Sunday, March 29, 2009

YOU KNOW IT MAKES SENSE: WHY ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES WAS CHOSEN AS THE BEST BRITISH SITCOM




When Only Fools and Horses triumphed over series such as Fawlty Towers and Dad’s Army to win the coveted title of the greatest British sitcom ever, it wasn’t really a surprise. After all, this sitcom had managed to score the highest viewing figures ever in the UK…

For those unfamiliar with the series, Only Fools and Horses tells the adventures of the East End Trotter family: Del (David Jason), his younger brother Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst) and their Granddad (Lennard Pearce)(later to be replaced by their great-uncle Albert (Buster Merryfield)).

Del is a market trader with a slightly criminal streak, always looking for the big score. Naïve Rodney functions as his assistant and scapegoat, while Granddad basically tries to enjoy life for as long as he can. They live in a run-down council estate, struggling to make ends meet. Individual episodes generally revolve around Del’s latest money-making venture, romantic entanglements or conflicts between the brothers.

The series wasn’t a success straight off. Developed and written by John Sullivan, a former electrician and jack-of-all-trades, at first it did not connect with the audience, despite the presence of stellar comic actors. The series faced cancellation, but got a reprieve – and the rest is television history. So what makes it so popular? Read on, Macduff – and don’t be a plonker…

1) THE CHARACTERS
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In Del and Rodney, Sullivan has created a comic duo for the ages. They are perfectly balanced on several levels, and are far richer characters than was or is the norm for comedy.

Del is a perfect example of the Trickster archetype: always looking for a quick buck, very talented at manipulation, with a wicked sense of humour, a talent for survival and a cheerful amorality where money is concerned.

On the other hand, he has no taste, tries unsuccessfully to pass himself off as a sophisticate, and doesn’t think his schemes through far enough. What makes Del more than just a caricature is his fierce love for his family. No matter how much they argue (and they do), he will immediately come to the aid of Rodney when necessary, and at any cost to himself.

This is Del’s saving grace: otherwise he’d just be a swindler, looking out for number one. This dichotomy within the character is a rich source of drama: many episodes make Del choose between his own desires and the welfare of his kin. This is never done in a soppy, sentimental way, however. The emotions always remain honest.

Rodney is in many ways Del’s opposite. He has GCSE diplomas in Math and Art, which makes him the ‘intellectual’ of the family. He is naively idealistic, acting as the voice of conscience with regards to Del’s dodgy deals – until he realises there’s money to be made. He is also the perfect fall guy for Del’s schemes, because he allows himself to be manipulated time and time again. Even when he knows Del wants to take advantage of him, he still falls for his tricks.

Rodney’s also the only Trotter who genuinely wants to better himself culturally and spiritually. He primarily yearns for a way out of the depressing lower-class surroundings in which he finds himself. Early on, Rodney wants to be an artist; later he finds a job at a bank (though he keeps helping Del out when necessary). Whereas Del just wants to improve his life in a materialistic sense, Rodney will be the first Trotter to actually climb up the social ladder and have a different way of life.

Another aspect of Rodney’s character is his sexual fetish for women in uniform. This apparently trivial detail actually illuminates his character quite well: he is immature and is attracted to dominant women, probably because he missed out on having a mother (she died when he was 4). To meld such a throwaway excuse to generate laughs, with the deeper psychological profile of the character, is comedy writing genius.

A crucial element in the Del-Rodney relationship is Del’s having been a surrogate parent at an early age for his younger brother. Their father having left the family and their mother dying when Rodney was only four, Del has had to look after Rodney and provide for him. This dramatic set of circumstances enriches the relationship between the characters far beyond the usual sitcom standard. The combination of love and resentment from both sides creates a wealth of dramatic and humorous possibilities.

Granddad and his successor (after Lennard Pearce unfortunate death), Uncle Albert, are less complex characters. They are flawed mentors to the younger Trotters. Granddad is basically a layabout who whines about his imaginary ailments to escape work. Albert is a retired Merchant Navy sailor, far feistier and more morally upright than his brother, who tells long-winded tales of his adventures on the Seven Seas to all who’ll listen – and all who won’t as well. Both characters also serve as a buffer between and as ‘sprechhund’ for Del and Rodney.

The beauty of this triumvirate is that it appeals to all age groups – especially in the first seasons. Of course, the leads are all male characters, and Only Fools is a fairly male-centric show. Only in later seasons do Rodney and Dell get into serious relationships. Rodney falls in love with and marries Cassandra, the daughter of a bank manager, and Del ends up with Raquel, a wannabe actress who has to strip to make ends meet. Both these characters have become regulars on the show, but they are not as interesting as the leads. Nor are they comic characters – they would fit easily in a soap series, for instance. With regards to these relationships, it is important to notice that this series was one of the first to allow its characters to grow in a natural way as the cast got older.

Sullivan himself is an Eastender, and it’s very clear that the writer knows the kind of people (protagonists and the supporting cast of characters) he writes about intimately. Conversely, guest characters in the series, especially upper-class ones, tend to be ‘stock characters’ that only exist to serve the needs of the story. The difference in the quality of writing is very obvious, and this may be one of the main weaknesses of the series.

2) TONE
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When Only Fools started, it created a stir because of its earthy language, and how it seemed to glamorize a criminal lifestyle. It didn’t, of course, but the relations between the characters and their world-view (police are mistrusted, outsiders are seen as fair game for scams, paying taxes is a mortal sin) are very true to the milieu in which Sullivan has set his series. The combination of roughness and understated sentiment is very recognizable.

We also find this in one of Sullivan’s favourite storytelling devices: he will often write a very intense, emotional scene, almost straight drama, only to reassert the sitcom genre by topping it off with a (usually very funny) joke. This willingness to go further into emotional reality than almost any other sitcome before (and many after) really sets the series apart.

3) COMEDY STYLE
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The humour in Only Fools is primarily verbal and situational. Big physical set-pieces are fairly rare, although there are some memorable exceptions. The plots of the episodes are usually straightforward (often there isn’t even a B-plot): complex farce is never used. The stories are designed to provide situations in which the protagonists will clash emotionally (for instance, in an early episode Rodney dates a female police officer, which obviously causes Del no end of problems).

The verbal comedy isn’t one-liner based, but comes across as stemming from the characters rather than from the writer. The most ‘gimmicky’ verbal gags are Del’s malapropisms and wrongful use of foreign phrases – but these too are an extension of his inner self, trying to look like a wealthy sophisticate.

At times there are some big physical gags (most famously the destruction of a crystal chandelier), but the comedy is generally kept well inside the realm of the possible. The exceptions (Del being forced to try hang-gliding and ending up in France, or an homage to the credit sequence of the ‘60s Batman TV series) stand out because of their rarity and the skill with which they are executed.

The sense of reality is crucial to the success of the series. Though the plots can be improbable (some of them are basically expanded versions of pre-existing jokes), they are generally ‘possible’. In a few cases, Sullivan has broken this ‘rule’, with varying success. Rodney forcedly masquerading as a twelve-year old on a holiday trip works extremely well, but when the Trotters are confronted with a mad serial killer or discover that Del is the double of a Florida mafia Don wanted by the FBI, the magic disappears. There seems to be no room for blatantly high-concept fictional narrative devices in the Trotter universe.

4) WHAT CAN WE WRITERS LEARN FROM THIS?
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The strengths of the series are:

1) Very well-developed characters which would function as well in a straight drama as they do in a comedy. This is probably the biggest ‘secret’ of John Sullivan’s best writing. Go beyond creating ‘joke machines’, but make your characters truly of flesh and blood. However, take care that the characters’ flaws and idiosyncrasies create humour.

2) A sense of realism. The ‘universe’ of this series is very believable, which makes it easy for the audience to truly care for the characters, and allows the writer to inject drama into the comedy without it seeming to be a break in style. The fact that the writer truly knows the people and milieu he is writing about is crucial to creating this sense of reality.

3) A wide palette of comedic possibilities. Verbal, physical and situational humour are all available to the writer, as long as they fit the overall sense of reality. Because of this, the moments of transgression stand out all the more and generally work extremely well - unless they shatter the illusion of reality too much.

Is Only Fools and Horses really the best ever British sitcom? Personally, I’d say no, but it’s definitely in the top-3. It is without a doubt the most popular though, and the skill and craftsmanship displayed by writer John Sullivan is undoubtedly the true reason for its astounding success.

1 comment:

Phil Whyte said...

Great piece, but one comment. I thought Cassandra's dad ran a printing firm (or similar small business), not a bank manager?