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.
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.”
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).
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.
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.