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.

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s The Wrong Man

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Paul, visiting the police station to report a flying saucer, agrees to do his civic duty and take part in an identity parade.  The only problem is that three independent witnesses become convinced he’s the guilty man ….

The Wrong Man was the sole series two script to be adapted from a Hancock episode (series four, episode ten, broadcast on the 6th of March 1959).  Because no recording of it exists, it would have been new to the majority of the audience and therefore, unlike the ones tacked in the first series, wouldn’t be overshadowed by a familiar original.

A significant amount of retooling was done, so it’s interesting to read the HHH script to see exactly what changes were made.  Sid’s character was totally deleted (although some of his later dialogue was given to one of the other members of the identity parade who joins up with Paul in an attempt to prove his innocence).  The original features a lengthy opening scene with Tony and Sid at home, playing various games.  Following Snakes & Ladders, Sid suggests they try a card game but Tony, wary of Sid’s cheating ways, isn’t sure (unless it’s something like Snap or Happy Families).  The arrival of a policeman, asking if they’d attend an identity parade, then moves the story onto the more familiar ground we see in this adaptation.

The Merton version opens with Paul arriving at the police station by himself.  He’s come to report a flying saucer to the desk officer (Roger Lloyd Pack).  The policeman asks if it came from outer space.  “No, from next door’s kitchen window. Closely followed by a teapot, a saucepan and a wok. This has got to stop. Every time they have a row I get bombarded. I possess more of their wedding presents than they do.”

This two-handed scene takes up most of the first five minutes, with Lloyd Pack deadpanning delightfully.  Along the way there’s time to slip in various digs at the underfunded nature of the modern police force (the security camera has been stolen, although it doesn’t really matter as the monitors were pinched the previous week).

Upon entering the identity parade, Paul spots a menacing looking character.  He’s convinced that it’s the criminal, but instead it turns out to be the Inspector (Nicky Henson).  Henson’s the latest quality actor to grace the series and wisely he decides not to milk the comedy, playing it straight instead.  I’m not entirely sure why he’s dressed like he’s stepped out of 1940’s Film Noir though (raincoat, hat, etc).

The line-up has a bizarre mix of people, who are all different ages, heights and weights.  This is never commented upon, but the oddness is plain to see.  Lurking amongst the disparate characters are the familiar features of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson.  A lovely little in-joke.

Once the first witness has identified Paul unhesitatingly it’s plain how things will play out.  We know there’s two more witnesses, and whilst Paul is convinced they’ll clear his name, the wiser viewer knows that the opposite is bound to happen.  Part of the comedy here comes from the anticipation, with the viewers being a few steps ahead of Paul and the others.

That they’re all convinced he’s guilty makes no sense at all, especially when the real criminal – who naturally enough looks nothing like Paul, is captured at the end.  Credibility is stretched to breaking point after it seems that wherever Paul goes in an attempt to clear his name (such as the cinema to find a witness who’ll provide him with an alibi) someone will pop up to accuse him of yet another crime he wasn’t involved in.

This makes it hard to take the episode that seriously, but since there aren’t too many opportunities to see remakes of the missing episodes of HHH (even if this one has undergone major changes) it’s still a more than interesting curio.

Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s Impasse

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Two cars meet in a narrow country lane.  One will have to back up and give way, but neither Dave (Merton), driving a Volkswagen Beetle, nor Mr Ferris (Geoffrey Whitehead), behind the wheel of a Bentley, are prepared to give any quarter.  So a tense battle of nerves begins ….

The original version of Impasse was broadcast during the second series of Comedy Playhouse in 1963. Bernard Cribbins and Leslie Phillips were the implacable motorists, whilst Yootha Joyce and Georgina Cookson played their long-suffering wives.  Here, Tilly Vosburgh is Dave’s wife, Kirsty, whilst Phyllida Law plays Mr Ferris’ spouse.

You might expect the script to lean towards the side of Dave, the little man facing off against the rich and privileged Mr Ferris, but that’s not really the case at all.  Both are shown to be equally pig-headed and unlikable (it’s plainly no coincidence that they treat their wives in pretty much the same way – badly).

Mr Ferris has decided that Dave’s truculence is due to class envy, but maybe Dave just likes a fight.  They nearly come to blows a little later, although their fight is more notable for the way each circles around the other, throwing punches in the air.  It rather brings to mind a similarly non-contact scrap between Hancock and Sid in the classic radio HHH episode The Last Bus Home.

Just as you get the sense that the comic potential has been wrung out of this scenario, then help – in the form of an AA Man (Sam Kelly) turns up – shortly followed by an RAC Representative (Denis Lill).  Kelly and Lill are just as good (if not better) than Merton and Whitehead, with the AA Man standing firmly behind his member, Dave, and the RAC Man equally steadfast in defending the interests of his member, Mr Ferris.

I’ve said it before, and no doubt I’ll say it again, but it’s a joy to see the quality of the casts in this series.  It’s fair to say that Vosburgh and Law have little to do – although they do have a nice scene (not present in the original) where they’re able to pour scorn on their respective husbands. This leaves the field open for the two squabbling male sides to dominate proceedings and it’s amusing that the AA and RAC representatives carry on exactly the same sort of one-upmanship we’d previously seen from Dave and Mr Ferris.

The late arrival of a policeman (played by Roger Lloyd-Pack) who finally solves the impasse is another bonus.  The sting in the tail – the winner of the battle finds he is forced to back up anyway – brings events to a satisfying conclusion.  And unlike the original this benefited from being shot on location, rather than in the studio.