Between the late seventies and the mid-eighties John Sullivan created some of the finest, most popular and acclaimed comedies on TV. The first was Citizen Smith, about a Tooting-based revolutionary: “Power to the people!” He followed that success with Only Fools and Horses and Just Good Friends, consistently the highest-rated sitcoms of their time. His star faded more recently; the revival of OFAH after its natural finish was no match for the original. But this should not dull his reputation: those three sitcoms will live on long after others are forgotten.
A chunk of their success is no doubt a result of the casting and performances. Citizen Smith made Robert Lindsay a star. OFAH had David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst, both sitcom veterans already. Just Good Friends had the charisma and chemistry of Paul Nicholas and Jan Francis. But an actor needs a character to inhabit and dialogue to speak; it is only through lines on the page that the character can come to life. That’s what John Sullivan was a master of.
A believable character has a distinct voice. Only Del Boy could say lovely jubbly. Imagine Rodney saying it: to me it sounds weird, wimpy, half-hearted. And that tells you about Rodney’s character too. Actors occasionally say “but I wouldn’t say that” of a line, and that’s only possible when the character lives on the page; when the character has enough character for a duff line to be noticeable.
Del Boy’s catchphrases and mannerisms certainly helped cement his fame and longevity. People like the familiar, the expected, the Exterminate! and the Nice to see you, to see you, nice. It’s a tribal thing: the sense of shared culture, the feeling of belonging. Those catchphrases can only emerge from strong, well-drawn characters. A strong character has a life of its own: it must do what it must do, not whatever is necessary to match a prewritten gag. The best comedy comes from the characters simply interacting in the situation.
Character is the unlabelled third leg of the sitcom stool. A good sitcom needs a compelling situation and decent gags – and also believable characters. Lose one of these and the stool topples accompanied by a sad trombone. Changing one of the three can prove a mistake – and OFAH wasn’t immune to this problem once it became successful and could afford a special in Miami, for example.
For me, OFAH’s finest moments are not the scenes we all know: the chandelier, the bar. Those are the standard Top 100 celebrifake clips, effective and classic but plain old visual gags, standalone and almost independent of character and situation. Sullivan’s best writing moved from comedy to drama and back in a heartbeat. When the actor playing Grandad, Lennard Pearce, died, Sullivan wrote Grandad’s death into the story.
My favourite sequence in OFAH is the birth of Del’s son. The story flips from Rodney’s panic about the impending antichrist to Raquel’s painful labour to Del’s first speechless, confused moments of fatherhood to the final, tender scene at the hospital window where Del talks to his new son – inevitably named Damien – about his future. It ends, of course, with Del telling him that “this time next year we’ll be millionaires”. And you’re laughing, and crying, and that’s writing.
John Sullivan’s best work remains the gold standard, the yardstick, the high bar with or without a tumbling spiv. He’s an inspiration, an ambition, a goal. A huge legacy; a great loss.