Only Fools and Horses
Wednesday, December 25, 2002 by Graham Kibble-White
Just before Christmas, BBC1 screened a welcome tribute to Only Fools and Horses. Alongside the well-deserved praised heaped upon the show, John Sullivan made an interesting admission; that last year’s OFAH Christmas Special “If They Could See Us Now” hadn’t been well received critically. He then went on to muse that as he’d had to incorporate the deaths of Buster Merryfield (Uncle Albert) and Kenneth MacDonald (barman Mike Fisher) into the series’ return he’d rather hoped that the critics would let him off the hook.
Whether these mitigating factors should have tempered our judgement to last Christmas’ outing is debatable; one could certainly argue that they were reason enough not to bring back the series in the first place. But whatever the problem was, this time around Sullivan seemed insistent that this year’s Christmas story, “Strangers on the Shore”, would be an OFAH episode of the old school – one that could have taken place at any point in the series’ history.
This reviewer’s hopes were therefore raised, albeit slightly, and it has to be said that the slice of OFAH we were offered up this time around was certainly superior to last year’s. Unfortunately, however, on any other terms it was still a disappointment. OFAH’s been in a rut before. In truth, the rot probably set in when the series simply became a string of Christmas specials from 1991 onwards (with “Miami Twice” and the following year’s “Mother Nature’s Son” as particular lowpoints). The programme’s return in 1996, however, was an epiphany of sorts. Up until then it seemed that throughout the 1990s the programme had established a level of affection with the public that was contrary to its current form. The ‘96 trilogy, though, finally found the series back at its best, and living up to the reception it was given. Of course it should all have ended there.
The problem, then, with the current rut is that Sullivan has no leeway to write himself out of it. This year’s OFAH, like last year’s, is being packaged (no pun intended) as the BBC’s Christmas present to us. Expectations rise, the show doesn’t deliver … and that’s it till next year. One feels that if Sullivan was back wirting a proper six-part series (and the fact that he isn”t has been – in part – his decision) he’d soon be able to find his voice again. Instead all we’re getting is a yearly grandstand, where all of the supporting cast have to be accommodated within one story because – well, it’s not Only Fools without Denzil, Mickey Pearce or even Sid (who he?) again, is it? In truth, the rich array of secondary characters that OFAH enjoys were used sparingly during the series proper run. Nowadays, we get them all sat around a table in the Nag’s Head, all with at least one line of dialogue, but all just name-badge versions of the real characters. This isn’t Only Fools and Horses – it’s an Only Fools and Horses convention.
So what did “Strangers on the Shore” have going for it? The core plotline, wherein Del and Rodney find themselves lumbered with an apparent illegal emigrant did have the essence of old-style OFAH. The script quite cleverly kept the connection between this story and Boycie’s dealings with a France based business acquaintance (in that the alien was actually the son of the acquaintance) quite well obscured until the final reveal. Unfortunately, alongside this was a lot of irrelevant stuff relating to the deceased Uncle Albert’s wartime sexploits and the paternity of a whole French village. After last year’s burial of Albert, it perhaps would have been better if the show had dropped all reference to the character. This may seem a little callous, but these whimsical remembrances of “Unc” have quickly become maudlin.
Alas, there were other failings present here too, although some were textbook OFAH weaknesses. As ever the script seemed to have a preoccupation with name-checking current cultural artefacts. It almost appears that Sullivan is so desperate for the show to prove it’s still of its time that he feels he must allude to being “as thick as Phil Mitchell” (although this is at least better than basing the second half of the show around an extended parody of Who Wants to be a Millionaire – cf. last year’s episode). Somehow, it just doesn’t sit well – maybe because the joke that delivered the observation was rather weak. Alongside this, we still had Damien talking in that cod-gangsta rappa dialect (which seemed passé last year, let alone this time around). More unusually, however, there were moments when the show seemed to grasp at gags with desperation. Del’s telephone conversation with Monkey Harris was an example, wherein after speaking to him quite normally throughout the background of a scene, he suddenly started dropping his name into every reply when the camera focussed back on him again. “Yes, Monkey .. OK, Monkey, Goodbye, Monkey….” Why? So he could quip: “that was Monkey” upon hanging up. Painfully convoluted, obviously telegraphed and not very funny.
OK, so we’re nit-picking here, but it’s hard to help yourself when you’re watching such a limp version of a previously excellent series. Where Only Fools and Horses used to be fast, funny and confident, it’s now a kind of embarrassing footnote that serves only to deflate the latter half of Christmas Day. But the worst of it is, the cumulative effect this OFAH revival has had for me is to cause me to groan when I spot that three-wheeler van in BBC1’s Christmas trailers. And – mon dieu! – that’s a real shame.