to meet the stars of their favourite TV show at their biggest public reunion since filming finished. Trigger, Boycie, Marlene, Denzil, Raquel, Cassandra and a few other bit-part players are in attendance, but there is no Del or Rodney. If the Leisure Centre’s double doors swung open now and David Jason emerged thronged by smoke, the reaction here would be only slightly less fevered than if the Second Coming occurred during the Pope’s Christmas Eve mass at St Peter’s Basilica. And that’s without Nicholas Lyndhurst walking in behind him (David Jason, I mean, not Christ). Even so, today this part of Portsmouth is a particularly fervent church. And it is a church to which I am a fully committed member.
PART OF THE FAMILY
Only Fools began in 1981 and ran for seven series, going on to spawn sporadic Christmas specials until 2003. Created and written by the late John Sullivan, the show followed Del Boy and his younger brother Rodney as they struggled to better their lives on a south London council estate. The 1996 episode ‘Time On Our Hands’ was watched by 24.3 million people. That’s more than one-third of the British population and double the average X Factor audience.
True, at its peak there were only three other channels to choose from, fewer families had more than one TV and there was no broadband internet on which to fritter away our lives. But it meant that, back then, prime-time television had to provide a focal point for an entire family’s entertainment. Gran, mum, dad, kids — everyone. And that’s what Only Fools did. Even the Queen Mother declared it her favourite show, despite her life having more in common with Superman’s than it did goings-on in Nelson Mandela House, Peckham. It was event TV.
My parents adored Only Fools and, as such, I was weaned on it. It was the first piece of TV I enjoyed that wasn’t a cartoon. Every year at 8pm on Christmas Day from the late Eighties to mid-Nineties, my family and I watched Only Fools And Horses together. I stopped moving. My brother stopped punching me. Dad woke
up. Mum sat down. My sister stopped crying. We shutup. And we laughed. It generated warmth and humanity to a whole TV-watching nation at the same time. TV won’t be able to do that on such a scale again. Our use of the medium has changed. And so Christmas family viewing, in the sense we once meant it — not just as a shared family experience, but as a shared national one — is dead. And that’s why people are here. The convention is a mass display of shameless sentimentality for a good thing gone.
It’s not surprising, then, that the merchandise stalls here are doing brisk business. Key rings, mugs, board games — if you can get a picture of Del Boy and Rodney on to it, you can buy it. In the entrepreneurial spirit of Trotters Independent Traders, one stand appears to be selling a printed-out photograph of David Jason in a sealed sandwich bag. For fans who despise moisture, perhaps.
It’s here that I meet Colin. Colin is dressed as Del Boy, in a flat cap, camel-hair coat and medallion. He is a 57-year-old shift manager for a plastics firm from Oxford. He has attended all 14 Only Fools conventions so far. I ask him why.
“It’s about life,” he says. “We’re all Del Boy. We want to make a quick buck. We want an easy life and we want it fast, so we make mistakes.” He only dresses like this once a year, but this year he has a mission. “There is only one autograph I haven’t got: Trigger.”
Autographs are the convention’s biggest draw. Like Colin’s wife, many of the 3,000 who come will wait patiently for up to eight hours to have their Only Fools memorabilia signed by the actors in attendance. If you think about it, this is the most British thing that has ever happened.
It is run by a superfan, founder of fansite OFAH.net Perry Aghajanoff, who owns many of the series’ original costumes and props. This enabled him to build the replica of the Trotters’ flat at the convention, currently resided in by Del and Uncle Albert lookalikes with whom you can have your picture taken for £5 a pop. Which is exactly what Del Boy would have done.
“The convention gets bigger every year,” he tells me. “There is a couple here from Croatia. The people in this show have made us laugh more than any other people. They’re heroes. And thanks to this, some of them were at my wedding.”
Aghajanoff, it should be said, is by no means the only near-obsessive. Four young men on an organised coach trip of 14 from Essex are standing around the Trotters’ three-wheeled Robin Reliant (one of the original vans now sits in the garden of another superfan, Ricky Hatton). They are wearing T-shirts marked ‘Cushty’. Nearby, a married couple explain that they’ve travelled here from Leeds, he in an Only Fools shirt that she made him. A 21-year-old man with his wife explains, “She got me into it.” They have seven hours left to wait for autographs. They don’t seem to mind a bit.
A WORK OF GENIUS
Though the twin Holy Grails of Jason and Lyndhurst don’t show up, for some of the cast, such as John Challis (Boycie) and Sue Holderness (Marlene), it has become an annual fixture. None of them could have imagined when they arrived on set in 1981 that some 11 years into the next century, the show would inspire a fandom normally reserved for comic books and sci-fi. Other sitcoms have hardcore fans — Blackadder, Red Dwarf, The Inbetweeners, even — but could they pack leisure centres to such an extent that the vending machines run out of sweets by 9.30am?
Comedy historian Robert Ross (Robertross.co.uk) gives its appeal some perspective. “Firstly, it is very funny; well written with well-combined characters played by good comedy actors. But lots of things are,” he reasons. “If you could get the cast of Fawlty Towers together — which you probably couldn’t — then you might get the same response.”
But one thing that sets this particular convention, and by extension the show, apart is the very notable absence of two people. “The thing is, David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst aren’t here,” says Ross. “It is Boycie and Marlene and Trigger. But those supporting characters were very much part of the family of Only Fools. They were in people’s homes week in, week out for years and they became like mates. There was a real sense of community about the show. It was vaguely based around a pub, for starters.”
Only Fools was deceptively layered. On the surface a show about a dodgy wheeler-dealer, it was in fact about fraternal love, the death of the nuclear family, Thatcherism, class divides and friendship. But the beauty of Sullivan’s writing was that he could subtly conceal all of this beneath finely crafted slapstick or a deft one-liner, which is what gave it mainstream appeal and meant that it found its way into every living room and, in turn, the TV schedules annually at Christmas.
But for me, it was more than that. Only Fools taught me about pathos. It dealt with death and adversity in a way that we all try to deal with it — by laughing.
I remember watching the episode in which Rodney finally marries Cassandra and leaves home, culminating in a closing shot of a bereft Del Boy standing alone on the dancefloor of The Nag’s Head. That’s what life is like. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad. It elevated the show from being just a sitcom to being tender and real. To being about us.
And that’s why, on a mild Sunday in autumn, with Only Fools And Horses playing on a big TV in the corner, 3,000 strangers are rammed into a provincial community centre. And despite there being a drought of sweets, somehow, inexplicably, it feels just like Christmas.
The Only Fools and Horses complete 30th Anniversary DVD boxset available from Amazon.