Only Fools And Horses (OFAH) is treasured in the hearts and minds of the British public, but it was not always so. Like Blackadder, the first series was slow to be picked up by viewers only becoming famous in repeats. It was an ambitious attempt by show creator and writer, John Sullivan, to show ordinary working class people and it paid off handsomely. The show revolved around the exploits of Derek “Del Boy” Trotter (David Jason), his younger brother Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst), and their granddad (Lennard Pearce), which all lived in their flat in the fictional “Nelson Mandela House,” a tower block of flats in Peckham, South London.
Del Boy is a wheeler-dealer salesman/trader who is very streetwise, but doesn't have much knowledge beyond that. He likes to pretend he is more sophisticated than he really is with his gold jewelry and garish suits, and he has an unshakeable belief he can speak French, but his sayings and pronunciation is often ill-fitting of the situation at hand. His catchphrases and use of cockney rhyming slang became famous all over Britain after the show became popular. Things like "lovely jubbly" and "cushty" became quite commonplace. Rodney, Del’s younger brother is very much the level-headed one, in comparison, and has a GCE (General Certificate of Education, now known as a GCSE, the “S” standing for Secondary) in Art and Maths. Unfortunately, he’s easily persuaded by Del to do whatever it is that Del wants him to do. Granddad is an Old Age Pensioner who barely worked a day in his life and can't do much of anything except be cantankerous. His cooking is often the subject of ridicule, especially at Christmastime, when he traditionally ruined the lunch.
Sadly, Granddad died in Series Four, due to the real-life death of Pearce in 1984. Instead of re-casting the character, Sullivan chose to introduce a new Trotter family member, Del and Rodney’s uncle, Albert (Buster Merryfield), who was a Royal Navy WWII Veteran and never let the brothers forget it. This is the more familiar line-up that the casual Only Fools and Horses fan associates the show with today. Merryfield stayed with the show until his death in 1999 and subsequently, Uncle Albert never appeared in the final Christmas trilogy, where it was explained that he had died.
Although the main ingredient of the show was the family relationship between Del, Rodney and Granddad/Uncle Albert, it was the supporting cast that really made the show a classic. Boycie and his wife, Marlene; Trigger; Denzil; Mickey Pearce; Mike the barman; and later on, the wives of Del and Rodney, Raquel and Cassandra, all contributed equally to the show's success. Altogether, seven series and a total of eighteen Christmas Specials were made.
Now, because Christmas Specials were so important in the success of OFAH, I feel I must explain what exactly a "Christmas Special" is for anyone who may not be familiar with it. Having lived in America for a couple of years now, I know it is not common practice here for a sitcom to do a Christmas Special. In fact, in the U.S., sitcoms and other television shows typically go on hiatus at Christmas, being replaced altogether with movies and traditional Christmas programming such as A Charlie Brown Christmas. In Britain, however, the Christmas period is when British television shows vie for airtime, especially the sitcoms. After Christmas Dinner is finished and you're munching on the last mince pie, paper hat is splitting and falling off your head, what else is there to do but kick back and watch the telly? So, the creators of these shows put on a feast of visual entertainment for the public at Christmas, usually resulting in some of the best television of the year, with Only Fools And Horses being no exception. Usually, common practice is that a Christmas Special is longer than a normal episode, and is typically set around the Christmas period with numerous references to the holiday in the show. However, towards the end of OFAH, the Christmas Specials became more like a normal episode with hardly any or even no references to Christmas at all. The series ended in 1991, but every year until 1996 they showed a Christmas Special on Christmas Day, culminating in a trilogy in 1996, which was designed to be the end of the series.
Controversially, however, John Sullivan, no doubt under pressure from the BBC because of the massive popularity of OFAH, made the decision to write a further Christmas trilogy. This time, each episode aired only one a year from 2001 to 2003. All the cast was back on board with the notable exceptions of Buster Merryfield (Uncle Albert) and Kenneth MacDonald (Mike the barman) who had both died in the intervening years. Mike's absence was explained by putting the character in prison for embezzlement. Now, I personally found this trilogy to be very funny. One can identify with the Del Boy and Rodney characters as if they lived in the flat upstairs or the house next door. And maybe they do? Many fans, conversely, were left angry that John Sullivan had re-opened Trotter's Independent Traders, nullifying the ending of the previous last episode, "Time On Our Hands." Though the show is over and done, I won’t divulge what happens, in case you haven’t seen it and would like to go pick it up on DVD.
Years later, the show is still much loved by the British public. Regular repeats are screened on the G.O.L.D network in the UK and it's been sold to many European countries and even re-made by some; the glaring exception to its widespread popularity being its absence in the United States. But Only Fools And Horses was uniquely British in the way that Del was constantly using a combination of Cockney rhyming slang, general British slang, and his own wonderfully made-up words. American networks were never going to carry it, as the American public would get so frustrated in trying to figure out what he was saying they'd dismiss the show altogether, no matter how successful it was in Britain. That being said, there have been plans to re-make the show in America for years, including the declaration by Steve Carell (former star of The Office, itself a remake of a hit British television show), that he would like to play Del Boy in a re-make. But none of the remake-talk has come to fruition as of yet and doesn’t look likely to.