The birth of Only Fools & Horses

35 years ago on the 8th September 1981, the very first episode of Only Fools & Horses was broadcast on BBC1, introducing the world to Del Boy, the Peckham wheeler-dealer who would go onto become one of the most beloved fictional Londoners.


Only Fools & Horses was written by the late John Sullivan who grew up in Balham. John’s upbringing was poor and he left school school aged 15 with no qualifications. He had however been inspired by his English teacher to embrace the works of Charles Dickens which in turn led him to begin writing stories of his own.

John Sullivan pictured in the 'Radio Times' in 1981 (image via eustonfilms.blogspot)

John Sullivan pictured in the ‘Radio Times’ in 1981 (image via eustonfilms.blogspot)

Throughout the 1960s and 70s John worked in a number of menial jobs but persisted with his writing. A breakthrough came when he secured work as a scene-shifter at the BBC and badgered producer Dennis Main Wilson to read his scripts.

John Sullivan’s first script-writing success was with Citizen Smith, a comedy about young Marxist wannabe revolutionary, Wolfie Smith. Famously set in Tooting, Citizen Smith ran between 1977-1980 and starred a young Robert Lindsay.

After the success of Citizen Smith the BBC asked John Sullivan to come up with a new idea. John’s first suggestion- a sitcom about football- was rejected so he switched to plan B; a comedy centred on a cocky market trader. The sitcom’s working title was Readies– slang for cash- but was soon changed to Only Fools and Horses, a phrase which had originated in 19th century America: “only fools and horses work for a living.”

British Actors Lennard Pearce; David Jason And Nicholas Lyndhurst Stars of the BBC TV comedy series 'Only Fools and Horses'. (Photo by Photoshot/Getty Images)

British Actors Lennard Pearce; David Jason And Nicholas Lyndhurst Stars of the BBC TV comedy series ‘Only Fools and Horses’. (Photo by Photoshot/Getty Images)

Inspired by local characters John Sullivan had witnessed during his south London childhood, Only Fools & Horses told the story of Derek ‘Del Boy’ Trotter and his various attempts to make a quick buck. Del was joined by his younger brother Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst) who Del had struggled to raise after their mother died young, and Grandad played by Lennard Pearce. When Lennard Pearce suddenly passed away in 1984 he was replaced by Uncle Albert (Buster Merryfield).

Rodney, Del Boy and Grandad in 'A Slow Bus to Chingford', 1981

Rodney, Del Boy and Grandad in ‘A Slow Bus to Chingford’, 1981

Although set in Peckham, most scenes from the early episodes of Only Fools & Horses were filmed around West London. Nelson Mandela House for example, the council tower block in which Del, Rodney and Grandad lived was in fact the Harlech Tower on Ealing’s South Acton Estate, Park Road East.

The Harlech Tower (aka Nelson Mandela House), Acton (image: Google)

The Harlech Tower (aka Nelson Mandela House), Acton (image: Google)

Only Fools & Horses is especially famous for its theme tune, the lyrics of which were written and sung by John Sullivan. Originally though, when series one was first broadcast in Autumn 1981 the music was very different indeed… click below to listen.

What else is different nowadays of course is just how much London has transformed since the earliest days of Only Fools & Horses. An ex-council flat in the Harlech Tower like the one in which Del, Rodney and Grandad struggled would now cost an estimated £240,000 to buy. Crazy.

An early trailer, broadcast the evening before for the then unknown sitcom made its debut, can be viewed below.


12 responses

  1. A great tribute to a much-loved comedy series, Rob. I spent many hours in the South Acton Estate when I was in the Ambulance Service. I wouldn’t want to live in a flat in Harlech Tower for £50, let alone £240,000!
    I always assumed that it was Nicholas Lyndhurst singing the theme song. Thanks for correcting me on that one.
    Cheers, Pete.

    1. Thanks, Pete. A lot of people think Nicholas Lyndhurst sang the tune, he does sound very similar to John Sullivan. Apparently John was pretty nervous before recording the theme and needed quite a few drinks before he was happy enough to get in front of the mic!

      Thanks again 🙂

  2. Thanks for the post, brings back a lot of memories to a much loved comedy. Still looks a dodgy place to live even now.

  3. Having grown up in Peckham during the 70’s & 80’s, I’ve lost count of the amount of times people would mention OF&H when told where I was from. Always remember the episode about the Camel Coats fondly. A mates dad was selling coats like that at the time, and trying similar tricks to secure a sale. Great, great series.

    1. Nice memories, Lau thanks for sharing 😉

  4. On The Knowledge I seem to recall a Mandella House in Peckham at the junction of Southhampton Way and Peckham Road. Lyndhurst Way is nearby

  5. I doubt you would be able to buy a flat in Harlech now as it’s due to be demolished in 2026. South Acton Estate is regenerating into “Acton Gardens” with flats provided by housing associations instead of the council and loads going for private sale. Mind you, Harlech and its sisters Corfe and Beaumaris look a lot better now than 25 years ago when I was (briefly) the Housing Officer there.

  6. Sir, I should inform you that Only Fools and Horses is a documentary and not a sitcom.There is no need to be embarrassed, this is a common mistake. I am none other than Detective Tony Pastry of New Scotland Yard. My informant has told me all about Only Fools and Horses. And my informant is very reliable: he recently sold me the Moon for only £500 and a pint of mild. He’s very big in NASA, you know. He has also informed me that the Pink Panther films are a series of documentaries. Since then I have modelled my entire career on Clouseau’s work and it has not been easy, I can tell you. If you do not desist in misleading the public in this outrageous manner, I may have to put you under arrest.

  7. Well written. Only fools and horses was a great show and so cleverly written and performed. It’s comedy was well written and didn’t have to resort to swearing or rudness to get a laugh.

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