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.
As Britain’s largest railway station it is not surprising that Waterloo has developed an interesting catalogue of trivia and curiosities over the years.
Here’s a selection…
Meet me under the clock…
Manufactured by Gents of Leicester and hanging high over the main concourse, Waterloo’s huge four-sided clock has been a popular meeting point for Londoners (especially those on a romantic rendezvous) since the early 1920s.
Although not mentioned directly, it is perhaps safe to assume that The Kinks had the clock in mind when writing their 1967 hit, Waterloo Sunset… which includes the lyric, “Terry meets Julie, Waterloo station every Friday night.”
Please click below to listen to this quintessential London song…
Waterloo’s clock played an important part in the much loved BBC comedy, Only Fools and Horses.
In the feature length episode, ‘Dates’ first broadcast on Christmas day 1988, it is beneath the Waterloo clock that esteemed Londoner, Del Boy first meets his future wife, Raquel (although Del was worried about the rendezvous point at first- “the last girl I met at Waterloo station got mugged on the escalator”!)
Please click below for the clip:
Waterloo News Cinema
For 36 years Waterloo Station boasted its very own cinema.
Opened in the summer of 1934, the cinema stood opposite platform 1 and was originally run by ‘Capitol and Provincial News Theatres’ who also operated a similar venue at Victoria.
As the company’s name suggests, the station based cinemas were devoted to screening news reels. Here, commuters eager to catch up on current events could pop in daily between 9am and 11pm to mull over the looped bulletins.
Cartoons were also included on the bill; these being the days when classic characters such as Mickey Mouse and Tom and Jerry ruled the silver screen!
By the 1960s news-reels were in demise thanks to the growth of television.
Consequently, Waterloo’s cinema was rebranded the ‘Classic Cinema Waterloo’ and switched to screening double bills of vintage Hollywood flicks.
The cinema screened its final show (an Alfred Hitchcock double bill) on 14th March 1970 and then lay empty before being sadly demolished in 1988.
However, some of the picture house’s art-deco curves can still be spotted outside the station on the junction of Approach Road and Cab Road.
Footage of the cinema, as it appeared in the 1940s, can be viewed later in this post.
During its news reel days, Waterloo’s cinema would’ve screened plenty of topical reels that were filmed within the station itself- with stories of celebrities, newly arrived from the USA via boat-train, proving especially popular.
A good example is Charlie Chaplin’s return to London via Waterloo in 1952… please click below to view:
Plenty of other celebrities have been snapped at Waterloo too as the gallery below demonstrates…
A robber reformed…
Between the 1970s and 1990s, Waterloo was the place to go if you wished to meet a somewhat shadier type of celeb…in this case, a chap called Ronald Christopher Edwards; aka Buster Edwards… one of the rogues involved in 1963’s infamous ‘Great Train Robbery‘.
Born in Lambeth in 1931, Buster grew up close to Waterloo Station.
Unfortunately, he fell into a life of crime, his crooked career famously culminating in the robbery of the Glasgow to Euston Royal Mail train in August 1963.
Following the heist, Buster fled to Mexico with his family but soon found himself homesick and strapped for cash.
He negotiated his return back to the UK but the plan didn’t work out as he’d hoped and the train robber found himself sent down for a 15 year stretch.
When Buster was granted early release in 1975 he decided to go straight- by establishing a flower stall outside Waterloo station, close to the junction of Waterloo Road and Mepham Street.
In 1988 Edwards’ story was immortalised in the film, ‘Buster’ starring Phil Collins in the lead role and Julie Walters as his long suffering wife.
The final scene of the film showing Buster as a reformed florist was shot on the Southbank, a short distance from Waterloo station (please click below to watch).
Despite the gentle nature of the film, the real life Buster Edwards was heading for tragedy as he grew older.
A severe alcoholic, he sunk into depression and, on the 28th November 1994, aged 63, Buster committed suicide by hanging himself from a girder in a garage on Greet Street, a short distance from his Waterloo flower stall.
Waterloo on Film
Waterloo station has appeared on film many times. Here are a few examples…
London Terminus (1944)
Made towards the end of WWII, this 15 minute documentary follows a young couple as they head for Waterloo’s news cinema, where they settle down to catch a film about the workings of the station.
Rush Hour (1970)
A quirky short made by British Transport films to showcase Waterloo’s chaotic nature.
Harry’s Game (1982)
In the opening scene to this dark drama, IRA hit-man Billy Downes (played by Derek Thompson) – exits Waterloo station and heads for the tube as he embarks upon his mission to assassinate a Cabinet minister…
West End Girls (1985)
Part of the music video to the Pet Shop Boys’ classic synth hit, ‘West End Girls’ was filmed in and around Waterloo station.
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
In this typical Hollywood scene action, Jason Bourne (played by Matt Damon), helps whistle-blowing Guardian journalist, Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) evade the CIA’s prying eyes through Waterloo’s rush hour…
Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (2007)
In the opening sequence to romantic comedy, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, legendary Indian actor, Amitabh Bachchan (referenced to western audiences in Slumdog Millionaire) brings the dazzle of Bollywood to Waterloo’s concourse!
The Last Days of Steam
Waterloo was one of the last major terminals to operate steam-hauled services, with the powerful coal driven engines chugging in and out of the station right up until 1967.
Footage of steam trains in and around Waterloo during their very last days can be viewed below; a sight which is rather surreal when modern office blocks such as the Millbank Tower can be glimpsed in the background…