Cast your mind back to this cushty moment from Only Fools and Horses (it shouldn’t be hard, you’ve probably seen it 50 times by now). Del Boy and Trigger are in a trendy wine bar. Del’s there drinking Beaujolais Nouveau – "a ’79" he tells the barman – and trying to pull modern Euro birds. It's all part of his newfound yuppie lifestyle. Trigger’s there because he’s barred from the Nags Head for stealing a pork pie. Del Boy eyes a posh sort across the room and utters the immortal line, "Think we’re on a winner here, Trig… play it nice and cool, son, nice and cool, know what I mean?" before going, as he later describes, arse over head through the open bar hatch. Bonnet de douche, as the French say.
It’s the defining, most replayed moment of Only Fools and Horses – the get-rich-quick misadventures of fast-talking market trader Del Boy (David Jason), dippy younger brother Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst), and their useless Granddad (Lennard Pearce)/seafaring Uncle Albert (Buster Merryfield) – a show whose legacy is all about the much replayed gags (smashing the chandelier, Del Boy and Rodders as Batman and Robin) and repeated catchphrases ("You plonker!" "Lovely jubbly" "Shut up you tart!").
Originally broadcast as part of the episode Yuppy Love on January 8 1989 – a landmark episode that helped the show transcend from ratings hit to 42-carat comedy gold – “Del Boy falling through the bar” has been wheeled out endlessly in the 30 years since: comedy clip shows, viewers’ polls, and lists of greatest TV moments.
Officially voted Britain’s best loved sitcom in 2004 (and again in 2015 and 2017), the BBC comedy is a point of derision for snobbish critics. But you’d be a dipstick for thinking there’s nothing more to Derek Trotter than catchphrases, dodgy French, and falling through bars.
By 1989, Only Fools and Horses, created and written by John Sullivan, was already bordering on national treasure status. It had launched eight years earlier to mediocre ratings, but was saved by a technicians’ strike, which had forced the BBC to repeat the first two series, helping the Trotter clan establish a following. A string of highly rated Christmas specials made Only Fools a festive telly staple and Del Boy as much an icon of the great British Christmas as Morecombe and Wise, Noddy Holder, or Cliff Richard. The 1988 special 'Dates' – the first story to feature Del’s future partner Racquel, and John Sullivan’s favourite ever episode – was watched by 16.6 million people. Just over a week later, Yuppy Love kicked off Only Fools’ sixth series.
In the episode, Rodders takes a computer diploma course and meets Cassandra (Gwyneth Strong). Meanwhile Del Boy, now a self-styled yuppie, plans to buy their Peckham council flat. "So we can sell it!" he boasts, despite the treasured memories of their dearly departed mum and granddad. Little did anyone realise it was probably Del Boy's best scheme yet: Peckham's witnessed a property boom over the past decade.
Like many other Only Fools moments, Del Boy’s iconic tumble was inspired by a real-life incident: John Sullivan had witnessed a tipsy drinker almost go head over heels through the open bar in a Balham Hill boozer. (Only Fools’ other much-replayed gag, the infamous chandelier-smashing scene, had actually happened to Sullivan’s own father. After seeing it played out on television, Sullivan’s father called him and was forced to concede, “Yeah, alright, it was funny.”)
But the falling through the bar scene was a late addition to the show, hastily written into the Yuppy Love script when Trigger actor Roger Lloyd Pack became suddenly available. "Roger happened to be at the BBC at the time and he had a break," says John Challis, who played secondhand car dealer Boycie. "So they found Trigger’s blue suit and stuck him in this scene, which was almost improvised. When I saw it, I thought it was just so brilliant. The timing of it and Roger’s take – him circling around, looking for Del Boy, by which time Del Boy’s got up again. But I always say it wasn’t very funny because I wasn’t in it."
It is, no matter how many times you see it, a superbly crafted piece of physical japery, a set-up worthy of the silent comedy greats. Both the positioning of the shot – distracting the viewer as Del and Trigger lean forward, so the barman lifting the hatch in the background goes unnoticed – and David Jason’s timing and delivery, his body completely rigid and facing forward in one swift, slapstick pratfall. When Del Boy pops back up, his reaction is as perfectly composed as the fall itself: empty glass still in hand, head cocking to reassert his wounded pride.
"Ain’t you gonna try for them birds?" asks Trigger. "No, you’re cramping my s-s-style, mate, you’re cramping my style," stammers back Del Boy.
Though best remembered for Del Boy’s fall, Yuppy Love also marked a change for the show’s format and formula. It was the first regular series episode to extend from 30 to 50 minutes, giving more time for character development. It came after years of John Sullivan and David Jason pestering BBC chiefs for extra time.
"One of the reasons was that John Sullivan wrote too much," says John Challis. “Most of what he wrote was gold dust but the scripts were just too long for 30 minutes. They had to keep cutting scenes that weren’t germane to the plot. We went to 50 minutes so they could encompass all the stuff. But then he’d go and write an hour!”
"We were throwing more stuff away that most good comedies had got in their entire episode," said David Jason, talking on the Gold documentary series, The Story of Only Fools and Horses.
The show also shifted towards an ensemble piece, as supporting characters – Boycie, Trigger, pub landlord Mike (Ken MacDonald), Denzel (Paul Barber), and Mickey Pearce (Patrick Murray) – took bigger roles. Scenes with all the gang in the Nags Head would become one of the show’s regular highlights.
"I started off in just one episode in the first series selling a dodgy Cortina," says Challis. "That’s sort of what happened – if you were lucky enough to be in an episode you’d get one scene, in the Nags Head or somewhere, but with more time and more plot John Sullivan got involved with the periphery characters more and more. We went from one episode a series to two or three. Then towards the end, everyone was in it. John wanted all the characters together. People looked forward to Trigger coming into the pub or Boycie and Marlene sniping away at each other."
The rough and ready edge of earlier series, which came from its depiction of working class London under Thatcher, was smoothed out as the Trotters moved with the times. Del Boy embraced yuppie-dom ("Lunch is for wimps!"), swapping his market trader’s gear for a wide-awake suit and Gordon Gecko braces; Rodney was ready for career aspirations and a long-term relationship.
"There was a lot more drama in it," says John Challis. "Everyone was getting older, including the characters. That’s what happens in real life, isn’t it? You sow your wild oats and bounce around without too much responsibility, then age catches up with you and you feel like settling down a bit more. It just reflected the way life is."
"The great magic of the series was that John was able to write from personal experience and also from other people’s experience. He was so good at making you smile about difficult things. Quite a few people in the cast had been married, some of them more than once. People would talk and John was brilliant at picking up bits of people’s stories. He was like an alchemist. He’d take an idea and embellish and slightly change it. Something very familiar would suddenly appear in the show and you’d say, 'Oh Christ…'"
Beginning with Yuppy Love, the sixth series is perhaps Only Fools and Horses’ finest, most consistent run of episodes. Later in the series, Del and Rodney buy a consignment of explosive sex dolls; Rodders has to spend a week in Spain pretending to be 14, because Del Boy has entered his painting into an under-15s competition; and Del Boy is left contemplating a lifetime of fast food, faster women, and pina coladas when he has a health scare.
The series peaked with Rodney’s wedding, drawing 18.9 million viewers. The following year, Only Fools’ seventh and final series continued the blend of money-spinning schemes and relationship drama, as Del Boy reunited with Racquel and became a dad. There were several more Christmas specials, culminating with the supposed final episode in 1996, which saw 24.35 million people – the biggest ever audience for British TV comedy – tune in to watch the Trotters finally become millionaires. The show made an ill-conceived return five years later and Only Fools and Horses legacy is set to continue: a musical version written by John Sullivan’s son Jim Sullivan, and starring Tom Bennett, Ryan Hutton, and Paul Whitehouse, opens at London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket in February.
It’s the kind of success that critics can’t help but snipe at, with that irritatingly classist perspective that huge mainstream popularity somehow negates artistic merit.
On their XFM show in the early Noughties, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant – the two people who arguably did more than anyone to redefine the British sitcom with The Office – would regularly smirk at Only Fools. (If you want to know what they think of the studio-filmed comedy, just look at Extras’ mock-sitcom When the Whistle Blows – essentially what The Office would have looked like through the primetime BBC studio sitcom filter). The most sneering example is the Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle routine and sketch, in which village idiots worship a giant wicker man-style effigy of Del Boy falling through the bar (and yet, it’s still funnier than anything than that plonker ever did on television).
Certainly, Only Fools and Horses represents an older, less sophisticated comedy format: the three-camera studio set-up, laughter track, and crowd-pleasing catchphrases. And it’s true that modern sitcoms made in that style – Miranda, Not Going Out, Mrs Brown’s Boys – do seem woefully outdated.
But Del Boy falling through the bar – up there with the other much-repeated moments such as Eric Morecombe roughing up André Previn, four candles, “Don’t tell him Pike!” and Basil Fawlty not mentioning the war – is more than just a comedy favourite, it’s part of our national identity. And it should come as little surprise in a country that has so often mediated its own sense of self through comedy. British sitcoms have long been obsessed with deluded, trumped up losers with ideas above their station: Tony Hancock, Captain Mainwaring, Basil Fawlty, Arnold Rimmer, Alan Partridge, and David Brent. Del Boy is still a loser, but his optimism is infectious – an far more endearing side of the British psyche.
“Del Boy is the perfect anti-hero,” says John Challis. “He represents the little man’s struggle to get up the ladder because ‘this time next year we’ll be millionaires’. Everyone’s got that aspiration. Everyone wants to be higher up the tree than they are. Del Boy falls down but he gets back up again. He’s got more bounce than Zebedee, as they say.”
Indeed, you can’t help but admire Del Boy, with his near-boundless charisma, fearlessness, and gaudy sense of old school masculinity. It’s counterbalanced, of course, with immense stupidity, a complete lack of self awareness, and impeccably bad taste in cocktails and pyjamas. But for a man who, from the outset, seems to have absolutely no nuance, there’s surprising depth to Derek Trotter. Beneath the trademark bluster, bravado, and bulls––t, he’s a semi-tragic figure: a man who gave up his own life to raise his younger brother.
Look further than Del Boy falling though the bar – just a few minutes further into Yuppy Love, in fact – as Del Boy recalls a story about an American girlfriend who went home, never to be seen again. While he ponders yet another lost love for a split second before changing the subject, John Sullivan and David Jason begin to peel away the layers to find the pathos and vulnerability. At the end of the series, when Rodney marries Cassandra, there’s a heartbreaking image of Del Boy left standing at the party alone. To the sound of Simply Red’s Holding Back the Years, no less. (Making the nauseating warbling of Mick Hucknall feel emotionally poignant is amongst Only Fools and Horses’ greatest achievements.) Years before The Royle Family and The Office made emotional wallops an obligatory part of the sitcom, Del Boy was the true heart and soul of British comedy.
So how could Del Boy falling through the bar – the moment he’ll always be remembered for – not be the greatest comedy moment of all time? Don’t be a plonker all your life. It’s lovely jubbly.
Watch Only Fools and Horses on Gold all over Christmas and Yuppy Love on December 26.
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