Only Fools and Horses – Big Brother

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As is well known, Only Fools and Horses took a little time to establish itself as a comedy favourite.  Series one, originally broadcast in 1981, was politely received but it didn’t seem to spark a great deal of interest amongst either the critics or the audience.   This may have been something to do with the Minder effect (Del-Boy Trotter and Arthur Daley trod similar paths to begin with).

But revisiting the early episodes, it’s plain that right from the start all the pieces were in place.  Episode one, Big Brother (8th September 1981) is a good example of this.  As an establishing episode it’s not surprising that it concentrates on the three regulars – Del (David Jason), Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst) and Grandad (Lennard Pearce).  Joyce the Barmaid (Peta Barnard) gets a few reaction shots and we encounter Trigger (Roger Lloyd Pack) for the first time, but John Sullivan’s main intention here is to set up the relationship between Del and Rodney.

Familial discord has always been a fruitful source of sitcom material, possibly best exemplified by Steptoe and Son.  Is it fanciful to draw parallels between Big Brother and the original Steptoe pilot, The Offer?  Both see the youngest member of the family desperate to break free from their home environment (although neither are eventually able to do so).  The tone here is quite different though – Harold Steptoe is crushed by his failure to escape from his father’s clutches whilst Rodney and Del, for all their bickering, are happy to be reconciled at the end.

Younger brother Rodney has had a lifetime chafing about how he always gets the short end of the stick, but Del has an instant comeback.

Oh I embarrass you do I? You’ve got room to talk. You have been nothing but an embarrassment to me from the moment you was born. You couldn’t be like any other brother could you, eh, and come along a couple of years later after me. Oh no, not you, you had to wait 13 years. So while all the other Mods were having punch-ups down at Southend and going to the Who concerts, I was at home baby-sitting! I could never get your oystermilk stains out of me Ben Shermans – I used to find rusks in me Hush Puppies.

So Del, following the death of their mother and the disappearance of their father has been in loco parentis since Rodney was a young child. But now, at the age of twenty three, Rodney wants a better future than selling hankies from a suitcase in Oxford Street. Del can’t understand this – to him wheeling and dealing is his lifeblood. It’s a just a pity that he’s so bad at it. This is clear right from the start and it’s his inability to spot a dodgy deal (one-legged turkeys, attaché cases which don’t open) which make him just as a big a victim as his brother. But Del, with his lethal blend of pride and self-assurance, doesn’t realise this.

Tonally, it’s plain that this is very early days. Del is less than gallant when referring to Joycie whilst Trigger carries a faint air of menace. The reason for his nickname (it’s not that he carries a gun, it’s because he looks like a horse) has become a familiar archive clip, although since Del and Trigger have been friends since childhood, quite why Rodney had to ask this question is (in the Only Fools universe) a mystery.  In the real world it’s probable that Sullivan had yet to consider the likes of Trigger and Boycie as regular characters – so their backstories were something that could be sorted later.

Grandad is somewhat cast in the Albert Steptoe role. Fairly housebound and dependent on the others, he’s content to remain a passive observer. But whether it’s mulling over the qualities of Sidney Potter (an actor who always got the black roles), the inability of their computerised chess machine to play a good game of draughts or complaining that Rodney’s bought him a cheeseburger instead of an emperor burger, Lennard Pearce is nothing less than a delight.

Rodney’s plan to run away to Hong Kong doesn’t pan out (since he didn’t take his passport he wasn’t even able to leave the country). Del knew this, but allowed him to wax lyrical about the imagined foreign sights he’d experienced anyway. A little cruel? Not really and by the times the credits roll, the status quo has been restablished as the brothers are reconcilled.

That’s how sitcoms tend to operate, but Only Fools was different.  As the years wore on the characters would develop and grow (whereas most sitcom characters tend to exist in a form of stasis). Big Brother was therefore an important first building block as it gave both Del and Rodney clear backstories and a firm foundation to develop future stories.

Seven of One – Open All Hours

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A couple of years after Six Dates with Barker aired on LWT, the very similar Seven of One was broadcast on BBC1.  Both the BBC and Barker hoped that several of these one-off comedy playlets might have the potential to be developed into fully fledged series and this proved to be the case as Seven of One would spawn both of Barker’s most successful sitcoms – Open All Hours and Porridge.

As good as the Seven of One pilot of Open All Hours is, it would be hard to imagine that such a restrictive and enclosed format would later spawn four popular series which ran between 1976 and 1985.  It’s even more amazing that Roy Clarke has revived the series in the 21st century with David Jason still going strong as Granville, now the spitting image of the late lamented Arkwright.

Roy Clarke (b. 1930) had contributed to a number of drama series in the late sixties and early seventies (The Troubleshooters, Mr Rose, The Power Game, Manhunt, etc) but comedy proved to be his enduring strength and in retrospect 1973 turned out to be a very significant year.  At this point he was a respected, if not terribly high-profile, writer.  But the Open All Hours pilot as well as the launch of Last of the Summer Wine would both help to launch him into the mainstream.

This Seven of One pilot presents the world of Arkwright and Granville to us pretty much fully formed.  All of the familiar tics are here – Arkwright’s first words are “fetch a cloth Granville” as he spies something nasty left by a passing bird on the shop-front window, Granville fears the bite of the unforgiving till whilst Arkwright lusts after the generously formed figure of Nurse Gladys Emmanuel (played here by Sheila Brennan, later replaced by Lynda Barron for the series proper).

Virtually all good sitcoms feature peopled trapped together (Porridge is the ultimate example of this, of course).  Mostly the ties are family or work-related, Open All Hours (like Steptoe & Son) neatly manages to combine the two.  Granville is twenty five and yearns for a life outside of the restrictive and stifling world of Arkwright’s corner shop.  How, he argues, can he possibly have any social life when they open in the early hours of the morning and don’t close until ten at night?  The grasping Arkwright rides roughshod over these concerns – after all, if Granville ever left then he’d probably have to pay his replacement a decent wage (it’s almost certain that Granville receives little more than a pittance).

But there’s also some familial love shown by Arkwright (possibly).  It’s a harsh world out there and he’s convinced that Granville will eventually be happier if he stays with what he knows (plus all of Arkwright’s empire will eventually come to Granville).  Still Open All Hours has confirmed that despite all of Granville’s hopes and dreams he never managed to escape, turning into an Arkwright clone instead, which is something of a bitter joke.

Roy Clarke’s gift for wordplay is already in evidence.  Arkwright is more than a little perturbed that Nurse Gladys Emmanuel seems to spend more time than he considers proper dealing with Wesley Cosgrave’s bottom, whilst the corner shop setting allows for a stream of characters to pass through (here it’s Yootha Joyce with a Northern accent and a young Keith Chegwin).

Favourite line?  Mrs Scully (Joyce) asks Arkwright if she’ll give him half a bottle of sherry for her Claudine.  He tells her that it sounds like a fair exchange!

Six Dates with Barker – 1970: The Odd Job

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David Jason’s early career was very much intertwined with Barker’s.  Jason’s respect and admiration for Barker has never been in doubt (to him, Barker was always “the guvnor”) and it’s plain that Jason considered his work with Barker, especially during the 1970’s, as something of a comedy apprenticeship – a chance for him to watch the master at work and learn from him.

Jason aged-up to play Dithers the gardener in Hark At Barker (1969 – 1970) and His Lordship Entertains (1972).  His old-age make-up would also come in useful when he appeared as Blanco in Porridge (1975 – 1977).  So it wouldn’t be until Open All Hours (1976 – 1985) that he was finally able to play a regular role of his own age opposite Barker.

The Odd Job also sees him act without aged make-up, as he appears as Clive, a man desperate for any odd jobs (“engines you want de-clogged or television sets, I mend typewriters and washing machines you know”).  Arthur Harriman (Barker) does have a job for him – remove the scabbard from a samurai sword.  Arthur can’t take the nagging from his wife Kitty (Joan Sims) any more, so has decided to take his own life.  But when faced with the sword (plus Clive’s graphic description of hari-kari) he finds it impossible to do it himself, so wonders if Clive would do this odd job for him ….

Arthur is a meek, mild and fairly monotonous character whilst Clive (thanks to Jason’s comic tics and Northern accent) rather commands the screen.  Given that Clive is by far the showier part, it’s interesting that Barker chose to play Arthur instead.  This may be because, coming from an acting background, he didn’t have the ego that some comedians possess and wouldn’t have minded if Jason was earning more of the laughs.

Written by Bernard McKenna, who’d earlier penned several instalments of Hark at Barker and would later write several of Jason’s early sitcom efforts, A Sharp Intake of Breath and The Secret Life of Edgar Briggs, it’s a simple, but effective concept which is given a twist when Arthur and Kitty are reconciled.  This means that he no longer needs Clive’s services, but convincing the enthusiastic Clive is a little tricky.

Part two is where we see Clive really begin to treat this odd job with gusto.  He’s a man of limitless invention – for example, putting hydrochloric acid in Arthur’s milk so that his cereal disintegrates, setting up a tripwire which catches an unfortunate milkman instead, and almost managing to shoot Arthur in the park (instead some garden gnomes are dispatched).

It’s always nice to see Joan Sims, even if she has little to do, and the appearance of Derek Ware (playing the milkman) is a sure sign that something nasty is going to happen.  Ware was one of those select band of stuntmen (along with the likes of Terry Walsh and Stuart Fell) who would become so ubiquitous that their arrival on screen was a clear indication that mayhem wouldn’t be far behind.

It’s a pity that The Odd Job only exists as a black and white film print, as I’ve no doubt that the location work in the second half would look rather better in colour.  But no matter, it’s always a pleasure to see Barker and Jason together and whilst the final twist may be obvious it’s also satisfying.  It would later be revived as a 1978 film with Jason reprising his role and Graham Chapman replacing Barker.  Chapman’s involvement makes it an interesting Python curio, but The Odd Job works best in the twenty five minute format.